Guest article written by AAH board member Gavin Dillingham.
In the last several years, Houston has seen significant improvement in its air quality. However, although there are less air quality action days than a few years ago, the Houston region still remains in non-attainment for the 8-hour ozone standard. Areas of the country where air pollution levels persistently exceed the national ambient air quality standards may be designated “nonattainment.” This state of non-attainment will become even more severe when the EPA lowers the standard from .075 ppm to .065 to .070 ppm in 2015. We hear a lot about ozone in the region, but we should also consider the state of air quality specific to air toxics. The state of Texas’ electric power sector ranked 10th in the United States in industrial toxic pollution, emitting nearly 10 million pounds of chemicals, contributing to 25% of total toxic emissions in the state. Further, the state is ranked first in the United States in mercury emissions from power plants. Across the nation, power plants contribute 62% of arsenic, 50% of mercury and 60% of SO2 in the atmosphere. These pollutants have significant effects on public health in the region, increasing rates of asthma and other respiratory diseases, as well as damage to brain, nervous system, kidney and lungs from mercury emissions.
There are many options that are being pursued and under consideration to improve the region’s air quality by non-profit organizations like Air Alliance Houston and government entities like the City of Houston. One option that needs to get further consideration, that can have a significant impact on the region’s air quality, is improving the energy efficiency of the region’s buildings. More efficient and better performing buildings, means less power generation, which means less air pollution. Less air pollution results in improved public health and higher quality of life for the region’s residents.
Houston has been a leader in energy efficiency since 2004 when the White administration passed the Green Building Resolution. This resolution requires all new facilities or major renovation of City of Houston buildings to be built to LEED certified standards. This was a significant step forward to build capacity in the market of LEED professionals that has resulted in Houston being ranked as a top performer in LEED buildings, as well as Energy Star Certified buildings. Further, it is important to keep in mind the context in which this resolution was passed, as well as subsequent energy efficiency initiatives started during this administration. During this time, the White administration was working to identify every opportunity possible to improve air quality in the region. This was demonstrated further by the action the White administration took, with the Texas Cities for Clean Air Coalition, to prevent the building of several coal fired power plants north of the Houston region. It was well understood that air pollution hurts a region’s economy, not just due to health related costs that are paid in losses of productivity and direct health expense, but also because it makes a region less attractive to business.
The connection between energy efficiency and air quality was made during the White administration and continues to be demonstrated by the Parker administration; high performing buildings and energy efficiency reduces air pollution and improves the region’s quality of life. The City of Houston is currently considering energy efficiency policies and programs that are intended to significantly increase the level of energy efficiency of public and private sector buildings. As these policies are developed, it is important to keep in mind that these policies, which will improve the efficiency of these buildings, will not only lower the costs of operating these buildings, and improve their value, but will also lead to significant reduction of air pollutants within the region. The current policies being considered will reduce power generation related NOx and SO2, both significant contributors to air pollution in Houston, by over 11%. These policies will make the region stronger and will allow the region to better attract and retain a high quality workforce that can breathe easier.
 EPA Toxic Release Inventory and EPA National Electric Energy Data System Database