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By Janean Sorrell, Nov. 2, 2021

Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill 1346 on Oct. 9, banning the sale of new, gas-powered, small off-road engines, or SOREs, by 2024. Equipment with small, off-road engines include leaf blowers, lawnmowers, chainsaws, weed whackers, hedge trimmers, golf carts and even some generators — all of which would have to be zero-emission by the 2028 deadline.

Given that Cal Poly Pomona maintains 525 acres of land, the bill will affect the campus and its surrounding communities. However, since there is a phase-in period, CPP will not have to retire the department’s equipment early, but as equipment wears out, the campus will be able to replace it with equipment that does not use fossil fuels.

“We are a forward-thinking department, and we could foresee this was going to happen someday,” said Brian Lake, interim manager of the university’s Landscape Services. “We have already added battery-powered, small-power equipment to our inventory.”

Lake estimates 20% of Landscape Services’ inventory is battery-powered, allowing the department to test out the new tools to see what equipment works best to serve the landscaping needs of the campus.

Maintenance worker Andrew Serrano uses an electric leaf blower to keep sidewalks clear. (Janean Sorrell | The Poly Post)

According to California Air Resource Board, one hour of commercial leaf blowing expels nearly the same amount of smog as driving 1,100 miles in a car. According to the agency, California possesses 16.7 million SOREs, a higher quantity than the state’s 13.7 million light-duty passenger cars.

“Any type of engine that runs on gasoline or diesel fuel using fossil fuels is typically going to have major pollutants,” said Paul Nissenson, a professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. “Especially things like oxides of nitrogen, which are often called NOx, and these reactive organic gases are essentially unburnt or partially burnt gasoline or fuel, and some of these can be bad by themselves, but combined, especially in California, we have the right meteorological conditions in order to produce this other pollutant called ozone.”

In 1990, California was the first government in the world to establish emission standards for SOREs. Since then, emissions in cars have largely improved with the help of catalytic converters that reduce air pollutants.

Although California has made progress, there is still work to be done. James Blair, an assistant professor in the Department of Geography and Anthropology, expressed the need to take serious action on diesel truck pollution.

With current supply chain lags, diesel trucks are at the port idling and producing considerable amounts of smog. Once loaded, the trucks drive down the freeway, expelling pollutants to some of California’s most vulnerable communities.

“We need to also keep in mind that a lot of the particulate matter that is produced causes a lot of public health afflictions like asthma, and a large amount is coming from diesel trucks,” said Blair.

Diesel trucks are not the only concern. With the demand for battery-powered equipment to increase, Blair worries about the social and ecological impacts of lithium mining.

“If more and more of this equipment — even if it’s small — is going to be more and more dependent on lithium-ion batteries that have to be recharged, then that also is displacing a lot of ecological and social burden, internationally, in some cases to places where maybe the extraction methods of mining are causing a lot of issues,” added Blair.

According to Lake, the crews will have to carry multiple batteries while working, changing them every 30 to 45 minutes. He also worries about recycling the batteries safely.

Even with the challenges of buying and storing the new equipment along with extra batteries that will be needed, Aaron Klemm, senior associate vice president for Facilities Planning & Management, noted the campus wants to prove that the switch can be done cost-effectively. The university has taken advantage of programs to trade in old, gas-powered equipment for battery-powered equipment.

California Assemblymember Marc Berman, D-Palo Alto, one of the bill’s authors, noted that $30 million has been set aside in the state budget to help landscapers transition to the switch.

“I’m always looking for areas of opportunity where we can have a win-win-win; where we reduce carbon, we reduce local air pollution and yet our teams aren’t forced to work harder physically because the tools still work,” said Klemm.

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