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To weed whack Colorado’s ozone problems, environmentalists urge switch to electric lawn equipment

Environmental groups argue for swift changeover as regulators face a December decision on a clean air plan
Jordan Champalou demonstrates a DeWalt electric leaf blower Thursday near Sloans Lake. Champalou has been mowing lawns since age 10 and now maintains 30 to 40 residential properties per week using all electric lawn tools. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Standing on a leaf-strewn lawn at Sloan’s Lake Park early on a sunny December day, Jordan Champalou says cutting ozone by switching to cleaner engines is as easy as pressing a button.

And then he presses the button.

One of the battery-powered leaf blowers he employs in his lawn care business hums immediately to life. The array of lawn tools, from mowers to chain saws, spread in front of Champalou are just as powerful on batteries as any gas-powered equipment his competitors use, he says. None of the tools’ motors need any maintenance beyond recharging.

Speaking of recharging, he adds, when he’s on the road doing lawns all day, he pops the batteries into chargers that are connected to solar panels. Solar panels that he’s taped to the roof of his pickup truck.

“I still have power at the end of the day,” grins Champalou, who says people stop him every day to talk about electric lawn tools and how they stack up against dirtier gas-powered models. “It’s never run dry.”

Environmental advocates were happy to stand quietly in the Sloan Lake sunshine and let flannel-bedecked Champalou make their best arguments. The clean electric lawn display is part of an environmental sprint before Dec. 13 to get the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission to reject state air pollution officials’ ozone-fighting plan and write a tougher one.

Champalou, 21, who maintains lawns around Westminster, said he first went electric at age 10 when he knocked on neighbors’ doors trying to make a buck.

Solar panels mounted atop Jordan Champalou’s pickup truck roof keep his battery powered lawn tools charged in between business stops. Champalou and others are advocating a switch to clean-powered electric tools to help solve Colorado’s ozone problem, and he demonstrated various tools at Sloan’s Lake Park on Thursday. (Michael Booth, The Colorado Sun)

“I did not want to smell like gasoline, and I did not want to be breathing those fumes,” he said. He’s adamant that much of the blue collar machine world can switch over to clean running electric tools with no compromise on performance.

Environmentalists sometimes have difficulty getting policymakers to take lawn gear and small engines seriously in the pollution fight, but the state’s own numbers point out the opportunity. Colorado’s EPA-designated ozone nonattainment areas are registering about 84 parts per billion of ozone on bad days, CoPIRG notes from state monitors, while the federal limit is now 70 ppb.

Oil and gas production accounts for 8.6 ppb of the average, according to Regional Air Quality Council reports. On-road vehicles contribute 6.8 ppb. Background and natural emissions, including ozone from pollution blowing in from China or California, makes up 48.6 ppb.

Lawn and garden care, and the dirtier two-cycle gas engines that mix oil into the burn, makes up 2.5 ppb. California has a robust program requiring a swift transition to electric tools powered by renewable energy. If Colorado made a similar switch, the state would find 18% of the ozone reduction it needs to get under federal limits. Colorado legislators rejected a proposal in 2022 to ban the sale of gas-powered lawn equipment by 2030.

“They pack a big pollution punch,” said CoPIRG’s Kirsten Schatz, author of a new study on lawn and garden tool pollution. CoPIRG displayed the lawn gear at the lake park.

Running a commercial gas-powered lawn mower for one hour is the pollution equivalent of driving a car 300 miles to Trinidad from Cheyenne, Schatz said. Running a commercial leaf blower for an hour produces even more pollution, the equivalent of an 1,100-mile car trip from Denver to Calgary.

It’s time for the AQCC or the legislature to “phase them out as quickly as possible,” Schatz said.

The AQCC at its December meetings is scheduled to hold hearings and a vote on passing the state implementation plan for ozone attainment written by the Colorado Air Pollution Control Division. State officials have admitted the plan will fail to meet EPA goals by 2024, but add they have a robust schedule of new rules the AQCC can vote on in 2023 that will push Colorado ahead faster.

A broad coalition of local elected officials and environmental groups are attacking that strategy they call cynical, saying the state is trying to buy time to avoid EPA sanctions by submitting a plan Colorado knows is flawed. The EPA’s review of the plan, which predicts continued nonattainment, in effect resets the clock on when the agency can require changes to Colorado rules.

“It’s critical we reduce harmful ozone pollution on the Front Range as quickly as possible,” Schatz said, nodding to a variety of electric gear as a relatively easy contribution. “It’s time for some serious solutions.”

Kirsten Schatz, advocate for the Colorado Public Interest Research Group, or CoPIRG, speaks Thursday at Sloan’s Lake Park in support of cleaner air quality through the restriction of sales of gas-powered landscaping equipment. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

The coalition demanding more ozone action is asking state regulators to add new controls on oil and gas production, including a pause on activity on summer days with the worst ozone-producing conditions; increased spending on public transit and alternatives to fossil fuel vehicle trips; and adoption of a second tier of clean car requirements that California has already implemented.

State electrification and clean air officials say they are already on track for important improvements, including 2023 rule-making for a so-called Advanced Clean Trucks policy that will require a gradual overhaul of the heavy-duty truck fleet to electric or hydrogen-powered models.

The Colorado Sun is a reader-supported, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to covering Colorado issues. To learn more, go to coloradosun.com.