Clear the air of diesel generators that power California’s shadow grid


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By Cindy Chavez, CalMatters and Steven Moss, CalMatters

California has a dirty little secret.

The vast majority of California’s backup power generators – those low buzzing boxes located at internet server farms, hospitals, police stations and other facilities  – are powered by diesel. The state wants to achieve a 100% clean energy future, investing billions of dollars in renewable energy, while at the same time steadily building a fossil fuel powered shadow grid.

In addition to carbon dioxide emissions, diesel releases significant amounts of particulate matter, volatile organic compounds, nitrous oxides and sulfur dioxide. These pollutants create smog and exacerbate respiratory illnesses, such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and lung cancer, especially in children and older adults. 

Diesel generators are often located close to where people live, work and attend school. They’re frequently sited in underserved and working-class neighborhoods that have long histories of environmental racism.

As the state deals with a mega-drought, rapidly escalating electricity rates and wildfire-related power shutoffs, California businesses and residents are increasingly turning to backup power generators to keep their lights on and servers running. 

According to a study by MCubed that relies on data collected from the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, the number of nonresidential backup generators in the Bay Area jumped by 34% in just three years. In Southern California, deployment of backup generators rose by 22% in only one year, according to South Coast Air Quality Management District data. Ninety percent of the generators are powered by diesel. In these two districts alone, backup power generators have the capacity to produce up to 12 gigawatts, equal to 15% of the capacity of the entire California grid.

Absent new policy directions, the role diesel generation plays in California’s energy mix will only increase. Looking for low-cost and expedient ways to ensure reliability, regulators have greenlit virtually unrestricted use of diesel generators in the near future.

How can a state that prides itself on being a leader in innovation, clean energy and electric vehicle adoption ignore the fast proliferation of an old and dirty technology, one with a disproportionate adverse impact on our most vulnerable residents? We consistently boast that California is leading the way, but do we really know what direction we’re headed?

Fortunately, there are ways to reduce our reliance on diesel generation. Investments are already being made in battery storage, steadily driving down its costs, so that we can rely on wind and solar even at night. 

New technologies and programs are available to help decrease our energy usage, especially during peak periods, so that the energy grid doesn’t get overloaded. Microgrids are being deployed to allow more communities to move safely “off the grid” when there’s wildfire danger or a risk of a power outage. 

Efforts are being made to adopt new policies to enable dispersed, clean generation to add value to the grid, thereby making them more cost-effective.  And, we can move more of our energy generation to non-combustion technologies like fuel cells, which can provide clean and reliable power to communities.

What happens in California often reverberates throughout the rest of the country. Are we going to export a clean future or a diesel dominated one? 

It’s time we cleared the air on dirty diesel.


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