August 26, 2006
Emergency Electric Generators Increase Air Pollution

Massive electic generator plants emit much less pollution per amount of electricity generated as comapred to the much smaller electric generators which institutions have for back-up. During periods of heavy demand for electricity utilities which lack sufficient electric generation capacity incentivize customers to activate their own back-up generators and the result is much higher levels of air pollution.

Power plants built since 1970 are subject to stringent pollution controls. But rules for backup generators are far less strict, and, in most cases, there are no pollution restrictions for diesel generators not used more than 500 hours a year. The Pataki administration proposed new pollution rules several years ago, but they have not been put into effect.

Studies have shown that for each watt of power output, diesel generators produce up to 20 times as much particulate pollution, or soot, as the most advanced, natural gas-fired power plants, and up to 200 times as much nitrogen oxides, precursors to ozone, or smog. They even emit several times as much pollutants per watt of power output as the average power plants that burn oil or coal.

“This is pretty much the dirtiest source of electricity you can find,” said Peter Iwanowicz, director of environmental health for the American Lung Association of New York State.

A given quantity of fossil fuel will produce less pollution when burned if it is burned in a massive electric generator plant. This makes intuitive sense. The electric utilities can afford to hire full-time engineering staffs to make their combustion chambers burn efficiently and to make sure their scrubbers work well. Smaller diesel burning generators aren't as optimized or as regulated.

There's a lesson here: Regional opposition to big new electric power plants leads to the proliferation and usage of smaller fossil fuel burning electric power generators. So the opposition to electric power plants leads to dirtier air, not cleaner air.

Local generation of electric power is appealing if it is done in non-polluting ways. But use of fossil fuels for local electric generation is both much more polluting and more costly.

Micro wind turbines and photovoltaics provide very clean locally generated electricity. But these sources cost much more and also aren't available 24 hours a day and 7 days a week. An acceleration in the development technologies to lower the cost of cleaner energy sources could bring us a cleaner environment and lower costs at the same time.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2006 August 26 10:25 AM  Energy Electric Generators

Robert Schwartz said at August 26, 2006 12:19 PM:

Shh! Don't tell Amory Lovins.

James Bowery said at August 26, 2006 3:03 PM:

Turbines can run on diesel. Certainly JP1 oil fueled turbines been compared with natural gast fueled turbines for pollution output.

Chris Smith said at August 28, 2006 12:45 PM:

Diesel burning generators are absolutely filthy. There was one in the parking garage at the office building where I used to work. Every Thursday morning, the maintenance people would run it for some reason; I would get out of my car and be nearly overpowered by the fumes emanating from that thing. I think that diesel generators have another use, besides backup power: If you're being bothered by birds nesting near your home or office, run one of those things and the birds will either fly away, if they have any survival instinct, or suffocate. I can't imagine that the carbon monoxide and particulate matter are good for humans either. I don't have athsma or any other respiratory problem, but I was gagging all the way from my car to the building entrance.

Distributed power generation has a lot of promise, if there are systems that use renewable fuels. As soon as someone figures out how to generate and store hydrogen renewably and effectively, there will be a market for fuel cells manufactured by companies such as Plug Power. We're not there yet, but there are scientists working on that problem. Then, say goodbye to those primitive generators.

Gary Seven said at November 22, 2012 9:38 PM:

So… no emergency power? Everyone should go into the dark when the power goes out? How about the storm shelter? Public safety offices? Homeowners who have a backup system? All they are not entitled to spend their money on diesel and emergency power as they wish? I personally love the sound of a diesel (own a diesel truck, drive it daily) and the exhaust is just what happens, it has an almost pleasant smell to it if you ask me

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