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An air of discontent over diesel backups

Emissions rules ignore emergency generators

Carolyn Said, Chronicle Staff Writer

Friday, May 25, 2001, 2001 San Francisco Chronicle


Gov. Gray Davis said yesterday that he may ask companies to run their emergency generators during Stage 3 electricity alerts as a way to stave off blackouts. And when blackouts do occur, thousands of tractor-trailer-size generators will whir to life, powering elevators and lights, hospital equipment, even assembly lines.

But that prospect has created major concerns. Most of those industrial- strength generators run on diesel oil, a highly polluting fuel. Because they were intended for emergency use, generators have escaped most environmental regulations. What's more, they are likely to be called into service on the hottest, smoggiest days of the year.

"We think our air quality will be significantly worse this summer because of diesel generators and peaker plants," said Dan Jacobson, a legislative advocate with the California Public Interest Research Group in Sacramento.

Identified as a toxic air contaminant by the state, diesel fuel spews out nitrogen oxides, which cause smog and acid rain. It also emits particulate matter -- tiny soot and dust particles that can lodge in the lungs and may increase cancer risk.

Diesel generators produce as much as five times more pollution per megawatt hour of operation than even the oldest, dirtiest coal-fired power plants, according to the California Air Resources Board. They are 600 times as polluting as modern gas-powered plants.

Practically every hospital, large office building and apartment complex has a diesel generator standing by on the roof or parking lot, in basements and boiler rooms.

The air board estimates there are 11,000 diesel generators in California, which produce an average of 373 kilowatts, enough to power essential functions for a sizable building. But the number is probably much higher because businesses have stampeded to acquire generators over the past few months.

"Generators operate in an urban setting, close to where people work and live," said Kenneth Lim, supervising air quality engineer for the Bay Area Air Quality District. "If there were widespread rolling blackouts, and these engines fired up all at the same time, the impact could be very significant."


The California Air Resources Board said that operating a one-megawatt diesel engine for 250 hours per year "would increase cancer risk to nearby residents (within one city block) by 250 in a million" -- 50 percent more than the existing cancer risk from exposure to ambient diesel fumes from trucks and buses. Diesel generators largely avoided air-control laws because regulators assumed they would be used only in case of an earthquake or other once-in-a- blue-moon catastrophe.

Stage 3 alerts and blackouts are likely to be everyday occurrences this summer. Predictions range from 26 hours to as high as 1,100 hours of blackouts. Most blackouts and Stage 3 alerts will occur on hot days when air quality is already poor.

"Our worst-case scenario would be if we get into a two-, three- or four-day episode where it's really hot and really stagnant," said Lucia Libretti, spokeswoman for the air quality district. "It's bad enough smogwise on those days, but when you add these dirty diesel backup generators to that mix, it's not going to be a pretty sight."

This summer's predicted blackouts have brought a surge of business for generator companies.


Caterpillar Inc., the leading manufacturer of big generators, said it has sold and rented more than 900 megawatts of portable power on the West Coast so far this year, enough to power almost 1 million homes. That's seven times as much backup power as Caterpillar provided to the region last year. The customers include factories, data centers, banks, utility substations and planned communities.

"Everyone in the state is now claiming that they need a backup generator," said CalPIRG lobbyist Jacobson. "It's not just the hospitals; every business says they need a backup; the rich people who live in Beverly Hills say they need it. The door is open and everyone is trying to get one."

Small backup generators sold at Costco and Kmart that provide enough power for, say, a TV, some lights and a blender run on gasoline, which emits fewer pollutants than diesel.

But most business, commercial and agricultural users turn to diesel engines, which can handle heavier loads, kick on in 10 seconds and provide a steady stream of power. One positive about the rush to get new generators is that they pollute less than older models.

"They aren't black-smoke-billowing units like you might have seen 15 or 20 years ago," said Jim Parker, director of electric power for Caterpillar in Peoria, Ill. Diesel fumes from buses, trucks, tractors and construction equipment already surround us. But their emissions are regulated, unlike those from generators.


Allen Schaeffer, executive director of the Diesel Technology Forum, which promotes the use of diesel fuel, said it is important to consider the big picture. "You have to look at the full equation of increased risk to public health and safety from not having (generators during blackouts)," he said. "Generators are a very important part of keeping life going, especially essential, critical services in California."

Consumer advocates and environmentalists were critical of Davis' proposal to turn on diesel generators when the power supply gets tight. "If the governor wants to do something dramatic, why not call in the National Guard to install solar panels? They could be put on libraries, schools, civic buildings in a couple of weeks," said Teri Olle, toxics program director at the CalPIRG.

E-mail Carolyn Said at

2001 San Francisco Chronicle Page A - 1

-- Swissrose (, May 25, 2001


Whoever came up withe the prhrase, "Have your cake and eat it too," knew what he was talking about. My fellow Californians want it both ways--clean energy and no blackouts. No way! One or the other.

-- JackW (, May 25, 2001.

Put a clean air surcharge on gasoline and take it to $5/gallon. I guarantee there will be clean air in the LA basin!

-- Taz (, May 26, 2001.

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