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As gasoline generators bloom

Doug Houseman's picture
Visionary and innovator in the utility industry and grid modernization Burns & McDonnell

I have a broad background in utilities and energy. I worked for Capgemini in the Energy Practice for more than 15 years. During that time I rose to the position of CTO of the 12,000 person...

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2021 will be a record year for the sales of gasoline powered generators. Generac and Kohler are both reporting record production and sales. Why?

The grid in several states has become more unreliable. People want their power to keep their homes at the right temperature, keep food in good shape and to be able to be on the internet.

The transition to renewables is also the transition to small premise generation powered by gasoline. 

No problem, right? It is a problem. Gasoline generators don’t have the pollution handling equipment of a car or a real power plant, they are not as efficient as a larger generator, and they produce more GHG. 

Then there is the waste oil, leaking fuel tanks, and carbon monoxide that from time to time kills a family in their sleep. Then there is system safety.

By forcing current plants off-line permanently and celebrating their demolition, we are, in extreme weather, creating more pollution, smog, and GHG. We are creating a larger issue of social justice – only people with money can buy and properly wire a generator. 

Maybe, we should not be in such a rush to demolish things, maybe it is time to keep the old plants in ready reserve to provide for extreme weather, while we build the storage needed to make the energy readily available.  Maybe that is a lower risk path to a cleaner, greener future. 

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Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jul 2, 2021

Thank you, Doug, for shining a light on what could be the most ominous implication of distributed generation, aka "DG" - increased CO2 emissions.

A centralized power plant can be regulated and monitored. If it's emitting too much CO2, NOx, or SO2, its owners can be fined by the EPA. It can take advantages of economies of scale to generate the most electricity per unit of emissions, far outweighing any losses in transmission. Its emissions can be lowered in sync with advances in technology, lowering the emissions of hundreds of thousands of customers en masse.

But since the advent of "Public Safety Power Shutoffs" (PSPS) here in California, sales of Generac natural gas generators are through the roof. It seems all those well-meaning folks with solar panels figured out they're a little more dependent on reliable electricity than they thought they were, and are now burning straight methane to generate >70% of their electricity - and California's natural gas industry loves them for it.

Distributed Energy / Renewables advocates are demanding the right to generate their own electricity. "OK," I say. "Do you also have the right to dump your excess waste products into the air? Seems like your neighbors shouldn't have to breathe the added NOx and SO2 you're putting out, that maybe you should be regulated too. And maybe you should be charged the EPA's Social Cost of Carbon for all that extra CO2 you're dumping into the air?"

They seldom have much to say in response, but they probably don't understand what I'm saying. Typically, they aren't the sharpest tools in the shed.

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