In summary

Practical alternatives to diesel backup generators are essential to achieving California’s clean power goals.

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By Bill Magavern, Special to CalMatters

Bill Magavern is policy director for Coalition for Clean Air,

As a state, we have set the goal to rely on 100% clean power by 2045 – and the urgency of our climate and air pollution crises means that we really should hit the target even earlier. 

This ambitious jump is entirely feasible; in fact, a new study shows that the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, currently the most coal-dependent of California’s major utilities, could reach 100% clean energy by 2035. But all the experts agree that the transition will require major investments in new infrastructure. 

Forward-thinking policies should motivate new behaviors while also encouraging smart investment in infrastructural changes. We don’t have all the answers today, but by choosing flexible technologies that can evolve over time, and motivating the right behaviors, we can get there. 

If there is one thing that we have learned through our ordeals with the California wildfires, it is that a lack of resilient energy resources can cause major problems for government, commercial and industrial facilities, not to mention residents. Indeed, many industrial and agricultural operations have already invested heavily in backup power generators. Unfortunately, the vast majority of such purchases have gone to dirty diesel-fuel generators with high emissions. This trend takes us backward, not forward, in relation to our air quality and clean energy requirements. 

Diesel exhaust contains more than 40 toxic air contaminants, including a variety of carcinogenic compounds. The California Air Resources Board estimates that an uncontrolled 1 megawatt diesel engine operating for only 250 hours per year would increase the cancer risk to residents within one city block by as much as 50 percent.

Practical alternatives to diesel backup generators are essential to achieving clean air. A new infrastructure is needed based on clean power generation that can be quickly ramped up and down, known as “dispatchable power.” These new dispatchable energy sources can provide an alternative to diesel, offering greater fuel flexibility with a path to 100% clean fuels, while also delivering the essential resilience and affordability that customers want. 

The issue of finding solutions to diesel generators is especially important in our era of intermittent grid power. I am hopeful that new technologies starting to emerge, such as linear generators, dispatchable fuel cells and battery storage, can replace commercial diesel back-up generators, with clean renewable electricity.

To take advantage of the benefits of new dispatchable, fuel-flexible technologies we need to seek policy solutions that support them. Some of today’s policies, written for older technologies and decades-old energy goals, have the opposite effect from what we need and can achieve now. 

We need to revisit the ways utility commissions charge customers and ensure they do not discourage, but rather encourage, the use of new flexible and dispatchable solutions. These fuel-flexible solutions can take over the role of diesel back-up generators in the short term and provide the infrastructure for our transition to clean energy in the long term.  

In short, we need the regulatory framework necessary for building the infrastructure required for achieving 100% renewable energy. We need an infrastructure that takes into consideration the intermittent nature of renewable sources and the need for energy resiliency, and that provides an alternative to diesel-fueled backup solutions that have such adverse effects on both the environment and public health.  

A good first step is to re-evaluate how utilities assess charges to onsite resources that provide other value that the grid cannot – specifically, resilience. Fuels are still needed today for long duration resilience, and this is why California has remained dependent on diesel for so long. We need a cleaner fuel alternative with a path to zero carbon.


Bill Magavern has also written about a plan to expand access to electric vehicles.

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