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Swarm of Fossil Fueled Backup Generators Continues to Grow, With No Response from Regulators

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In May, The Potrero View reported that according to Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) data there are roughly 6,500 fossil fueled backup generators, “BUGs”, in the San Francisco Bay Area, with some 800 in San Francisco alone. These numbers exclude the thousands of smaller gasoline, propane, and diesel-powered generators located in backyards and garages. All emit polluting air emissions, much of which may go undetected by air quality regulators.

BUGs serve a vital function, proving emergency power to hospitals, water suppliers, and Internet server farms, among others, when the grid goes down or Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) shuts it off in response to elevated wildfire risks. They’re also a pernicious pollution source; testing the predominately diesel generators alone results in emissions equivalent to having more than 7,000 additional cars on area roadways. They represent a kind of shadow grid, providing power to those who can afford them, often with taxpayer monies, while others sit in the dark, coughing on the fumes of their well-to-do and forward-thinking neighbors. 

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, Generac experienced a 600 percent increase in sales of its generators in the Bay Area between June 2018 and June 2019. In July, NBC Bay Area news reported that the East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD) rented 29 portable emergency generators to install at “critical [water] pumping stations” from August through November in anticipation of fire season power cuts, at a taxpayer cost of more than $400,000. According to a press release, “EBMUD has stationed portable generators and pumps at designated critical facilities in Berkeley, Castro Valley, Crockett, Danville, Moraga, Oakland, Orinda, Pinole and San Ramon.”

During PG&E’s October 9 forced power outage, “All 29 generators were activated and they worked well,” said EBMUD’s Andrea Pook. “We were glad to have them. We went through fuel a bit faster than anticipated. We estimate fuel costs to be $75,000 per shutoff event, which accounts for a five-day shutoff period each time power is cut.”

The View’s May 2019 article suggested that there are better ways to manage BUGs, by replacing them with battery storage technology and devising new policies to link clean energy BUGs to increase grid reliability. For now, though, California regulators are sticking by their BUGs.

“Since the article earlier this year, no new rulemaking efforts having to do with backup generators have begun,” BAAQMD’s Ralph Borrmann wrote in an email.  “That’s not to say it couldn’t happen in the near future, but for the present there are no new rules being developed.”

According to Borrmann, owners of 50 horsepower or greater stationary diesel or natural gas engines are required to secure a BAAQMD permit.  “As part of applying for that permit, the Air District thoroughly reviews the engine’s potential emissions, possible impacts on nearby receptors, and compliance with District, state, and federal regulations. Based on the results of that evaluation, the Air District imposes strict operational and testing requirements on the engine that limit air quality and health risks to adjacent businesses and residents. These limits restrict the numbers of hours per year a permit holder can operate an engine for testing purposes. Also, based on an engine’s proximity to a school, the Air District imposes further restrictions to prohibit engine testing between 7:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. on days when school is in session,” he said.

The District’s rules were developed before the state’s investor-owned utilities began deploying power shutoffs as a way to manage wildfire risks, a tactic that’s now triggering far more BUG use than anticipated under air quality regulations, with associated polluting air emissions.  It’s likely that in October alone thousands of the Bay Area’s BUGs were fired-up in response to PG&E’s forced outages. 

BUGs may be swatted in specific communities that’re especially polluted. In West Oakland, an area with high levels of asthma-inducing particulate matter from transportation and industrial activities, as well as dozens of diesel-powered BUGs, The West Oakland Community Action Plan, developed by BAAQMD and civic group, West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project, calls for air filters to be installed at schools, Port of Oakland operations be transitioned to “zero-emissions” technology, and strategies be devised to reduce pollution sources. Under one plan element the Air District would provide “…subsidized loans for local small businesses to install energy storage systems (e.g. batteries, fuel cells) to replace stationary sources of pollution (e.g. back-up generators).” 

Cooperation between the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project and BAAQMD was encouraged by California Assembly Bill (AB) 617, which “requires local air districts to increase their focus on local air pollution in overburdened communities.” The legislation “directs the state and local air districts to identify communities in California that are exposed to high levels of air pollution and establish the Community Air Protection Program. Air districts with input from residents and stakeholders are to reduce exposure to particulate matter and toxic air contaminants.”

Without a battery backup residential solar photovoltaic arrays provide no protection against electricity outages. Most solar systems are designed to pour power into the grid, not directly to household appliances. A solar/battery setup that provides enough power to charge a phone and operate several small LED lights can be purchased for roughly $150. A battery backup system capable of powering a house costs from $10,000 to $20,000, according to website energysage.com, in addition to the price of solar panels, though federal, state, and local subsidies defray some of the expense. According to website solarreviews.com, a “typical” residential six-kilowatt solar system can be had for around $20,000, before grants and incentives. 

Tesla’s “Powerwall”, a lithium-ion battery similar to the ones used in the company’s vehicles, costs $9,600, excluding installation, according to website Solarchoice.net.au. Another product, a power inverter, which attaches to a car’s battery and turns it into a generator, is available for under $1,000. 

A standby diesel generator system that automatically kicks into gear when power goes out costs from $6,000 to $14,000. Smaller portable generators, typically gasoline-powered, are available at home improvement stores starting at around $800. During an emergency, however, generator owners would need to have ready access to fuel supplies, which may be difficult to obtain after an earthquake, fire, or forced outage.  

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