By Adam Simpson
May 20, 2021 at 5:00 am ET
When a heat wave and wildfires sparked rolling blackouts last year across California, when a frigid cold snap this winter caused much of the electric grid to collapse in Texas, thousands of industrial onsite generators roared to life to supply hospitals, labs, government buildings, grocery stores and the grid itself with electricity.
Untold numbers depended on those generators to escape the freeze in Texas and the heat in California, to refrigerate foods and critical medicines, and to power medical and electronic devices, along with other essential services. Onsite power, in short, is a critical part of our electric system.
Unfortunately, these backup generators — the vast majority fueled by diesel — are both enormously inefficient and sources of heavy pollution. They’re expensive to install and maintain, they sit idle the vast majority of their lifespans and when they do fire up, they emit harmful pollutants. Diesel generators spew particulates that clog our lungs and capillaries — the kind of potent pollution that kills up to 60,000 Americans each year. A single diesel generator can vent as much as 10 times the amount of smog-forming nitrous oxide as a coal-fired power plant and up to 400 times as much as burning natural gas.
For decades, we didn’t have much of a choice; diesel was often the only cost-effective option. Now we do — not simply an effective alternative, but a better one.
Thanks to American innovation and leadership, companies are deploying onsite energy generation that’s cleaner, more affordable and just as resilient — while providing far more value than simply backup generation. Better yet, it aligns with efforts by bipartisan lawmakers and the White House to build a cleaner, healthier, more resilient and more reliable power grid.
But with disasters being made worse each year by the climate crisis, we need to move faster: to provide truly resilient, clean and affordable electricity to support our businesses, our power providers, our families and communities. We must reimagine policy and regulation to support a truly 21st century electric system — one that fully incorporates clean onsite generation.
The old distinctions between grid power and backup power no longer apply. In place of our century-old, disaster-prone, inflexible electric grid, the United States can build a resilient distributed network that allows us to move beyond the inefficient and polluting army of diesel generators installed to only run a few days each year. New technologies can provide not only the same emergency backup service as diesel generators, but also run at other times and meet other needs, while maintaining low cost and meeting climate sustainability goals.
What that means is our lawmakers, policymakers and regulators need to rethink how our grid operates. It’s not simply either “back-up” or “grid” power anymore. The U.S. move toward a clean energy economy is driving an accelerating shift to onsite generation, in which fuel-flexible onsite technologies buttress renewable and energy storage-based microgrids, and firm up traditional- and renewable-fueled generation.
Why is this critical? The solar and wind resources that are vital to decarbonizing our electric grid, improving health and halting climate change are intermittent — they only generate electricity when the sun is shining or the wind is blowing. Today’s batteries, while useful for shifting energy over a few hours, are simply not able to provide multi-day resilience. The Texas grid collapse stretched past two weeks.
By contrast, the newest onsite generation technologies can ramp power quickly to support intermittent renewables. They are cleaner and more affordable than large, centralized power plants. Plus, they are fuel-flexible, meaning they can be supplied by biogas — or soon, renewable hydrogen. That means providing clean, local resilience to the grid — by being the backbone to renewable microgrids.
Innovation has given us the opportunity to rebuild our power grid, along with the foundation for a clean energy economy, supplied by flexible, resilient and affordable sources of electricity. Lawmakers, policymakers and regulators must ensure we are updating America’s energy policy to keep pace with technology innovation.
Adam Simpson leads product, external affairs and intellectual property for Mainspring Energy of Menlo Park, Calif.
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