JUICE: No Guarantees New Diesel Backup Will Sit Mostly Unused

By Published On: December 9, 2021

California policy makers and regulators have voted again to allow more diesel backup installations. The number of diesel generators has reached unprecedented levels in the state in response to wildfire threats and utility safety shutoffs. Earlier this year, permitted systems in just two of the state’s 35 air districts soared to 23,000, representing more than 12.GW of power, with many more unpermitted. When fired up to keep power flowing to homes, hospitals, data centers, industrial plants and to support the grid, they produce dangerous levels of toxic pollution. California Energy Commission staff said during the Dec. 8 meeting that 21,000 permitted systems produce carbon dioxide emissions on par with 95,000 vehicles on the roads.

That statement was made after CEC voted to again exempt from state permitting a 99 MW diesel backup system at a data center in Silicon Valley. The 5-0 vote cast Dec. 8 is not an immediate green light for the developer, Equinix, to install 36 diesel-powered generators, each 3.25 MW, plus three 500-kW generators at its data center under construction in San Jose. Both the City of San Jose and Bay Area Air Quality Management District must issue permits before the systems can be installed. But the installation will likely happen faster.

The small power plant license exemption follows the California Public Utilities Commission approval last week to allow Pacific Gas & Electric to install yet more diesel backup at its substations to shore up the grid next summer. PG&E installed 170 MW of diesel backup last year to keep the lights on following shutoffs during risky fire conditions.

The latest CEC and CPUC approvals are disconcerting but not surprising. There is an upcoming election. And, no politician or regulator wants to be blamed for a blackout, and thrown out of office Gov. Gray Davis style.

As the commission members, all political appointees, voted unanimously for the new diesel, they also highlighted the need to replace it with cleaner energy. But then they failed to fully endorse clean backup alternatives.

“It’s exciting to think of the role that clean energy could play in backup generation, generally,” said CEC commissioner Patty Monahan.

Two of the CPUC commissioners acknowledged they were between a rock and a hard place.

This “was a difficult decision for all of us, but it will allow us to get through,” said Commissioner Martha Guzman Aceves before the Dec. 2 vote on the diesel backup at PG&E substations. She said they hoped the backup generation is never used. “This proceeding puts forward the most extreme of circumstances and protects California for having electricity in these most extreme circumstances.”

“This is just a set of short-term solutions,” Commissioner Cliff Rechtschaffen added.

While that could be true for the diesel units at PG&E substations funded by ratepayers, datacenter owners and others could run their costly backup systems much longer, having sunk private money into them. In addition, to date, Gov. Gavin Newsom has issued three emergency resource proclamations over threats to the grid from more climate-driven extreme weather. These have allowed more diesel backup power.

CEC staff insisted the diesel backup at the Equinox Great South Oak Generating Facility will run only minimally. But the Air Resources Board has already found that owners are using their diesel backup far more than the agency had expected, running them both more often and for longer.

The CEC also pointed to the fact that the new generators must have catalytic converters and diesel filters to reduce toxic pollution—be what are known as Tier 4 units.

The Bay Area air district spokesperson Ralph Borrmann told Current that many applicants for diesel engine permits “have had to revise projects and acquire Tier 4 engines in order to receive an air quality permit.”

The Equinox backup system is only supposed to power the data center. But if authorized by the CEC, it could supply power offsite, presumably during grid emergencies with air pollution protections waived.

Admittedly the amount of diesel pollution spewed from medium- and heavy-duty vehicles is far greater, and even more detrimental to overburdened communities. But that doesn’t mean it’s acceptable to use systems that further exacerbate climate change, dry out the state and worsen wildfires.

To address that, what the commissioners took away with one hand, they tried to give with the other, approving billions of dollars to advance clean energy in the power and transportation sectors. This week, the CEC approved the largest one-time sum of money in its history, $730 million, much of it for emission-free cars, trucks and buses.

Emissions from diesel backup units, however, remain in the atmosphere for decades, and the toxic pollution continues to harm our health.

Is the high price we are paying for assumed grid reliability worth it?

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