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Opinion: Wildfires create need for clean backup power generation

Here we go again. Wildfire season is raging in California. The vicious cycle of wildfires, air pollution, blackouts and reliance upon polluting diesel backup electricity generators continues.

The vicious cycle of wildfires, air pollution, blackouts, and reliance upon polluting diesel backup electricity generators continues.

And sadly, with this summer already proving to be as hot or hotter than last year, the state  is suspending air quality laws once again and allowing diesel-based backup power to keep the lights on and the air conditioners running.

Californians deserve better.

While reversing the effects of climate change won’t happen anytime soon, we can do things now that will help deal with the public health, air quality and climate impacts of wildfire season in California.

We have known for some time that getting to 100% renewable energy will require large investments in energy storage and localized distributed energy. Some of those investments have begun. Year after year of record wildfires has, however, prompted far too many businesses and people to buy diesel backup generators that only make our air quality and climate problems worse.

You can’t blame people for doing whatever is necessary to keep electricity flowing. It’s often a matter of life and death when it comes to storing medicine that requires refrigeration or preventing heat stroke from a lack of access to fans or air conditioning. Across the state, big tech companies like Google, Apple, Cisco and Amazon need electricity to keep their servers running.

Many decisions to invest in diesel backup generators have been made in haste during wildfire and power supply crises. We need to do better. We need investments in clean energy storage and local clean electricity generation technologies. Alternatives exist. They include fuel cells, battery storage and combustion-free linear generators. Some have no air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Others have almost no emissions. All are better for public health and the planet than diesel backup generators.

That’s why it is hard to understand why state and local air regulators, as well as our local counties and cities, continue to allow polluting diesel generation to support our energy grid. Health experts have warned us that our youth and seniors are most vulnerable to breathing diesel exhaust. These diesel generators last for decades. They are often placed next to existing electrical substations located in or adjacent to low-income communities of color.

California appropriately touts itself as the leader in the fight against climate change. Unfortunately, our fight against climate change has morphed into a myopic battle, where we often think globally, yet sometimes fail locally.

Lately, our energy and environmental policy frameworks have focused primarily on greenhouse gases while neglecting our obligations to rid the air we breathe of smog, particulates and other toxic air pollutants.

As we have witnessed again this summer our energy grid is under duress. During extreme weather events, along with a record drought, large utilities are again regularly turn off power keep customers safe from the threat of wildfires. In 2020, for the first time in almost 20 years, the state’s independent system operator imposed rolling blackouts to deal with an insufficient energy supply during the hottest days of the year.

The fight against climate change is real. As we confront another wildfire season, where we face a drought and increased power outages, we must find a solution that does not rely on diesel-based power sources that pollute our local air and harm our communities. We can’t neglect our clean air needs while we deal with wildfires and backup electricity. It’s a matter of life and breath.

Joe Lyou is president of the Coalition for Clean Air and a member of the California Transportation Commission. Fran Pavley is a former state senator and author of  AB 32, California’s Global Warming Solutions Act. She is the Environmental Policy Director for the USC Schwarzenegger Institute for State and Global Policy.


Originally published in the Mercury News on September 1, 2021 at



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