BUGs Map 1008

Map showing the nearly 8,700 backup generators in the Bay Area, totaling 4.8 GW, with red/orange areas showing the most vulnerable communities and blue/green the least.

The Golden State shines within the public sphere for making great strides in decarbonizing its electric grid, but there is an uncomfortable reality underneath the glow—a whole lot of diesel generation is being built.

Modern realities of the grid include public-safety power shut-offs and wildfires as well as inadequate infrastructure maintenance from utilities and spotty utility regulation. This means that some of the Big Tech companies that store and distribute our images, words and videos on the internet must build a large amount of backup generation to make it all possible—and a lot of it is diesel-fueled.

The number of backup generators—sometimes known as BUGs—in the San Francisco Bay Area and in Southern California has grown dramatically in the past few years, as noted in a recent study from economic and public-policy research firm M.Cubed. Backup generation of all types rose by a significant 34 percent over the last three years in the Bay Area alone. In the South Coast area—Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, and San Bernardino counties—the growth rate has been 22 percent. About 90 percent of this backup generation is diesel, 6 percent is fueled by natural gas, and 3 percent by liquefied petroleum gas.

"Data on the number of hours that diesel generators operate is self-reported, with little regulatory scrutiny," the report says. "The degree to which BUGs run is influenced by multiple factors, including wildfires, Public Safety Power Shut-offs (PSPS), severe weather, and potentially their use to arbitrage electricity prices and programs."

The total diesel capacity in California is now big enough to power 15 percent of the state's electric grid, which has about an 80-GW capacity. As of 2021, in those two districts alone, there are 23,507 BUGs with a capacity of 12.2 GW, or 87,223 MWh per year.

At least 1.2 GW of diesel backup is used to power data centers in the San Francisco Bay Area region, as documented previously in California Energy Markets (see CEM No. 1649). Most new data centers also build large banks of backup diesel to maintain 24-7 availability.

In January, staff of the California Energy Commission predicted that construction of new data centers in Silicon Valley could double the peak electricity load in the region by 2026 (see CEM No. 1626). Peak load in Silicon Valley Power's service territory could increase from about 580 MW in 2020 to about 1,080 MW in 2026, mostly due to new data center loads.

"Informal conversations with air district staff suggest that higher capacity gensets are being deployed, in part to safeguard reliability at data centers and other large facilities," a footnote in the M.Cubed study says. "Likewise, investor-owned utilities and local governments have been fielding large gensets as part of wildfire resiliency-related efforts."

As has been documented in CEM, these diesel generators are often located in disadvantaged areas with high rates of poverty, leaving those residents to deal with high levels of pollutants. According to the M.Cubed research, in the South Coast, 47 percent of generators are in the most vulnerable communities, classified as being in CalEnviroScreen's 80th to 100th percentile, with 33 percent above the 90th percentile.

M.Cubed partner and lead researcher Steven Moss said he began the research when he received notice that a diesel generator was to be installed near his daughter's high school.

"I never expected to find so many diesel-fueled generators operating in San Francisco and across the state of California, especially so close to where people live, work, and play," Moss said in a written statement. "For a state leading in climate action, this growing reliance on diesel underscores a disconnect between how we're addressing grid reliability, long-term energy affordability, and the ongoing environmental consequences of diesel dependency."

The tight supply conditions on the California grid have also led to more diesel emissions at ports, areas that tend to be surrounded by lower-income residents. During a July heat wave, Gov. Gavin Newsom directed ships at berth in state ports to disconnect from shore power and use onboard engines—often diesel.

The situation illustrates the "squeezing a balloon" analogy: When you push things down at one end of the grid, they pop out in other places. California will need to come to terms with its diesel problem to achieve its lofty energy and environmental policies.

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