Can Diesel Generators Be Green?

If you fear extreme changes in the environment from global warming, or are living in a sporadic weather zone facing snowstorms, earthquakes, or tornadoes, buying an electric generator is probably on your mind. My parents own a second home in northern Ontario, where the odd forest fire and summer blackout threatens the relatively unstable power grid. People up there are starting to use solar power and new types of power generators. But not the mainstream people like my dad who bought the cheaper gasoline generator which runs on unleaded petrol. If you have a little more money to invest you can try a greener option by buying a diesel generator.

While the first outlay for diesel generators might be more than double the cost of a standard gasoline-fueled generator, consider the lifespan of your electric generator: How often you will use it? You might care about the impact on the environment before buying. Diesel fuel may cost a bit more, yet bio-fuel options as well as natural gas can be used in these types of machines. If you are likely to use it frequently, diesel gets much better fuel efficiency than gasoline. Consider your friends who drive diesel cars. They seem to be able to drive forever on a tank, making you wish you owned one.

Also consider that if you are buying a small generator for emergency purposes that you can buy one along with your nearby neighbors to share, splitting up the cost.

Generators aren't perfect, and they aren't really clean: As the neighbors from the recent Fashion Week in New York learned not so long ago, diesel generators -- or any fuel-based generator that has a combustion engine for that matter -- will produce exhaust.

Generators should only be used in emergency situations where connecting to the grid is not possible or allowed. Last year when I was in Panama City Beach the U.S. Army had set up a recruiting station to enlist Spring Break partiers. While going for my 6 a.m. walk on the beach I was completely shocked to see their diesel generator running through the night, lighting up their lights, despite the fact that no one was on the beach.

What about batteries?

Over on TreeHugger, a reader asked if batteries are better than diesel generators. Some of the advantages of buying batteries (which cost a lot more -- you'll need about 30 of them to be on the safe side) is that their usage is less taxing on the environment over all. But another consideration (and it is an important one to consider) is that batteries only store energy. They can't create it. While diesel generators might produce noise, smoke, greenhouse gas emissions and power surges that can damage your equipment, it is the only practical and reliable solution if you need a guaranteed and unlimited source of power.

Certainly the greenest option when the power fails for a short time is to open the fridge door and let the frozen products de-thaw. Throw a neighborhood barbecue if the weather allows; light beeswax candles, pull out the solar-charged flashlights and enjoy a little off-grid living. Or pre-build a human generator on bikes and get fit while you wait for the power to kick back on.