• Ron Kotrba

Importance of diesel power underscored in Calif. crises

Updated: Sep 4, 2020

As California residents endure raging wildfires and extreme temperatures causing rolling blackouts from its overstressed electrical grid, diesel-powered engines, generators, vehicles and equipment are on the frontline of the response. Allen Schaeffer, executive director of the Diesel Technology Forum, said there is no room for error or experimentation when responding to crises and the need to protect public health and safety. 


Photo: The Diesel Technology Forum

"At this moment, the importance of proven fuels and technologies like diesel could not be clearer," Schaeffer said. "It also underscores why efforts to restrict or eliminate diesel technology are misguided and will hurt California businesses, leaving them with fewer, less proven, less available and more expensive options, that also put near term climate and clean air goals further out of reach."


Diesel’s unique combination of power density, energy efficiency, durability, portability, availability of fueling and servicing, and reliability make it the technology of choice in such situations, Schaeffer said.


So far in 2020, there have been over 5,300 wildfire events, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. In each of these events, crews rely heavily on a fleet of more than 3,000 pieces of equipment, much of which is powered by diesel including fire engines and pumpers, water tankers, off-road vehicles, utility trucks, bulldozers, skid-steer loaders, generators, mobile pumps and more.  


"Beyond enabling response to the fire events, diesel technology is a key strategy to ensure continuous electrical supply during extreme weather events and planned safety power shutoffs (PSPS)," Schaeffer said. "On June 11, the California Public Utility Commission responsibly gave the green light for the use of diesel generators in microgrid applications as a response to PSPS. Gov. Newsom last week took important steps that removed barriers to the use of backup power generation assets as a key strategy to help prevent rolling blackouts from extreme weather events. The impacts of electrical power disruptions, even in the short term, can be far reaching, including loss of traffic control systems, water treatment facilities, communications outages, risks to food storage and public safety from loss of refrigeration, air conditioning and impacts on other vital services."


The new generation diesel emergency backup generators of today provide safe, reliable, proven and portable power where, when and for however long they're needed, Schaeffer said. "For industrial or institutional customers with existing backup units, running those units and disconnecting from the grid frees up important electrical capacity for others," he explained. "Reliable and continuous supplies of clean diesel fuel are available in California, and many of the existing stand-by generators are equipped with the latest emissions controls that reduce emissions, ensuring that these units can deliver responsive power when called upon." 


In addition to its roles in public health and safety applications, diesel is the technology of choice for commercial trucking, construction, agriculture, marine and rail applications, Schaeffer noted. "New technology diesel engines help California achieve its clean air and greenhouse gas emissions reduction goals through near-zero emissions performance using ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel," he said. "Underscoring the sustainability of diesel technology is its suitability for use of renewable diesel and biodiesel fuels in all engines."


According to the California Energy Commission, between 2011-'19 diesel engines using renewable diesel and biodiesel fuels contributed more greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions than all electric vehicles combined. Advanced biofuels including biodiesel and renewable diesel fuels reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 50 percent and, depending on the feedstock used to make the fuel, up to more than 80 percent. while renewable diesel fuel can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than 80 percent.” 


DTF data show that the use of the newest generation of diesel technology in commercial vehicles has reduced 1.2 million tons of emissions of oxides of nitrogen (NOx) and more than 8 million tons of GHG emissions between 2010-'18. According to DTF analysis of IHS Markit data, 36 percent of all commercial trucks on the road in 2019 in California are of the newest generation diesel technology that achieves near-zero emissions. The national average is 43 percent.

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