The Future of Diesel Generators

Diesel generators (DGs) are prized around the world for their dependability, mobility, and simplicity. Their Achilles heel has always been their propensity for both noise and air pollution, discharging nitrogen oxide (NOx), carbon monoxide (CO), particulate matter (PM) and non-methane hydrocarbons (NMHCs) into the air. Nevertheless, DG operators around the globe have historically considered the machines’ positives as outweighing the negatives.

Ultimately, the future of diesel generators is inextricably tied to the larger debate over the demands of industrialization versus the needs of the planet. While that battle is being waged primarily between the governments of the world and their citizens, the war over diesel generators is playing out between governments and DG manufacturers in the form of ever-stricter regulations on the technology.  

These are extremely complex issues; however, by gazing into the future and considering a few of the major environmental, political, and industrial trends impacting diesel generators today, we can at least make an educated guess about what the future holds for them.

Looking into the future

 

Current Diesel Generator Predictions

As we pointed out in a previous article, diesel generator sales are trending up over the near-term; they’re predicted to grow steadily to more than $21 billion in the U.S. alone by 2022, up from $12.6 billion in 2014.  This is despite significant headwinds, including low commodity prices that decrease demand in commodity-dependent developing economies, as well as declining costs of competitive energy sources that are more environmentally friendly.

That is an incredible level of growth by any standard, and the international numbers are projected to outstrip domestic growth. In December 2013, the U.S. Energy Information Administration forecasted that developing countries will account for 65% of world energy use by 2040, as they will see the fastest population growth. As the most effective form of backup power, DGs are primed to play a key role in that energy picture.

Incidentally, China–itself technically a developing country, according to the World Trade Organization–is currently the world’s biggest producer of carbon emissions, but it also produces 25% of its energy with renewables. Many pundits have pointed out that as a major diesel genset market, how China approaches the issue of climate change in the coming years will have massive repercussions for the global environmental outlook (and the DG market), and at the moment, acrimonious trade talks with the U.S. aren’t helping prospects.   

 

DGs and Sustainability

Yet virtually every country in the world, including China, recognizes that sustainable energy production is the future, and diesel generators have already begun to reflect changing environmental protection laws and changing consumer preferences.

Hybridized versions of diesel generators is one fast-growing segment of the market, in which diesel engines are combined with batteries, natural gas, solar panels or other renewables. In these systems, the engine only kicks on to charge the battery or handle peak loads. These updates optimize efficiency and reduce run times, enabling reduction of emissions of upwards of 80%. There are also early findings that adding hydrogen injection to diesel engines could result in lower fuel consumption and up to 90% less NOx released.

While these changes diminish the use of diesel, they don’t abandon fossil fuels entirely. Solutions like the restaurant waste oil-eating Vegawatt have been around for at least a decade but remain a niche segment of the market at best because of their peculiar needs and often high up-front costs.

 

Diesel Gensets Losing Ground to Renewables

Even with improvements, DGs may not be green enough to salvage them in the mind of some consumers. Thus, some of those looking for energy sources are skipping over the latest diesel genset technology and opting for renewable energy.

For example, a recent two-week project at a railway station in South Wales incorporated 97% solar and battery power. And in a recent announcement of a breakthrough in generating energy with ammonia in alkaline fuel cells, UK-based AFC Energy made a point of contrasting their technology with the harmful emissions given off by DGs at many construction sites.

But the smaller, portable generator market (generators up to about 20 kW) is vulnerable, too, as customers become accustomed to generators at festivals and other public areas that are quieter and maintain better air quality. So while larger, standby and emergency DGs that supply power to buildings and heavy equipment are more heavily regulated, it may be largely market forces that determine the future of mobile generators.  

 

Why DGs May Remain Viable

As we mentioned with U.S.-China trade talks, the energy industry is one buffeted by all sorts of outside factors. Here are a few other potential wrenches in the works that could affect whether we continue to utilize DGs or not:

  • The high risk of serious power outages: The numbers seem to indicate that modern storms are becoming more severe, including the amount of rainfall, wind speeds, the number of Category 4 and 5 hurricanes, and the cost of damage. Even without the threats from nature, according to the National Infrastructure Advisory Council, the U.S. power grid is woefully unprepared for a “catastrophic power outage” from attacks or infrastructural damage. Micro-grids should become more popular in light of these threats.
  • The U.S. sociopolitical landscape: The much-talked-about Green New Deal of February 2019 failed to garner a single vote in the U.S. Senate, with opponents arguing the plan to move to 100% renewable energy by 2030 would make virtually no impact on global temperatures anyway. Nevertheless, every serious Democratic candidate for president in the 2020 election has signed onto it, and the move away from fossil fuels like diesel is a pillar of many of their campaigns. In other words, the issue is not going away any time soon.    
  • The fragile state of the global economy: During economic downturns, companies and individuals are naturally predisposed to finding the cheapest goods, with environmental concern more of a luxury for times of plenty. That being the case, consumers could be averse to making dramatic changes to their energy production systems if a global recession strikes, which many analysts are currently predicting. Sticking with time-tested DGs, even over renewables that can save money over the long-term, may be considered the safest play.  

 

In 2017, the government of South Australia ordered 9 backup diesel generators to provide up to 275MW of power and help cope with peak demand, proving leaders in developed countries are still reluctant to abandon diesel generators in times of need.

 

 

In January 2019, the backup generators were called into action for the first time.

 

Worldwide Power Products’ Prediction

We envision two tracks for the future of diesel generators. In the U.S., DGs will remain relevant, though highly regulated, for the next 15 years, at least. Beyond that, it seems likely that given a) the pace of technology, and b) urging from environmentalists, at the very least a plan will be put in place to phase out fossil fuels at some point in the United States. How quickly this can practically happen is anyone’s guess, but we feel quite safe continuing to recommend diesel generator purchases today. Backup power is essential for many industries – businesses and governments aren’t going to step away from the ironclad reliability of diesel generators until alternatives offer the same level of guarantees.

Globally, the picture may be starkly different. Diesel generators could remain in use in developing countries for another 50 years or more as part of industrialization efforts that are pulling millions of people out of abject poverty continue. In the absence of any global body with the ability to levy binding environmental regulations on a sovereign nation, the immediate needs of keeping the lights on and the water lines running may well trump the desire for cleaner energy than diesel generators can provide.