The Dirty Footprint of the Broken Grid

September 18, 2019

The Impacts of Fossil Fuel Back-up Generators in Developing Countries

Around the world, nearly 1 billion people live without access to electricity, and about 840 million more live with unreliable and intermittent service from electric grids. For many of them, fossil fuel backup generators are the only source of power. But these machines offer a problematic, intermediate solution: their cost of operation is high, they fill neighborhoods and cities with noise pollution, and the exhaust is hazardous to health and the environment.

To better understand the impacts of generators on health, economies, and the climate, IFC has partnered with the Schatz Energy Research Center at Humboldt State University to embark on the most comprehensive inquiry to date into the footprint and repercussions of using backup generators. This study explores fundamental questions about the scale and impacts of backup generators that have been largely unanswered beyond anecdote and local or regionally focused studies.

Download Summary

Key findings include:

  • In developing countries, generators serve 20-30 million unique sites and have the potential to produce the power equivalent of 700-1,000 coal fired power stations. In some countries, back-up generators provide more electrical capacity than the national power grid itself.
  • Annual spending on generator fuel is roughly $50 billion—nearly twice the average hourly cost of grid-produced electricity. In much of sub-Saharan Africa, there is more spending on generator fuel than on the maintenance and management of the national grid.
  • Generators are a significant source of dangerous pollution, including sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxide, and carbon dioxide. While these chemicals are also released by cars, trucks, and motorcycles, generators are usually operated extremely close to homes, businesses, and in crowded commercial districts.
  • Backup generators emit more than 100 megatons of CO2 into the atmosphere every year. In sub-Saharan Africa alone, the CO2 emitted by generators is equal to nearly 20 percent of vehicle emissions — the equivalent of 22 million passenger vehicles on the road.