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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Quantifying the Air Pollution Exposure Consequences of Distributed Electricity Generation

  • Author(s): Heath, Garvin A.;
  • Granvold, Patrick W.;
  • Hoats, Abigail S.;
  • Nazaroff, William W
  • et al.

Private sector and governmental organizations have been promoting the deployment of small-scale, distributed electricity generation (DG) technologies for their many benefits as compared to the traditional paradigm of large, centralized power plants. While some researchers have investigated the impact of a shift toward DG in terms of energy use and even air pollutant concentrations, it is also important to evaluate the air pollutant exposure implications of this shift. We conducted a series of case studies within the state of California that combined air dispersion modeling and inhalation exposure assessment. Twenty-five central stations were selected and five air pollutant-emitting DG technologies were considered, including two that meet the 2003 and 2007 California Air Resources Board DG emissions standards (microturbines and fuel cells with on-site natural gas reformers, respectively). This investigation has revealed that the fraction of pollutant mass emitted that is inhaled by the downwind, exposed population can be more than an order of magnitude greater for all five DG technologies considered than for large, central-station power plants in California. This difference is a consequence mainly of the closer proximity of DG sources to densely populated areas as compared to typical central station, and is independent of the emissions characteristics of the plants assessed. Considering typical emission factors for the five DG technologies, the mass of pollutant inhaled per unit electricity delivered can be up to three orders of magnitude greater for DG units as compared to existing California central stations. To equalize the exposure burden between DG and central station technologies, DG emission factors will need to be reduced to a range between the level of the cleanest, new central stations in California and an order of magnitude below those levels, depending on the pollutant and siting. We conclude that there is reason to caution against an unmitigated embrace of DG technologies that emit air pollutants so that they do not pose a greater public health burden than the current electricity generation system.

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