Blackouts and generators add to Michigan’s air quality problems

Residents must choose between ‘the lesser of two evils’ – no power or more local pollution. Plus, a guide on how to minimize the damage and stay safe.
Stock photo.

When the power went out last week, Ali Abbas’ Westland neighborhood was soon filled with the familiar droning sound of generators, stressing out the family pet.

“It’s extremely loud when you go outside,” he told Planet Detroit. “My dog is going insane.”

Abbas also has a generator, although he worries about its carbon emissions and impact on local air quality. He said he wanted to get a solar array and battery storage to help deal with increasingly frequent power outages, but it would cost more than $35,000,, whereas the generator was only $1,600.

Going without backup power isn’t an option for his family because both of his parents use continuous positive airway pressure or CPAP machines to help them cope with sleep apnea.

The frequent and long power outages in southeast Michigan have pushed more of Ali’s neighbors to get generators. DTE Energy and Consumers Energy are among the worst utilities in the country for how long it takes to restore power after a blackout. Abbas endured lengthy outages following February’s ice storm and July’s severe storm.

Several southeast Michigan residents told Planet Detroit that they’ve noticed a significant increase in the number of generators in their neighborhoods. As generator use grows in urban and suburban areas, impacts on air quality could be more severe in summer, when open windows could increase exposure.. Meanwhile, gas and diesel generators produce nitrogen oxides (NOX) which, combined with hot, sunny weather, helps produce ozone, a major asthma trigger. 

This year, metro Detroit has already had 21 air quality alerts, 13 related to ozone, the highest in a decade. Massive wildfires burning in Canada have contributed to the problem, bringing plumes of smoke containing very high concentrations of PM 2.5 (fine particulate matter).

Ann Arbor resident Dirk Mayhew of Ann Arbor says when he went to purchase a generator after the most recent storm, at least one Tractor Supply was sold out, and he had to go to another location.

Like Abbas, Mayhew is concerned about the emissions from these devices operating next to homes.

“The box has warnings of serious health consequences for using this thing,” he said. But he also worries about his elderly neighbors, one of whom relies on insulin, which needs to be refrigerated.

“I feel like I’m stuck in a box where I’m either going to watch bad things happen or I’m going to choose, at least for the short-term, the lesser of two evils,” Mayhew said.

Max Zhang, an engineering professor at Cornell University who studies air pollution from generators, said widespread use of gasoline-powered units in neighborhoods is like “everyone going out and using their lawnmowers at the same time.” 

Zhang notes that gas generators produce pollution much closer to where people live than emissions from centralized coal and gas plants generally would.

Like lawnmowers, home generators intended for emergency use don’t have the strict emission controls that cars do. In 2016, the US Consumer Product Safety Commission estimated the average 5-kilowatt home generator produced as much carbon monoxide in an hour as 450 cars. 

In enclosed spaces like garages, this carbon monoxide is incredibly dangerous and has been a significant cause of death following disasters. For example, 10 people died from carbon monoxide from generators during Texas’ 2021 winter storm and electrical grid failure.

Commercial devices, which generally use diesel fuel, can also generate significant pollution. A 2015 report co-authored by Zhang found that the predominantly diesel-powered generators used for backup during high energy demand days contributed to “exceedingly high ozone concentrations” in a large area of the Northeast in and around New York City.

In Michigan, generators are often portable and can be used to provide emergency power for places like pharmacies and grocery stores. According to Duncan Allen, director of the Diesel Engine Compliance Center for the Environmental Protection Agency, these kinds of commercial, mobile devices must comply with the EPA’s “Tier 4” engine requirements, subjecting them to stricter controls that reduce NOX and particulate matter emissions. 

However, large, stationary generators that are used in emergencies to power buildings are subject to less stringent controls. 

Zhang said generator use may contribute to a “vicious cycle” where the devices produce more greenhouse gas pollution per kilowatt hour than power plants, fueling climate-related storms and heatwaves, which can cause outages and increase generator use. 

Yet, he acknowledges that they’re necessary to protect the health and well-being of some individuals.

For Abbas, this means that as long as southeast Michigan struggles with prolonged power outages, his family will periodically rely on technology that has the potential to both protect and damage their health. 

This contradiction was evident during last week’s blackout when his father, who has asthma, was forced to stay inside because of the pollution from the neighborhood’s generators.

“I’m spending a lot of money; I’m using fossil fuels,” Abbas said. “But it’s damned if you do and damned if you don’t.”

How to operate a home generator (if you must) as quietly and safely as possible

Home generators can make the difference between life and death for some people. Operating one safely while minimizing air and noise pollution involves proper planning, usage, and maintenance. Here’s a brief guide to help you achieve that:

Choose the right generator

  • Opt for inverter generators, which tend to run more quietly and efficiently.
  • Consider models that have eco-modes to reduce emissions.
  • Check the decibel rating and pick a model that has sound-dampening features. Here are some quiet options.

Proper location and installation

  • Place the generator at least 20 feet away from your home to reduce noise. Do not place generators near open windows.
  • Ensure proper ventilation to prevent harmful fumes from entering the home.
  • If possible, install noise barriers or shields to reduce noise pollution.
  • Never, ever run a generator in a garage – even if the door is open.

Use the correct fuel:

  • Use the fuel recommended by the manufacturer.
  • Store fuel in proper containers, away from living areas, and follow local regulations.

Conduct regular maintenance:

  • Regularly inspect and clean the air filter, spark plugs, etc.
  • Using the right oil and changing it as required can also minimize emissions.

Safe operation practices:

  • Don’t exceed the generator’s capacity; it can cause inefficiency and more emissions.
  • Minimize use to necessary occasions to reduce noise and air pollution.
  • Turn off unneeded appliances. Only run what you need to use the generator efficiently.

Use proper extensions and cords:

  • Use only outdoor-rated extension cords.
  • Minimize the length and use the proper gauge to prevent power loss and possible overheating.

Follow local regulations:

  • Be aware of local noise restrictions, especially during nighttime hours.
  • Check if any local permits or regulations govern the use of a generator.

Consider alternatives:

Observe other safety considerations:

  • Have working carbon monoxide detectors in the home.
  • Consider generators with automatic shut-off features if carbon monoxide or overheating is detected.


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