Grilling outdoors is not only fun and tasty, it saves energy and money. But what type of outdoor grill is most eco-friendly?
We took a look at propane grills, natural gas grills, charcoal burning grills and wood burning grills for backyard grilling, and gave each an Eco Rating.
Charcoal Grills: Charcoal grills burn charcoal briquettes. Briquettes are a combination of elements such as lighter fluid, sawdust, wood by-products, a binder such as starch, and other random additives. Some contain borax, mineral carbon and limestone. When burned, the result releases 105 times more carbon dioxide than propane. Charcoal burning also releases volatile organic compounds (VOC’s) that may cause cancer and other diseases. Charcoal also typically travels a much greater distance from where it is manufactured to end up on our store shelf.
You can, however, buy “true charcoal” at some health food stores. Known as lump coal, this greener fuel is made from hardwood material and contains no chemical additives.
Eco Rating: 3 out of 10.
For comparison, a 1 out of 10 rating would be burning treated scrap job site lumber with lighter fluid. A 10 out of 10 rating would be a grill that releases unicorns that fly around and swallow existing VOC’s in the air.
Gas Grills: Although gas grills use a non-renewable fossil fuel, they produce far fewer carbon emissions than charcoal when burned. The Department of Energy found that gas grills generate 5.6 pounds of carbon dioxide per hour, while charcoal grills produce 11 pounds of carbon dioxide per hour (at 35,000 Btu’s). So, a gas grill is a good choice.
Propane vs. natural gas: Both have a small carbon footprint. Natural gas burns cleaner than propane. Given the choice, use natural gas. Eco Rating: 8 out of 10
Wood burning Grills: Wood burning grills, like Santa Maria style grills, are the preferred choice for full, smoky flavor and true flame. Wood burning bbq’s also burn off particles of soot and dirt that pollute the air. Smoke is a sign of incomplete combustion that occurs when wood burns. Burning wood also releases VOC’s. The smoke smells good, and tastes great, but long-term exposure can cause chronic bronchitis, reduced lung function and other respiratory infections.
Hardwoods such as oak that has been properly seasoned, burn hotter and more thoroughly. Although way better than charcoal, the California EPA recommends that residents discontinue wood burning. To that, I say, not a chance. This is my preferred grill, hands down.
Just don’t inhale, and get a good burn going that minimizes smoke, and maximizes complete burning. Eco Rating: 5 out of 10
Wood-Pellet Grills: Wood-pellet burning grills were first introduced to the market about 30 years ago. They are electric and do not use lighter fluid. Wood pellet grills heat up faster than charcoal, and are easier to control the temperature setting, so that’s a plus. The National Cancer Institute has stated that wood pellet grills could potentially have a lower cancer risk compared to split wood grills.
Wood pellets are considered an alternative heat source, utilizing previously discarded sawdust and biomass, such as bark. Wood pellets are available regionally and locally, which helps them earn the distinction as being carbon-neutral. In other words, using wood pellets produces the same amount of carbon emissions that are absorbed by the tree growing process.
Wood pellets are generally thought to be a green fuel source. Eco Rating: 7 out of 10.
Electric Grills: Probably the consumer least favorite type of backyard grill is the electric grill. However, electric grill technology has come a long way in recent years. New electric grills have a very even, consistent heat distribution, and can reach temperatures just north of 600° F. Electric grills also have the advantage of coming in smaller sizes, and wood or charcoal space is not needed.
If you have a solar energy system, then you are producing your own clean electricity for the grill, and are now that much more environmentally friendly.
Electric grills have their advantage in a condo or apartment situation, where there are restrictions on open flames, and smoke. But in my opinion, an electric grill is not an option for backyard grilling. Expect to pay a bit more. But they tend to last longer. Eco Rating: 8 out of 10
But wait, there’s one more type of grill.
Solar Grills: Clean and infinitely renewable solar energy is always a winner. But is it good for grilling? Well, common sense tells me that they can’t be very good for grilling at night. Most of the solar grills on the market use reflective panels to capture and concentrate the light on one spot, thus increasing the heat potential.
The Helios Solar Grill boasts an innovative, futuristic design. About the size of an average charcoal grill, this solar cooker soaks up sun through a reflective parabolic dish and then transfers the energy to a receptor that heats a coil.
The GoSun Solar cooker promises to cook in cloudy weather. It uses an evacuated glass tube and effectively captures light from a broad range of angles, using parabolic reflectors and borosilicate glass.
There are more than 500,000 solar grills being used in India and China, and 100,000’s more being used around the world. And, although I understand the benefit of this type of solar grill, I do not see it as a viable option or replacement to a gas or wood burning backyard grill here in the US. Not yet, at least. Eco Rating: 9.5 out of 10