Charcoal Vs. Gas Grill: Which Is Better For The Environment?

07/04/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

With summer now in full swing, many of us are heading outside to do a little cooking by fire. Barbeque season has arrived, and with it, the decision about how to do it in the greenest way possible. Step 1: choosing the greenest fuel.

It's pretty much a two-(hot) dog race when it comes to grilling hardware: gas vs. charcoal. There are a few electrical grills on the market, but they're harder to come by, and, as we'll see below, aren't nearly as efficient as their other competitors. But that doesn't make the decision crystal clear.

The basic issue is this: charcoal is dirtier, but can come from renewable resources; gas has a smaller carbon footprint, but is derived from non-renewable fossil fuels. Most charcoal is a funky amalgamation of things like sawdust, corn starch and lighter fluid; when it's burned, it can result in 105 times more carbon monoxide than burning propane and lots of harmful volatile organic compounds. But, "real" charcoal, also commonly known as "chunk charcoal," doesn't have the nasty additives, and burning it is carbon neutral. So let's look a little more closely at the numbers.

When it comes to carbon emissions, gas-powered grills win in a landslide. Tristam West, a researcher with the Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory, compared the carbon output of gas, charcoal and electric powered grills when producing 35,000 Btu's per hour, a typical industry baseline. West's calculations showed that gas produced 5.6 pounds of carbon dioxide each hour, compared to 11 pounds for charcoal. As mentioned above, electrical grills produce a whopping 15 pounds of carbon dioxide for every hour at 35,000 Btu's, so aren't the best choice from the carbon perspective.

After all this, here's the bottom line: go for gas. Lump charcoal is becoming increasingly available, but often comes from thousands of miles (or even multiple continents) away, which negates some of its carbon benefits; until it's readily available from local sources, the efficiency of gas wins out. Stay tuned for more tips on green grilling, and happy barbequing!

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