A Side-by-Side Comparison of Gas and Electric Grills

Charcoal is the dirtiest grilling fuel, but the cleanest-burning fuel might come as a surprise.

June 7, 2012


Bad news for barbecue lovers: Charcoal is officially bad for the planet, according to a 2008 paper published in the journal Environmental Impact Assessment Review.


The paper found that the main downside to charcoal, which is inefficient for cooking and polluting for the air, is its production. Only 20 to 35 percent of the wood needed to make a chunk of charcoal actually ends up as charcoal; the rest is converted to gas and emitted into the atmosphere. Charcoal is also a contributor of “black carbon,” soot that floats in the upper atmosphere to the Arctic, where it absorbs heat from the sun and melts the ice upon which it settles.

Yes, we know that many die-hard charcoal users will sooner switch religions than give up on those blackened briquets. But if you’re willing to consider ditching a charcoal grill for a greener model, which way should you lean?

THIS: Electric Grill

With electricity, you don’t have to worry about gas leaks or changing tanks.

Unless you get your power from wind or some other other renewable source, electric grills are very dirty, possibly more so than charcoal. Tristram West, a scientist with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, has found that operating an electric grill for an hour would generate 15 pounds of carbon dioxide (due to all the greenhouse gases emitted by power plants), compared with 11 from a charcoal grill (in both making the charcoal and burning it at home). Plus, our country’s power grids are highly inefficient. As much as 34 percent of the energy generated by power plants is wasted during production and as it gets transmitted over utility lines. Also, foodies argue that the flavor from an electric grill isn’t that great.


THAT: Propane Grill

Propane is very energy-efficient; 90 percent of what gets produced turns into useable fuel. And, according to West’s figures, propane only emits 5.6 pounds of carbon dioxide for an hour’s worth of grilling. When it comes to flavor, a Good Housekeeping taste test performed a while ago found that few people could tell the difference in chicken or hamburgers cooked on gas from those cooked with charcoal (the same couldn’t be said for steaks, though).

Propane is a nonrenewable resource.


This or That?

That. Go with propane
Lugging a propane tank to your grill may feel like a hassle, but the planet will thank you for it. Natural gas is another efficient, clean-burning alternative, if your house is outfitted for it.

Keep things healthy for both the Earth and your family when you fire up the grill this weekend with a few other tips:

• Don’t get burned
Overly blackened burgers and chicken contain cancer-causing compounds called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which were recently found to increase risks for pancreatic cancer. And all that blackened soot adds pollution to the air.

• Consider a skewer
Buy organic meat, but use it as an accent, on, say, kabobs, rather than a main dish. You’ll cut your ecofootprint, and recent studies suggest cutting back on red meat can boost your heart health and protect your vision.