Backup Power: A Growing Need, if You Can Afford It

When frigid weather caused a rolling blackout in North Carolina on Christmas Eve, Eliana and David Mandula were immediately worried about their 2.5-week-old daughter, who had been brought home from the neonatal intensive care unit a few days earlier. .

“It was freezing in the house,” said Mundura, who lives in Matthews, south of Charlotte. “I got angry.”

But her husband pulled out a small gasoline generator that a neighbor had persuaded him to buy years ago and used a portable heater to restart the refrigerator and sustain most of the five-hour outage. bottom.

Gladys Henderson, an 80-year-old former cafeteria worker in the town of Cornelius, north of Charlotte, wasn’t so lucky. She doesn’t have a generator and relies on candles, flashlights and an old kerosene heater to survive another recent blackout.

“I lose power almost all the time,” Ms. Henderson said. “Sometimes it turns off and stays off.”

Ms. Henderson is a loser in the emerging energy divide that puts millions of people at risk from heat and cold.

Power outages are becoming more common as climate change exacerbates heat waves, cold spells and other extreme weather events. In the 11 years to 2021, the United States experienced 986 weather-related blackouts, according to government data analyzed by Climate Central, a nonprofit organization of scientists. This is about double the previous 11 years. According to the Energy Information Administration, the average U.S. utility customer will be without power for about eight hours in 2021. That’s more than twice as long as he did in 2013, the first year that data is available.

Power outages have become so common that some consider generators and other backup power supplies essential. But many people like Henderson can’t afford a generator or fuel. His Generac, a leading distributor of home generators, estimates that less than 6% of U.S. homes have backup generators, despite strong sales in recent years.

Energy experts warn that blackouts will become more common due to extreme weather related to climate change. And these blackouts will hurt more people by Americans buying electric heat pumps and battery-powered cars instead of fossil fuel-burning stoves. This is an essential change to limit climate change.

Najmedin Meshkati, an engineering professor and disaster response expert at the University of Southern California, said: “It fosters a divide between the haves and the have-nots.”

The elderly, the infirm, and those living in poorly protected or insulated homes, as well as those dependent on powered medical devices and those taking medications that require refrigeration , is the most vulnerable.

Brian Stone Jr., a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, said blackouts make heat, already the leading cause of avoidable deaths, even more of a threat. He conducted studies in Atlanta, Detroit, and Phoenix to estimate how many people would be exposed to extreme temperatures during power outages.

“A simultaneous massive blackout during a heat wave is the deadliest type of climate threat we can imagine.”

Ashley Ward, Senior Policy Associate in the Nicholas Institute for Energy, Environment, and Sustainability at Duke University, studies how heat affects communities in North Carolina.she research Higher temperatures have been shown to increase premature births. She said even healthy people who work in high temperatures often suffer from heat-related illnesses, especially if they can’t cool their homes overnight. ‘ she said.

The recent power crisis in North Carolina occurred on Christmas Eve when temperatures dropped to 9 degrees Fahrenheit in the Charlotte area.

Duke Energy, the state’s primary utility, began cutting power to customers to ensure the grid kept running after a power plant failed and customers turned on their home heating. rice field. About 500,000 households, or 15% of the company’s customers, have lost power. in Carolina.

Mundulas had experienced numerous weather-related power outages since moving to a house in the suburbs. After renting a generator during a previous power outage, the couple decided in August 2020 that she had spent $650 to purchase one, powering part of their four-bedroom, 2.5-bathroom home. continued to supply. A chorus of engines usually fills the neighborhood when the power goes out. “It’s just the hum of a generator,” said Mandula, adding that she’d never heard a generator in the low-income neighborhood of Greensboro where she grew up.

The couple considered larger systems like solar with batteries, but those options cost a lot of money.

A retired cafeteria worker, Henderson lives alone in a three-bedroom home. She relies on her family, her friends, her community and her group to maintain her home. This home is powered by a community owned utility. Frequent power outages are one of her several problems in her neighborhood, which is historically African-American, and flooding is also frequent.

A developer has offered to buy her house, but Henderson has lived there for 50 years and wants it to remain as it is.

“My problem is really an electrical problem,” Henderson said. “It’s very scary.”

Duke said he is aware of the risks people like Henderson face. The company tracks repeated blackouts in vulnerable communities to determine whether power lines should be plugged to reduce the chance of blackouts. The company is also developing and testing strategies to reduce strain on the grid when energy demand exceeds supply. These approaches include sending power from electric vehicles to the grid and installing smart he devices that can turn off appliances to reduce energy use.

Lon Huber, senior vice president of customer solutions at Duke Energy, said:

Other threats to the grid are difficult to defend against.

In early December, two Duke substations in Carthage, about 90 miles east of Charlotte, were shot and damaged, cutting power to thousands of homes for several days. Emergency services received panicked calls from people whose oxygen machines had stopped working, requiring someone to visit their homes and set up pressurized canisters that did not require electricity.

The chief’s house also has no backup power supply. He estimates that two-thirds of his homes in the area do not have generators. “We couldn’t justify the price,” he said.

A backup power system can be as small as a portable gasoline generator under $500. Commonly found on construction sites and campsites, these devices can only power a few devices at a time. Whole-home systems powered by propane, natural gas, or diesel can provide power for days as long as the fuel is available, but these generators start at around $10,000 including installation, with larger homes It can cost you even more.

Combined solar panels and batteries can provide emissions-free power, but they cost tens of thousands of dollars and are typically not enough to run large appliances or heat pumps for more than a few hours. These systems are also less reliable on cloudy, rainy, or snowy days when there is not enough sunlight to fully charge the batteries.

Eager to reduce their carbon footprint, lower their electricity bills, and be grid independent, some homeowners are combining different energy systems, often at considerable expense. .

Annie Dudley, a statistician in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, drastically reduced her energy consumption several years ago. She installed a geothermal system. Geothermal systems use the earth’s steady temperature to heat and cool homes, replacing the aging systems that came with homes. She then added her 35 solar panels and her two Tesla home batteries to the roof. These can provide enough power to meet most of her needs, including charging her Golf electric Volkswagen.

“My neighborhood got a lot of blackouts, but I don’t,” Dudley said.

She spent about $52,000 on solar panels and batteries, $21,600 of which came from rebates and tax credits. Dudley estimates that her investment and geothermal system will save about $2,300 a year in utility bills.

Power generation companies believe that rising power usage and the threat of blackouts will keep demand for their products high.

Last year, Generac generated $2.8 billion in sales to U.S. homeowners, a 250% increase over 2017. In recent years, many people have purchased generators to ensure that blackouts do not prevent them from working from home, said Aaron Jagdfeld, CEO of Generac. is based in Waukesha, Wisconsin. Severe weather, such as the extreme heatwave in the Pacific Northwest in 2021 and winter storm Uri, which cut power for days and killed many people in Texas, will also cause many people to turn off their generators. I bought it. Estimate 246 people.

“People are thinking about this,” Yagdfeld said, adding that “broader changes in the climate and how that will affect not just the reliability of electricity, but what it has to deliver. In that context,” he said.

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