I was pleased to be invited to write a guest post for Buildipedia.com.
The widespread power outages from the Eastern US derecho in June were still fresh in my mind, so I thought some tips for choosing and maintaining a home generator would be useful.
You can read the article:
"Home Generators 101" at Buildipedia.com.
My energy obsession
I’ve always been fascinated by science, machines & technology – and the common denominator that makes them work – energy. In today’s world, electrical power is the most widely-used form of energy that we depend on every day.
I’m also fascinated by a force of nature that can be both our best ally or our worst enemy – weather.
When the power goes out due to severe storms – inconvenience aside – people’s lives can be at risk, businesses shut down, and repairing damaged power lines takes time and costs us all money.
The realities of a changing climate
Whether you believe human activities are causing or contributing to climate change or not, facts are facts: we’re seeing more record high temperatures above 20th century averages than record lows. As of July 2012, the US is experiencing the most wide-spread drought since 1956, devastating crops and driving food prices higher through next year.
Many say we’re already seeing the early effects that climate scientists have predicted will contribute to more extreme weather in the future. It may now be too late for us to prevent dramatic climate change – but we still have to try our best to cope intelligently with unpredictable long-term effects.
The electrical infrastructure
Our electrical infrastructure is vulnerable to powerful wind storms like hurricanes and tornados, as well as heavy snows and flooding – partly due to it’s age, but mostly because it’s above ground.
I came across a series of derecho-related articles by James Fallows at The Atlantic which raised the question "why not bury the power lines underground?" (short answer: It would take decades and cost billions – so don’t hold your breath)
There’s also a philosophical discussion about needing to plan to be self-reliant in emergencies (ie. buying a home generator) when a perfectly reliable shared infrastructure "should" already exist.
One example he gives by contrast is a widespread 1965 blackout (which wasn’t weather-related by the way):
When I was in high school, I remember hearing all the furore about the "Great Northeast blackout" of 1965. I looked just now to see what had happened. Via the Wikipedia entry:
“Over 30 million people and 80,000 square miles (207,000 km2) were left without electricity for up to 12 hours.”
Thirty million people is a lot. By modern standards, "up to 12 hours" is nothing. (As a reminder: in DC we had no electricity for a five-day stretch last year, and nearly four days just now.)
I have a theory: Often, the “actual” cause of storm-related outages is fallen trees and branches that take down power lines. Many of these trees were planted decades ago in fast-sprawling urban and suburban neighborhoods. These trees are maturing – so they’re larger and more susceptible to wind damage than they were in the past. That’s not really the power utilities’ fault – and no one’s about to suggest cutting down trees to protect power lines.
As well, over the decades, multiple phone, cable, and fibre optic lines have “hitched a ride” on power poles that now need to be untangled as well. This all adds up to the longer repair time.
In the short term, our best response to emergency power needs is still gas/diesel/propane fueled generators. Ironically, they will also fuel the pace of climate change.
Local and community coordination
At the neighborhood level, related issues that are bound to get worse as more of us buy home generators are noise and local air quality.
It’s one thing to deal with one or two generators in your neighborhood for a few hours. But just think about half of the homes on your block running generators day and night for several days or a week and the situation becomes untenable, not to mention unsustainable.
Everyone benefits by working together in an emergency situation. One way to minimize the frustration and help keep tempers in check is to work with your nearest neighbors to share resources and skills:
- try to co-ordinate a few generators-off "quiet times" each day so you can get some sleep. Very few situations require generators running all the time. Save gas and resources by minimizing the run time, and maximizing the useful output when it is running.
- share fridge and freezer space with your neighbors. Full freezers stay cold longer and operating fewer generators and fridges is more efficient. Split the cost of fuel.
- keep fridge doors closed to avoid cold loss. It might help to wrap them with Mylar "space blankets" for extra insulation.
- freeze large containers of ice if you have enough advance warning of an approaching storm.
World leaders have been too slow to address climate change on a global scale. The best solutions for coping with the effects will likely grow out of lessons learned through experience at the neighborhood and community levels.
Over time, we need to transition to more affordable home solar installations and other local clean energy technologies that will be less vulnerable to the unknown weather extremes that lie ahead for future generations.
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