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

When a cold weather blackout hit North Carolina on Christmas Eve, Eliana and David Mandola became increasingly worried about their 2½-week-old daughter, whom they had brought home from the neonatal intensive care unit days earlier. .

“The temperature in the house was dropping,” said Ms. Mandola, who lives in Matthews, south of Charlotte. “I got angry.”

But her husband pulled out a small gasoline generator that a neighbor had convinced them to buy a few years ago, which allowed them to use a portable heater and restart their refrigerator, which they could use after a five-hour outage. continued most of the time.

In the town of Cornelius, north of Charlotte, Gladys Henderson, an 80-year-old former cafeteria worker, was less fortunate. He didn’t have a generator and relied on candles, a flashlight and an old kerosene heater to get through a different recent outage.

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

Ms Henderson is on the cusp of a new energy divide that is leaving millions of people with dangerously hot and cold conditions.

As climate change increases the intensity of heat waves, cold spells and other extreme weather, blackouts are becoming more common. According to government data analyzed by Climate Central, a nonprofit group of scientists, there were 986 weather-related power outages in the United States in the 11 years to 2021, nearly double the number in the previous 11 years. According to the Energy Information Administration, the average U.S. electric utility customer was without power for about eight hours in 2021, more than twice as many as in 2013, for which data is available.

Outages are becoming so common that generators and other backup power devices are considered necessary by some. But many like Ms. Henderson can’t afford a generator or the fuel she runs on. Even with strong sales in recent years, Generic, a leading seller of home generators, estimates that fewer than 6 percent of American homes have a standby generator.

Energy experts have warned that power outages will become more common due to extreme weather linked to climate change. And the blackouts will hurt more people as Americans buy electric heat pumps and battery-powered cars to replace furnaces and vehicles that burn fossil fuels — changes necessary to limit climate change. Is.

Grids will be more vulnerable, said Najamuddin Meshakti, a University of Southern California engineering professor and disaster response expert. “It makes the difference between having and not having.”

The elderly, the infirm, and those who live in homes that are not well protected or insulated, along with those who rely on electrical medical equipment or take medications that require refrigeration. .

Brian Stone Jr., a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, said power outages make heat, already a major cause of avoidable deaths, even more dangerous. They Researched Estimate how many people in Atlanta, Detroit and Phoenix will experience extreme temperatures during power outages.

“A simultaneous event where you have a widespread blackout during a heat wave is the deadliest type of climate threat we can imagine,” he said, adding that cooling in these cities The centers will only be able to accommodate a fraction of the population. the greatest danger.

Ashley Ward, senior policy associate at Duke University’s Nicholls Institute for Energy, Environment and Sustainability, has studied how heat affects communities in North Carolina. his research indicates that high temperatures cause premature births. Even healthy people who work in high temperatures often suffer from heat-related illnesses, especially if they can’t cool their homes overnight, he said. “A power outage,” he said, “is, in many cases, a catastrophic event.”

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

The state’s main utility, Duke Energy, began cutting power to customers to ensure the grid remained operational after power plants failed and customers turned up the heat in their homes. About 500,000 homes, or 15 percent of the company’s customers, lost power in North and South Carolina, the first time the utility used a rolling blackout. In the Carolinas.

The Mandoles had been experiencing other weather-related power outages since moving into their suburban home. After renting a generator during the previous outage, the couple spent $650 to buy one in August 2020 to power parts of their four-bedroom, two-and-a-half-bathroom home. A chorus of engines usually fills their neighborhood when the power fails. “It’s just the sound of generators,” Ms. Mandola said, adding that she never heard a generator in the low-income Greensboro neighborhood where she grew up.

The couple has considered larger systems like solar with batteries, but those options would cost more.

Ms. Henderson, a retired cafeteria worker, lives alone in her three-bedroom home. She relies on family, friends and community groups to help maintain the house, which is powered by a community-owned utility. Frequent power outages are one of several problems in his historically African-American neighborhood, which also suffers from flooding.

Developers have offered to buy her the house, but Ms Henderson wants to stay put after living there for 50 years.

“My problem is really the electricity,” Ms. Henderson said. “It’s so scary.”

Duke said he was aware of the dangers people like Miss Henderson faced. The company tracks frequent outages in vulnerable communities to determine whether it should bury power lines to reduce the chance of blackouts. The company is developing and testing strategies to reduce pressure on the grid when energy demand exceeds supply. These methods include electric cars sending power to the grid and installing smart devices that can turn off appliances, reducing energy use.

“So when a severe weather event occurs, we have a grid that can withstand it or recover quickly,” said Lon Huber, Duke Energy’s senior vice president of customer solutions.

Other threats to the grid are harder to protect against.

In early December, Someone shot and damaged two Duke substations In Carthage, about 90 miles east of Charlotte, thousands of homes have been without power for several days. The town’s fire chief, Brian Tyner, said emergency services received panicked calls from people whose oxygen machines had stopped working, requiring someone to visit the homes and install pressurized canisters. that don’t require electricity, said town Fire Chief Brian Tyner.

The chief’s home also doesn’t have backup power, and he estimates two-thirds of homes in the area don’t have generators. “We could never justify the cost,” he said.

Backup power systems can be as small as a portable gasoline generator that can cost $500 or less. Often found at construction sites and campgrounds, these devices can only power a few devices at a time. Whole-house systems fueled by propane, natural gas, or diesel can provide power for days as long as fuel is available, but these generators start at around $10,000, including installation, and for larger homes from May cost more.

Solar panels paired with batteries can provide emission-free electricity, but they cost tens of thousands of dollars and typically can’t provide enough to run large appliances and 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 recharge the batteries.

Some homeowners are keen to reduce their carbon footprint, lower their electricity bills and reap the benefits. Independence from the electrical grid have combined different energy systems, often at considerable cost.

Annie Dudley, a statistician from Chapel Hill, NC, reduced her energy consumption a few years ago. He installed a geothermal system, which uses the ground’s stable temperature to help heat and cool his home, replacing the aging system that came with the home. He later added 35 solar panels and two Tesla home batteries to his roof, which can provide enough power to meet most of his needs, including charging an electric Volkswagen Golf.

“The neighborhood has lost a lot of power, but I haven’t,” Mrs. Dudley said.

He spent about $52,000 on his solar panels and batteries, but $21,600 of that cost was offset by rebates and tax credits. Ms. Dudley estimates that her utility bills are about $2,300 a year lower because of the investment and her geothermal system.

Generator companies believe that increased power consumption and the risk of outages will keep demand for their products high.

Generics sold $2.8 billion to U.S. homeowners last year, up 250 percent from 2017. In recent years, many people bought generators to ensure that outages wouldn’t disrupt their ability to work from home, said Aaron Jugdfeld, Generic’s chief executive. which is located in Waukesha, Wis. Many people also bought generators due to the severe weather, incl Extreme heat wave in 2021 in Pacific NorthwestAnd Winter storm UriDue to which there were several days of blackouts and deaths in Texas. According to an estimate 246 people.

“People are thinking about this,” Mr. Jugfield said, “in the context of broader changes in climate and how that could affect not only the reliability of power but also the things they get power from.” provides.”



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