Widespread power outages stimulate me to intense bouts of thinking about building resilient power systems, both when they happen to me and when they happen to someone else. During the summer of 2012, during one of the hottest weeks of the year, we lost power for a little more than a week as a result of the derecho that knocked out power for millions of people from Ohio to the coast of Virginia.
That experience made me think deeply about ways to increase our personal ability to withstand external events. However, like many other long-term or expensive propositions, power outage preparations moved to the back burner until a couple of weeks ago, when we started to hear about Hurricane Sandy and its potential impact on the US east coast.
For a number of years, my wife and I have bandied about the idea of purchasing an emergency generator. I have resisted the subtle pressure for a number of reasons; I’m a cheapskate who hates the idea of investing a large amount of money into an asset that will almost never be used; I don’t like the effort associated with maintaining the system; I’m worried about the potential hazard of storing a substantial quantity of fuel; I do not like the noise and smells from the lower cost models; and I fully understand that running a generator for any length of time requires a continuing fuel supply effort.
I’ve had friends that smugly spoke about having a generator if the power goes out; I pointed them to the gas station line stories that often accompany hurricane sized power outages. Then there is the operational cost issue; with gasoline at $4.00 per gallon, each kilowatt hour produced will cost about $0.40-$0.50; running my home with a generator will cost close to $2.00 per hour in fuel alone.
I’ve considered the diesel fuel option; it has some advantages over gasoline due to improved fuel efficiency and better storage characteristics, but home-sized diesel generators have cost, noise, pollution and smell issues that are worse than the ones associated with similar capacity gasoline generators. As a long time diesel car owner, I am also well aware that the current price per gallon differential between diesel and gasoline wipes out the fuel efficiency advantage.
In my investigations for alternatives, I’ve read about natural gas generators that avoid many of the issues associated with gasoline or diesel generators. The engines can be quieter than liquid fuel alternatives, they produce few pollutants other than CO2 and water vapor, the catalog listed sustained run times for natural gas generators are often 2-3 times as long as for the same engine burning gasoline and the fuel is cheap these days when compared to gasoline on a per unit heat basis. Perhaps best of all, natural gas generators can be connected directly to a pipe that takes care of most of the fuel supply problems.
There are a few issues, one of which is a deal killer for me – my neighborhood does not have any natural gas distribution lines. (As a matter of fact, in the dozen or so homes that I have occupied in the past 50 years only two or three were in a neighborhoods with a gas distribution system.) Another related issue is the fact that neighborhood distribution lines are limited in size; they are not designed to supply all of the homes with enough fuel to power generators. If a moderate portion of the homes on a system fired up generators, there would be fuel constraints caused by low pressure in the pipes.
A final issue associated with natural gas generators was highlighted by recent news stories about distribution systems that were broken by uprooted trees and damage to customer connections. In at least one case, the gas company shut off the gas supply because they were finding a large number of flares at the end of broken pipes. An expensive generator would be rendered instantly useless if the fuel lines are isolated.
Then there is the nuclear option. I’ve always been intrigued by the fact that a tiny amount of relatively cheap fuel can provide emission free, reliable power for a long period of time. However, I know I am just dreaming when I even consider home sized atomic engines.
While it is technically possible to build fission power plants that are physically small enough to power a home (space agencies in both the US and in Russia have done it) it is highly unlikely that such a power system could ever be economical. There are way too many overhead items, there would be way too much resistance from people who fear anything nuclear and there would be legitimate safety and security questions due to the need to make a home sized-system operator independent.
My Hurricane Sandy focus on resiliency made me realize that I have an underused asset at home. Last year, my wife and I invested in a large underground propane tank to supply the nice-looking gas fireplace that the builder of our home thought was a good selling feature, even though the neighborhood does not have a gas distribution system or any plans to build one. Propane can be stored indefinitely without spoiling and it burns as cleanly as natural gas.
With that propane tank already planted in our yard for other esthetic reasons, I have the opportunity to increase our home storm resiliency with a generator that has characteristics that are similar to natural gas. The system will have the added advantage of having on site storage that allows a substantial run time without any need for a pipeline connection. From the cheapskate point of view, I like the idea that my existing investment in a propane tank will reduce the overall cost of a backup power system. The tank will not be just an idle bit of capital. Unfortunately, delivered propane costs about as much as gasoline at the pump, but we are just talking about an emergency generator here.
I have figured out what many rural people and RV owners have known for a long time; propane (also called LP gas) makes it possible, though not cheap, to have temporary power independence that can operate cleanly and automatically.
I think my next installment in this series will include a discussion about the way that the resilient power options discussed above change when the problem is expanded from a single family home to a community, campus, or industrial park. As you might imagine, I believe that the nuclear option will move up the list for somewhat larger power output machines. In the meantime, I need to get ready to cast a vote and I need to do some more research on propane generator options.