Backup Power: A growing need, if you can afford it

As the frigid weather caused widespread Christmas Eve power outages across North Carolina, Eliana and David Mundula quickly became concerned for their 2½-week-old daughter, whom they had brought home days earlier from a neonatal intensive care unit.

“The temperature dropped in the house,” said Mundula, who lives in Matthews, south of Charlotte. “I got angry.”

But her husband pulled out a small gasoline generator a neighbor had convinced them to buy a couple of years earlier, so they could use a portable heater and restart the refrigerator, keeping them going for much of the five-hour blackout.

North of Charlotte, in the town of Cornelius, Gladys Henderson, an 80-year-old former cafeteria worker, was less fortunate. She didn’t have a generator and resorted to candles, a flashlight and an old kerosene heater to get through another recent power outage.

“I lose power just about all the time,” Henderson said. “Sometimes it goes off and just stays off.”

Henderson is on the losing end of a new energy divide that leaves millions of people dangerously exposed to heat and cold.

As climate change increases the severity of heat waves, cold spells and other extreme weather, power outages are becoming more common. In the 11 years to 2021, there were 986 weather-related blackouts in the United States, nearly double the number in the previous 11 years, according to government data analyzed by Climate Central, a nonprofit research group. The average American electricity customer lost power for nearly eight hours in 2021, according to the Energy Information Administration, more than twice as long as in 2013, the earliest year for which that data is available.

Power outages are becoming so common that generators and other backup power devices are seen by some as essential. But many people like Ms. Henderson can’t afford generators or the fuel they run on. Even after strong sales in recent years, Generac, the leading seller of residential generators, estimates that fewer than 6 percent of American homes have a standby generator.

Energy experts warn that power outages will become more common due to extreme weather linked to climate change. And those blackouts will hurt more people as Americans buy electric heat pumps and battery-powered cars to replace furnaces and vehicles that burn fossil fuels — a shift critical to curbing climate change.

“The grids will be more vulnerable,” said Najmedin Meshkati, an engineering professor at the University of Southern California and an expert on disaster response. “It promotes the divide between the haves and the have-nots.”

The elderly, frail and people living in homes that are not well protected or insulated are most vulnerable, along with those who rely on electrically powered medical equipment or take medicines that need to be refrigerated.

Power outages make heat, already a major cause of avoidable deaths, even more of a threat, said Brian Stone Jr., a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology. He has researched how many people in Atlanta, Detroit and Phoenix will be exposed to extreme temperatures during power outages.

“A simultaneous event where you have a massive blackout during a heat wave is the deadliest kind of climate threat we can imagine,” he said, noting that the cooling centers in those cities would be able to house only a fraction of the people at greatest risk.

Ashley Ward, senior policy fellow at Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Energy, Environment & Sustainability, has studied how heat affects communities in North Carolina. Her research indicates that high temperatures cause more 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. “A power outage,” she said, “is in many cases a catastrophic event.”

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

The state’s primary utility, Duke Energy, began cutting power to customers to ensure the grid continued to operate 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 rolling blackouts in the Carolinas.

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

The couple have considered larger systems such as solar cells with batteries, but these options will cost a lot.

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

Developers have offered to buy her home, but Henderson wants to stay, having lived there for 50 years.

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

Duke said it was aware of the risk people like Ms. Henderson stood opposite. The company tracks recurring blackouts in vulnerable communities to determine whether it should bury power lines to reduce the likelihood of blackouts. The company also develops and tests strategies to lighten the load on the grid when energy demand exceeds supply. These approaches include allowing electric cars to send power to the grid and installing smart devices that can turn off appliances, reducing energy use.

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

Other threats to the web are more difficult to protect against.

In early December, someone shot and damaged two Duke substations in Carthage, about 90 miles east of Charlotte, cutting power to thousands of homes for days. Emergency services received panicked calls from people whose oxygen machines had stopped working, requiring someone to visit those homes and set up pressure vessels that don’t require electricity, said the city’s fire chief, Brian Tyner.

The chief’s home also does not have backup power, and he estimates that two-thirds of the homes in the area do not have generators. “We could never justify the price,” he said.

Backup power systems can be as small as portable gasoline generators that can cost $500 or less. These units are often found on construction sites and campsites, and can only power a few units at a time. Whole-home systems powered 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 can cost much more for larger homes.

Solar panels together with batteries can provide emission-free electricity, but they cost tens of thousands of dollars and usually cannot provide enough to power large appliances and heat pumps for more than a few hours. These systems are also less reliable during cloudy, rainy or snowy days when there is not enough sunlight to fully charge the batteries.

Some homeowners eager to cut their carbon emissions, lower their electricity bills and gain independence from the electrical grid have combined different energy systems, often at considerable cost.

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

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

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

Generator companies believe that rising power consumption and the threat of blackouts will keep demand for their products high.

Last year, Generac had $2.8 billion in sales to U.S. homeowners, up 250 percent from 2017. In recent years, many people have bought generators to ensure that power outages won’t interfere with their ability to work from home, said Aaron Jagdfeld, CEO in Generac. , which is based in Waukesha, Wis. Many also bought generators due to severe weather, including an extreme heat wave in 2021 in the Pacific Northwest, and winter storm Uri, which caused days of power outages in Texas and killed an estimated 246 people.

“People are thinking about this,” Jagdfeld said, “in the context of the broader climate change and how that might affect not just the reliability of power, but the things they need that power provides.”

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