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Emergency Power

December 20, 2011

The rapid closing of coal-fired power plants, coupled with the imposition of renewable portfolio standards (RPS) with the increase in renewables that produce electricity when it isn’t needed, but not when it is needed, means there will be a greater probability of rolling blackouts in coming years.

Storms, such as those that caused extensive power outages in Connecticut, already have people thinking about emergency backup power for their homes and offices.

Some of my neighbors in Illinois lost nearly all the furniture and belongings in their basement recreation rooms, when a storm caused a power outage and the sump pumps didn’t work.

Driving around the neighborhood after the storm, there were carpets, clothing and furniture lining the street, waiting to be picked up and taken to the landfill.

Subsequently, at least one neighbor installed a backup generator that was connected to the natural gas line. The generator comes on automatically when there is a power failure and can supply the home with all the electricity needed for refrigerators, furnaces, air-conditioning and lighting.

This shouldn’t be necessary in the United States. Shortages of electricity and rolling blackouts used to be the province of under-developed countries.

While storms are not preventable, having adequate power supplies from the grid used to be the norm. Occasionally a hurricane would create such extensive flooding and damage that power interruptions couldn’t be avoided, but seldom did they last for more than three days. 

Today, the grid and power generation installations are weaker and more susceptible to outages.

The lack of transmission lines is one problem, partially caused by people not wanting them in their back yards, or because the transmission line would go through forests or environmentally sensitive areas.

Renewables are another problem. This past summer, blackouts were barely averted in New York and New Jersey when a heat wave caused an increase in load and the newly installed power generation, which was from wind, couldn’t supply the needed electricity. Wind generates electricity mostly at night, when it isn’t needed, and can’t generate very much electricity when air temperatures are high and the air is thin.

It was the availability of coal-fired power plants that prevented the blackouts, but these plants are being shut down because of EPA regulations. They won’t be available in the future when needed to supply electricity on hot summer afternoons.

Backup generators, such as those installed by my neighbors, cost about $5,000. Larger units for offices or building complexes can cost as much as $25,000.

But these may have to become the norm, because we aren’t building the base-load power plants and transmission lines we need.

The so-called smart grid doesn’t help very much. It may trim peak load or help prevent local outages caused by minor damage from ice and wind, but it can’t supply electricity if the power plants and transmission lines haven’t been built, or have been shut down prematurely.

 

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