Bertha went to Charleston, Cristobal to Louisiana, Fay actually made it to New Jersey, Hanna blew through South Texas and Isaias churned its way up the East coast of the U.S. These tropical storms and hurricanes have already the 2020 hurricane season a busy one with nine named storms, a mark usually reached in mid-September. These storms pose a serious threat to public safety and have the potential to wreak havoc wherever they land.
In October 2012 when Superstorm Sandy swept the Eastern seaboard all the way up to New England –– a population that doesn’t typically give hurricanes much of a thought –– havoc made a house call. The residents of Milford, CT, for example, were suddenly struggling in the aftermath of a major storm. Extensive damage to the electric grid meant no working pumps for water, no refrigeration and no way to charge phones. Miles of tangled transmission lines and uprooted wooden utility poles served notice that it would take days or weeks for power to be restored.
Milford wasn’t alone then, and isn’t alone now. Nearly everyone in the country relies on the electric grid for power to keep the lights on and their lives running. Extreme weather –– derecho winds, flooding, tornados and hurricanes –– however, repeatedly expose the nearly six million miles of power lines and wooden poles of our aging U.S. electric grid to significant risk. California just gave us the latest example of how susceptible the electric grid is to failure when high temperatures across the West resulted in power outages affecting more than 3 million people.
Resiliency Requires Awareness
The hoarding behavior we witnessed at the beginning of COVID-19 raised awareness that humans don’t generally prepare very well for extended power outages. Most homes are equipped with little more than flashlights and batteries and maybe a few candles. Relatively few have an alternative power source for critical appliances like refrigerators, which is a big problem since food and medicines spoil quickly. A typical refrigerator, for example, if kept closed, can fully protect food for about four hours. A half-full freezer can do the same for about 24 hours. It’s good to be aware of these vulnerabilities because doing so makes room for considering ways to reduce exposure. Resiliency thinking, however, requires awareness of energy source strengths and weaknesses.
Solar: Contrary to popular belief, solar panels alone don’t keep electricity flowing when the grid goes down. Thousands of homes and businesses in New York and New Jersey learned this the hard way during extended blackouts following Superstorm Sandy. When interviewed back then by the New York Times, Queens resident Ed Antonio lamented that his 42-panel, $70,000 solar system went unused for almost a month. And the same was true of his neighbors who had rooftop solar. “That’s a lot of power sitting, just sitting,” he said. Unless paired with batteries, solar panels typically feed directly into the grid during the day and pull power back to run the house at night. No stored power stays in panels or the lines. California’s love affair with solar is likely to cool off as the state acknowledges its limitations. During the recent blackouts, the Governor talked about the shift to renewables has created gaps in the state’s energy supply. He finally, and correctly, acknowledged, “We cannot sacrifice reliability…”
Diesel: Diesel generators can provide power when needed but in the wake of a devastating storm, can’t run for long periods of time when fuel runs out. They also come with several significant downsides: They’re noisy and they emit a bunch of what are known as “criteria pollutants” (ozone, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, and especially particulate matter/soot) which require them to be operated outside. They also depend on a fuel that oxidizes in the tank in as little as 30 days rendering the generator worthless and requiring the fuel to be dumped.
Gasoline: Gasoline doesn’t provide long-term confidence either. Pumps at gas stations don’t work during a blackout because they depend on electricity to function. And like with diesel, even if they would work, supplies get quickly exhausted if roads are impassible for tanker trucks. Some of the most iconic pictures following Superstorm Sandy showed miles-long lines at gas stations with customers being turned away when supplies ran out. In 2017 following Hurricane Harvey, long lines for gasoline as far away as San Antonio, Austin and Dallas formed due to increased demand driven by reports of refinery shutdowns, preventing supplies from being replenished on the Gulf Coast.
Wood: It wouldn’t be wrong to think that wood-burning fireplaces or stoves can provide some resiliency during long-term power outages. Assuming space is available, properly dried firewood can be stockpiled, and professionally installed fireplaces can certainly provide warmth to a home. On the downside, unless you’ve got the right equipment and utensils, it’s not easy to cook over wood, and the environmental issues are obvious. Burning wood takes carbon-consuming trees out of production and puts a lot of soot and CO2 into the air –– none of which is good.
What energy alternatives exist that can overcome the downsides of diesel or gas generators, wood or the limitations of solar? As it turns out, propane checks a lot of the boxes.
Propane Means Clean Resilience
Propane is a clean, low-emissions, resilient energy choice capable of delivering efficient, on-site energy during power outages. Propane-powered appliances like fireplaces, stoves, ovens and generators are safe and easy to operate. Storage is flexible as well. Cylinders or tanks come in a range of sizes suitable to a home or building and require no additional grid-powered pumps to operate. At the same time, cylinders can be connected to a variety of appliances, from camp stoves to backup generators. On-site propane storage at a home or business can sustain occupants for weeks, and when it’s time for new supply, it can be replenished via retail stores or delivered by trucks small enough to navigate storm-damaged roads.
As coastal homeowners and businesses ready for hurricane season, and California residents endure yet another season of electric grid instability, resilient thinking, along with flashlights and batteries, brings peace of mind. No perfect energy exists, especially when the grid is gone, but designing life around multiple options can go a long way toward keeping the lights on, water pumps flowing and refrigerators cooling.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tucker Perkins, President and CEO
Tucker is an engineer, entrepreneur, business leader, speaker and is now the president and chief executive officer of the Propane Education & Research Council. He has worked in the propane industry nearly his entire professional career, having served as the director of business development for Inergy, chief executive officer of Premier Propane, and the chief operating officer of Columbia Propane, a unit of the Columbia Energy Group. Tucker is also the former chairman of a PERC advisory committee on engine fuel matters and is active with the National Propane Gas Association and the Virginia Propane Gas Association.