The ice storm of 2006 resulted in the longest electrical power outage that I’ve ever experienced. To make matters worse, this outage came at a time when temperatures often dropped into the single digits. The need to produce heat, coupled with short days, made this a worst-case scenario for my alternative systems.
For 7 days I used my corn-burning stove to heat my home, and my electrical power came from a small gas-powered generator and a solar photovoltaic (PV) system. While many of my neighbors were forced to stay with relatives or in motels, I remained in my home and was comfortable. I was able to watch TV, prepare food, and I had plenty of light. My wired telephone service was out, but I was able to use my cell phone and keep the batteries charged. I didn’t use my energy-hogging refrigerator, but I ran a chest freezer to prevent frozen food from spoiling. Food that needed to be refrigerated was kept in a cooler outside.
Because I kept my home warm, I didn’t have to worry about pipes freezing. I’m not sure if my neighbors were able to avoid that. Some of them used fireplaces for heat, but they were ineffective without power for blowers to circulate the heat throughout the house.
Others used kerosene or propane heaters, but the cost of fuel was outrageous. I burned about 75 pounds of corn per day at a cost of about $6.00. My generator used about 2 gallons of gas a day at a cost of about $4.50. Considering the extreme cold, this is about what it would have cost to heat my home using utility-supplied electricity and natural gas.
This power outage was a great learning experience, and as a result of it I’m planning a major photovoltaic system upgrade for next year. I want to greatly reduce, if not totally eliminate, the need to use a generator. I’ll be glad to get rid of the noise and smell, and also to eliminate the need to go out in the cold to refuel it every 7 hours. Hauling and storing significant quantities of gasoline are additional drawbacks. In addition, the power that it supplies is not clean and steady, causing streaks and a jittery picture on the TV. On the other hand, power from my solar PV system’s inverter was clean and steady.
To put the PV system to use it was only necessary to connect extension cords and flip a switch on the inverter. Family members are reluctant to set up and use the generator when I’m not home, but have no problem using the PV system.
Considering the duration of the power outage, some people must have felt the same frustrations that Hurricane Katrina victims felt. The Katrina disaster should have been a wakeup call, demonstrating that we may have to wait a long time for help in the event of a disaster of this magnitude. We should have learned to take responsibility for our own comfort and safety instead of relying on someone else. PV panels are expensive, but if they prevent big motel bills, broken plumbing, and spoiled food perhaps they’re worth the cost. Generators and kerosene heaters are another option, but if you choose to do that you must make sure you have a fresh supply of fuel. In the event of an extended outage, the cost for fuel will be high. And, in the case of a disaster, it may be difficult to replenish fuel supplies locally. Some generators are tied to the natural gas supply lines, but that does not guarantee an uninterrupted fuel source in the event of a disaster. Solar panels, securly mounted in an area where they are not likely to be damaged by tree limbs, are the best option in most cases. I'm certainly glad to have mine.