Heat waves and winter storms combined with power outages are a dangerous recipe that can have tragic results.
Extreme weather-induced power outages mean sweltering under relentless heat or freezing temperatures with no power to operate an air conditioner or heater.
The National Weather Service has issued a severe weather alert for a winter storm that is expected to hit the Tri-State area on Feb. 12 and continue through Feb. 13. Residents of the Tri-State area should be prepared for heavy snow and wind gusts.
Can solar panels save you money?
Interested in understanding the impact solar can have on your home? Enter some basic information below, and we’ll instantly provide a free estimate of your energy savings.
Outages caused by winter storms and summer heat waves can leave residents powerless, but they’re fundamentally different problems with essentially opposite solutions. Winter outages typically stem from a large or sudden drop in the supply of energy to the grid. A natural gas power plant goes offline, turbines stop turning or a snow-loaded tree falls onto a power line, cutting off service.
Blackouts during a heat wave, on the other hand, are usually triggered by an excess in demand for electricity. They’re typically caused by thousands of households all turning on their air conditioners at the same time to escape the heat. This is why utilities and other officials will often appeal to customers to conserve energy when the mercury rises.
Such energy conservation appeals help prevent blackouts, said Yami Newell, associate director for community projects at Elevate, a Chicago-based non-profit that works on energy issues. But it can also lead to some hard choices for people who are left to figure out how to reduce their own energy consumption.
Newell emphasized that reducing your energy consumption doesn’t have to mean just sweating and suffering through it.
“In the summertime it can be dangerously hot and people have not survived that, so I don’t want people to conserve so much energy that their home is not safe,” said Newell.
Instead, experts recommend certain safe energy savings tips that can be used during a heat wave when the grid is stressed or just to reduce your energy bill. For winter weather, the best advice involves being prepared, either with a back-up source of power or supplies to get through an outage.
Read more: The Weather App Channel Gets an Upgrade, Here’s All the New Features.
Tips on how to prepare when energy gets scarce during hot or cold weather
Fortunately there are plenty of safe compromises that can reduce energy waste in the summer and also keep you safe in the winter.
Newell says it starts with keeping cooler air in your home by checking for leaks and making potential energy efficiency upgrades. “In the winter time it keeps warm air in and in the summer time it keeps the cold air in your house.”
Closing the blinds when the sun is out keeps direct light out of your house and is a low-effort way of reducing heat that really works.
Fans don’t reduce the temperature of a room but they do help humans regulate their body temperature and will keep you cooler. Newell says a ceiling fan can make you feel 6 to 7 degrees cooler than the actual temperature in a room.
Running large appliances like dishwashers and laundry machines at night when there’s less demand for energy can also reduce the load on the grid. In some places, rates for electricity are cheaper during these off-peak times, so you’ll save money too.
Newell also advocates something called “front-cooling,” which is running your air conditioner during these off-peak hours to get your home nice and cool in anticipation of a hot day. This works better in energy-efficient, well-sealed homes.
Invest in a back-up source of power like a generator or battery system. There are a wide array of backup power solutions on the market, from whole home gas-powered generators costing tens of thousands of dollars, to inexpensive portable batteries you can charge off a wall socket beforehand to provide several hours of power for essential devices when the power goes out. More on these options in the next section.
Consider an electricity-free source of heat like a wood stove. There are also a limited amount of gas or propane heaters that can be operated safely indoors. If you opt for such a source of heat, ensure that you follow all instructions for operating such a heater safely to avoid starting a fire or carbon monoxide poisoning.
Stock up on supplies. If you don’t have a back-up source of power, or even if you do, it’s a good idea to keep a sufficient amount of food, blankets, water, warm clothing (dress in layers), batteries and light sources (careful with candles) on hand.
Weatherize your house before the storm hits. If your home is of a certain age, there’s a good chance it’s leaking warmth somewhere. Sealing those leaks and adding insulation will keep you warmer a little bit longer when your heat goes out. These improvements also qualify for a federal tax credit.
How to protect yourself from power outages
One way to never worry about power outages is to set up your own energy generation and storage system. This can be done in the form of solar panels and battery storage, which comes with the added benefit of being able to sell the extra power you generate to your local utility in exchange for credits on your monthly bill.
Some electric vehicles offer a bidirectional charging where your EVs battery can act as a backup power source.
Other homeowners go for the arguably simpler approach of installing a back-up generator that can kick on to run your house when the grid goes down. You can also buy back-up batteries that you can charge via the grid or however you like to use in an emergency, rather than a generator that can be loud and uses fossil fuels. This is typically the least expensive option, but needs to be charged in advance of the emergency and only lasts for a few hours or days at most, depending on usage.
Mike Murphy, owner of PrepSOS, which sells generators and other emergency preparedness equipment, said that relatively affordable portable generators (often available for less than $1,000) can keep medical equipment and other essential devices going or keep your food from spoiling.
“You can turn on your refrigerator, run it for a little while then unplug it and you keep your food cold easily for at least three days.”
Such small generators might not work as well for running an air conditioner very long during a summer heat-caused outage, though, which is why it’s important to know how to conserve energy as well.
If none of these options are within reach, Newell reiterates the wisdom of keeping a supply of non-perishable food on hand should the grid go down for an extended period of time and you find yourself without a back-up energy supply.
“Also flashlights, things that don’t need to be plugged in but still provide light to your home,” Newell said.
She adds that the implementation of smart grid technology around the country is also greatly reducing how long many utility customers are without power during outages caused by extreme weather events like storms.
How reducing your energy use can help the grid
The stability of an electrical grid, and really any electrical system, depends on being able to maintain a steady supply of energy to meet the demand of devices that are pulling from or consuming the energy.
This is why things can go haywire in your home if you plug too many things into a single circuit that isn’t designed to handle that much demand. Circuit breakers in your home are actually set to shut off the flow of power in the circuit when this happens to prevent damage to your devices or electrical system.
Something similar can happen to the larger electrical grid when heat waves hit and thousands of energy-hungry air conditioners are all turned on at once. If demand begins to approach a state of exceeding the available supply of electricity on the grid, the utility must initiate rolling blackouts to prevent damage to the system. If preventive measures aren’t implemented in time and the system overloads and causes an unplanned blackout, the lights may stay off for even longer until damaged components can be repaired or replaced.
Running several electric heaters in a large room on a cold winter day might trip a breaker in your home in the same way that a heat wave-induced power demand might trigger a broader blackout.
Employing passive cooling techniques, like simply drawing light-colored curtains during sunny hours can reduce temperatures in your home and your energy usage as well. Even taking simple measures that reduce ambient temperatures by just a few degrees translates to less energy usage.
All of these tips and actions may look like small measures that have no effect on your energy grid, but if enough people take steps towards energy conservation during extreme weather events, it could help make a bigger impact.