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Off The Grid: Preparing For Power Loss

Once a major storm has passed through, people who emerged from it without injuries or major property damage are apt to feel relief. But that relief can quickly turn to frustration the longer the power remains off.

Just ask the residents of Puerto Rico. Hurricane Maria hit the island in September 2017, and after eight months and $3.8 billion in federal aid, the island’s electrical grid remains deeply vulnerable. As of this writing, nearly 12,000 homes and businesses remain without power, and that number is bound to climb when the next major storm arrives on Puerto Rico’s shores. With the 2018 hurricane season underway, that storm could arrive in a matter of months.

While my own experiences have been less extreme, as a longtime resident of South Florida, I can attest that extended periods without power are tough to navigate. In 2005, my family had scheduled a vacation to Orlando just ahead of Hurricane Wilma’s arrival in Florida. Before leaving, we took our usual precautions, including putting up metal shutters and checking our supplies (which we had refreshed not long before, as Hurricane Katrina passed by on its path toward devastating New Orleans and the northern Gulf Coast). We left a day earlier than scheduled and enjoyed our time at Walt Disney World.

We also extended our trip by a few days, since neighbors had alerted us that our neighborhood remained without power. But eventually, I had to go back to work. We bought a portable generator and a few other supplies and headed back to Fort Lauderdale. That generator came in handy for powering appliances like our refrigerator, but it wasn’t powerful enough to restore all the comforts of home – or even some necessities, like air conditioning. If you don’t think air conditioning is a necessity, you have probably never tried living in South Florida in late September without it. Especially for older or sicker residents, cooling can be a matter of life and death.

Still, we were lucky. My home’s power was restored 12 days after the storm; for some of the more than 3.2 million Floridians who lost power due to Wilma, the outage lasted as long as three weeks.

Last year, when Hurricane Irma hit, I did better. I am fortunate to live in a development that was built within the past 10 years, with the now-standard feature of underground power and cable lines. As a result, I never lost power during the storm, so my family and I were able to ride it out in comfort. I could also work from home in the aftermath of the hurricane, which left our office building in downtown Fort Lauderdale closed for a week due to lack of power and internet service. But while I did better personally, nearly 90 percent of Florida Power & Light’s customers lost power in Irma’s wake.

If you, like me, live someplace where frequent storms or other natural disasters threaten to interrupt your access to power, the best time to plan is long before a storm arrives. Underground power lines and traditional generators aren’t your only options. Homeowners and businesses are increasingly turning to renewable energy sources to keep the lights on after big storms. And in the Sunshine State, that largely means solar power. During Hurricane Irma, many Floridians were able to power home appliances without access to the grid using solar panels and an inverter.

Most rooftop solar arrays connect to a local power grid, which allows homeowners to sell excess power back to the utility, offsetting some portion of their electric bill. This means that if the grid fails, the solar array alone is not especially useful. An inverter is a device that changes the direct current output from a solar array into an alternating current (the type of current most appliances use). However, in some places, including Florida, utilities automatically shut down solar panels if the grid goes offline unless homeowners have installed other equipment to store energy locally – usually batteries.

Some solar arrays, such as the Tesla Powerwall, come equipped with a battery storage system that allows them to function as a true backup in case of a power outage. Configured correctly, these battery systems charge under normal conditions and kick in once the power goes out. Solar options including batteries are significantly more expensive than a setup exclusively tied to the grid; as of this writing, a Tesla Powerwall costs $5,900, and with supporting hardware and installation, the total price can range from $8,600 to $14,600. But for storm preparedness, a battery system becomes crucial.

Some municipalities are beginning to see the value in solar backups, too. Coral Springs, Florida used traffic lights that ran on solar-powered batteries after Irma knocked out its power grid. This allowed parts of Broward County to avoid the headache-inducing gridlock that followed earlier storms like Wilma. Eventually, lawmakers will likely incorporate more resilient backups into the power grid’s infrastructure.

Until then, homeowners may want to consider how to keep power flowing after a storm.

Types Of Power Backup Systems

When considering how to prepare for a potential power interruption, it is worth considering a variety of factors, including cost, maintenance and ease of installation.

Solar systems make a great deal of sense in abundantly sunny places like Florida. They are not cheap, however. Part of the cost can be offset by “net metering,” a process that allows residential customers who generate solar energy to sell that energy back to the traditional grid. In states with net metering laws, your solar array may help to reduce your electricity bill.

In some areas, you also may be able to reduce costs by joining a solar cooperative. Like other types of co-ops, solar cooperatives generally allow individuals to pool knowledge and resources. Co-op members may sometimes also get access to lower pricing by organizing bulk purchases; if a neighborhood decides collectively to install solar panels, homeowners may be able to benefit from certain economies of scale by coordinating.

Those who can’t afford a personal solar array may want to look into whether any solar microgrids exist nearby. A microgrid is, essentially, a local grid with control capability, meaning it can operate autonomously from the traditional grid if necessary. While many existing solar microgrids principally sell power back to the local utility, it is possible that local organizers may one day provide backup power to their neighborhoods in emergencies. And microgrids aren’t only for solar power. After Hurricane Sandy, a gas and solar-powered microgrid kept power on at Princeton University. Not every microgrid is set up to serve as a viable backup power source in cases of large outages, but some are.

Of course, not everyone lives in Florida. There are places where wind may be the more abundant renewable resource. Because wind turbines are generally more cumbersome than solar panels, they are not as popular for homeowners, but for properties of at least an acre where local zoning ordinances permit them, small-scale wind turbines can offer many of the same benefits as solar arrays. According to the Wind Energy Foundation, a system large enough to power an entire home costs an average of $30,000, though that figure can vary widely depending on the system’s height, size and installation costs. Smaller, off-grid turbines may cost between $4,000 and $9,000, and would function more like a traditional generator in an emergency, powering a few necessary appliances.

If you choose either solar or wind, you may be eligible for some federal income tax credits. As of this writing, homeowners can claim a credit against the installation costs of residential wind turbines (defined as those that generate no more than 100 kilowatts of electricity for residential use) and solar panels that meet applicable fire and electrical code requirements.

Homeowners who aren’t looking to permanently incorporate renewable energy sources into their lives may find a traditional generator to be a more sensible solution. While they require nonrenewable fuel sources, in most areas they remain less costly than either solar or wind.

Choosing And Using Backup Power Systems

Determining the required wattage will be among the first steps in selecting a backup power solution. Bear in mind that none of the options I have discussed will likely cover 100 percent of your power needs alone. A solar array with battery storage, like a traditional generator, generally provides enough power to run major appliances such as like refrigerators, internet modems and routers, and possibly air conditioning. When selecting a system, be realistic about separating needs from wants where your power usage is concerned.

Most generators can power between 2,500 and 5,000 watts. And while you can run more than one generator, assuming you have safe spaces to run them, bear in mind that you will double not only your consumption of fuel, which can be difficult to obtain during a major outage, but the noise involved.

If you rely on generators, remember that you will need to take basic safety precautions. Always use heavy-duty extension cords and make sure your appliance plugs match the generators’ sockets (or that you have the proper adapter). Never overload a generator or plug it into one of your home’s wall outlets. Do not refuel a generator while it is running or still hot; otherwise, you could start a fire. And it is essential that you keep working, battery-operated carbon monoxide alarms in your home if you plan to use a generator. According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, 751 people died from carbon monoxide poising stemming from generator use between 2004 and 2014.

Permanently installed stationary generators are generally safer than portable generators, even when the portable generators are used properly. Portable models are easy to overload, and should never be used indoors. Permanent backup generators may also be able to power a significant portion of your home in the event of power loss. Depending on your home’s size, a permanent backup generator may cost thousands of dollars, but in a place like Florida where power outages can last days or weeks, the investment may be worthwhile.

Wishing you a safe – and well-lit – storm season.

Managing Vice President Shomari D. Hearn, based in our Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters, is the author of Chapter 17, “Living And Working Abroad,” in our firm’s most recent book, The High Achiever’s Guide To Wealth. He also contributed several chapters to the firm’s previous book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55.