Driving Electric Cars During Blackouts and Gas Crises

5 years ago by Lyle Dennis 22

Unfortunately, being a New Yorker, I had the experience last week of being an all-EV family during the Hurricane Sandy crisis.

I say unfortunately because of the terrible losses many people in my region had to endure and are in some cases still enduring. My heart goes out to them.

For me, fortunately, there were no difficulties.  The main reason that was the case was because I had decided to install a home generator.  Last year my region was first hit by Hurricane Irene and next a freak October snowstorm.  Both of those events took out our electric power.  Being dependent on electricity for driving and not wishing to go through the inconvenience again I purchased a whole home generator last year.

We put in a 20kw standby unit made by Generac connected to the natural gas line at our home.

Last Monday the power went out in my neighborhood and ten seconds later the generator seamlessly kicked on.  It ran continuously for a total of 5 days until the power came back.  I bought a unit powerful enough that it could easily handle the loads of my home including the 3.3 kw EV charger we use for our Leaf and Volt.

This worked out particularly well because the storm also caused a gas crisis.  We’ve had multi-hour long waits at gas stations in a wide region around us and very limited supplies, most stations had no power, no gas or both.

So in this case the combination of a natural gas generator and an EV allowed us complete insulation from the effects of this natural disaster.

However, if we had to rely on a pure EV with no whole home generator, we would have certainly had difficulty.

 

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22 responses to "Driving Electric Cars During Blackouts and Gas Crises"

  1. indyflick says:

    “However, if we had to rely on a pure EV with no whole home generator, we would have certainly had difficulty.”

    True, but I would rather try to find electrons rather than gasoline after a hurricaine.

  2. Robster says:

    You guys in America do have an issue with your infrastructure. We can talk about your roads, bridges and subways, but with the terrible events of last week, we should focus on the electricty grid.

    The fact that nearly all powerlines are overground and not underground, leads to continues power outages when major weather events occur (snow, wind etc).

    Especially in vulnerable areas, I don’t understand that you keep repairing but do not take the leap forward. Our weather in the Netherlands is far less extreme, but most of our major powelines are underground. Those little poles along the roads were taken away in the 60’s.

    Electricity is a utility. It sounds pretty bizar to me, that lot’s of people need their own generators because you cannot trust on a basic commodity for the western world.

    But hey, that’s just me. Different culture, different thoughts. I love your Can Do mentality in repairing it all, without to much complaining!

    1. Bonaire says:

      You have a point. What is the cost to do the occasional 7-10 year major repairs for a few weeks versus burying all the power in areas of heavy vegetation? It’s hard to know. I bet the workers’ unions here would object to buried lines as it would cut down on their maintenance hours and ease of getting at the lines hanging overhead. In my neighborhood, the main road has overhead lines and the cul-de-sacs positioned off that road have underground power lines. When the overheads go out, so does the neighborhoods which are fed from them. Single point of failure “upstream”.

      Another issue wasn’t overhead lines but underground substations near the water in the New York City area. With subwaylines filled with water, no issue of overhead lines there.

      I’d like to see more distributed generation plants. Maybe fuel-cell style generators like Bloom Boxes will be positioned closer to the customer and supported with optional feeds from the “smart grid” down the road in a few decades.

    2. Tim Miser says:

      Most neighborhoods in my area go through major road repairs which consist of repaving, installing sidewalks, and utilities underground but not all of this can be done overnight with a country the size of the USA. Now the Netherlands for that matter, a country the size of greater New York city, that would be a relatively simple process to convert the entire country to underground electrical lines in 10 years.

      You just have to comprehend the size difference of our two countries to understand.

      1. edward says:

        Excellent answer!

    3. kdawg says:

      I asked this same question to someone who works in the industry. They said putting the lines underground doesn’t make them last any longer than above ground.

    4. Bill Howland says:

      Robster I’m going to attempt to answer your question provided you can tell me precisely what the situation is in your country… What is the Marginal Cost that you pay in electricity (I’m not sure if you use Euros but if you know the conversion factor to convert to $Us Dollars it would be convenient)?

      There are many local and state ordinances that mandate new housing tracts have totally undergrounded infrastructure, but the utilities complain the cost is six times the overhead bundled cost. And then the “Underground” facilities here are extremely ugly, Cable television, telephone boxes and transformers smack dab on people’s front lawns where the overhead infrastructure amist the greenery in the backyard basically disapears.
      I pay 1/8 of a $USD for each additional KWH I purchase, but my particular private utiltiy is horrible. If I lived 15 km east I would have a different private company suppling me and their rates are 1/11 a $USD per KWH. No time of day metering in either location. The price is the same 24 hours a day.

      I’m not sure why, but it is very difficult for us Americans to find detailed information as to the pricing in foreign countries, and to the extent it is governmentally subsidized. Perhaps you can clue me in as to your country as I have tried to do for you here.

      That said, Consolidated Edison (NYCity proper), and Long Island Lighting (National Grid, a British Firm, also my utility company here near Niagara Falls) are two of the very worst private companies in the country. CONED’s facilities are 97% underground, but they had outages just the same, mostly due to the decrepid state of repair that is customary for ConEd. They do almost no preventaive maintenance, They just wait until the system degrades and degrades, until everything collapses. LIL on the other hand, in view of this storm, prefers to just let stuff stay broke until their normally staffed crews can get to it, no sense of timeliness at all. And of course, don’t expect the state or federal govt to do anything or provide money. They just get in the way and prevent neighbor helping neighbor.

      Anyway, please tell us the pricing near you. Thanks in Advance.
      Bill.

  3. Schmeltz says:

    Glad to hear you made it through the storm well Lyle. I was wondering how it was in your area. The generator seems like a genius idea now I’m sure, and money well spent.

  4. Dave K. says:

    I’ve considered a generator but haven’t got one yet, since I have charging at work and EVSEs at the nearby Nissan dealer and the local Walgreens it’s hard to imagine a scenario where it would be impossible to charge. The most likely cause in Atlanta would be an ice storm, and I probably wouldn’t want to drive anyway. I agree with you guys, we should move to underground power!

  5. Jay Donnaway says:

    I’ve only seen one media piece about an EV-er who used an inverter to power critical loads post-Sandy (12V input). I used a 48V UPS tapped at different points on my conversion’s pack to run the furnace blower and other critical items during a 2-day outage last winter, and have since acquired a 240 VDC input unit. Hopefully Nissan will stop dawdling on a US-spec backup power inverter similar to the appliance that was deployed in the tsunami’s wake, or a third party will crack that nut. Even with a genset, I’d rather run full out for six hours and then have a peaceful overnight rather than continuous operation at low load.

    Robster, I dunno where you are, but I’d like to see an example of someplace that has solved the chicken/egg problem of building out sufficient underground distribution before an area is fully built out, which makes underground electric distribution very expensive to retrofit. Subdivision-level (housing estate) distribution is not challenging underground, and very common in the US, but the higher voltage distribution lines are more challenging. Multi-day power outages are only a once per decade sort of EVent in most of the US, and in my experience, brief outages happen once or twice per year, such as when a drunk hits a pole, an untrimmed tree falls down, or a suicidal squirrel bridges the gap…

  6. Nelson says:

    “Last Monday the power went out in my neighborhood and ten seconds later the generator seamlessly kicked on. It ran continuously for a total of 5 days until the power came back. I bought a unit powerful enough that it could easily handle the loads of my home including the 3.3 kw EV charger we use for our Leaf and Volt.”

    Hi Lyle,
    You wouldn’t happen to know how much natural gas was used by the unit during the 5 days? or cost? Would you be better off with solar and battery for night use?

    NPNS!
    Volt#671

    1. Lyle Dennis says:

      It is a good question and I do not know yet, except to say that fortunately NG is abundant and cheap these days. I have read on forums that these size generators use about 50 cents per hour of NG during regular household loads, but that it obviously a very rough and dirty quote.

    2. Bill Howland says:

      Nelson:

      Natural Gas is relatively inexpensive in my location here near Niagara Falls, NY. A generator running optimally (near full loading) will cost about $ 0.20 per kwh. OF course, there is the wear and tear, maintenance, oil changes, etc. So its not much more than the $0.12 1/2 we pay normally… OF course, during an emergency situation, it doesn’t really matter what the additional expense it, because during emergencies, electricity becomes VERY valuable at almost any price. Incidentally, I understand this is like 1/2 the cost that our friends in Europe pay for Natural Gas.

  7. kdawg says:

    Would it be cheaper for you to use electricity from your generator vs. buying electricity from the power company?

    MOD/EDIT (user:statik): I got your back on this edit kdawg, (=

    1. Jay Cole says:

      When you factor in all the costs, I’ll go with buying it from the power company is still quite a bit cheaper

    2. Bill Howland says:

      20 cents vs 12 1/2 cents if you are neglecting maint, oil chgs, etc. see above post.
      (this is for niagara falls ny), and NO, if you are thinking we get free electricity, we almost get surprisingly zero electricity from NF even though we are right next to it.

  8. Robster says:

    @Jay: I live in the netherlands. What they usually do here when new residential area are built:
    * The underground high voltage power lines come to a substation, where the voltage is lowered.
    * From there, smaller powerlines run under the streets to the new built houses.

    So when they build a new street you get the line from the substation and when you build a new house in a street, you only dig to the street, connect it and fill up the ditch again.

    I don’t think I had a power outage in the last fifteen years. It’s considerably cheaper than repairing after every drunken driver or kamikaze squirrel.

  9. Brad Horton says:

    Lyle, I installed a 30kw generator but it said in the Volt manual not to charge the vehicle with a generator. I did it as well once during a load-test. It seemed to work just fine.

  10. Rock says:

    I can only be thankful that I drive past long gas lines with my 2012 Volt

  11. Ben Nelson says:

    I used a 48V UPS as an inverter to work with my home-built electric motorcycle.

    When we had a blackout a while back, I was able to use the electric motorcycle as a backup power source for my house, running the refrigerator, lights, fans (it was a heat-wave black-out) radio and cell phone chargers.

    With frugal use, the batteries hold enough power for several days household power.

    When grid power is restored, the UPS recharges the electric motorcycle’s batteries.

  12. Bill Howland says:

    This pricing issue is interesting…. I get roughly 3 kwh per gallon of petrol at $4 / 4 quart gallon here near Niagara Falls, NY. So that works out to $1.33 per Kwh on my very cheapie generator. A natural gas machine is much much more efficient such as mentioned in this article. I can see with the priciness of petrol in europe, other solutions would be better than petrol powered generators. My 5 kw unit cost me $405 six years ago. Obviously at $1.33 per kwh I only use it for emergencies when I want SOME electricity at any cost. It would be even more riduculous to use this in europe when gas is about $8 per gallon. But the reason it makes sense for me is it is used ONLY for critical use during emergencies.

  13. Bill Howland says:

    I don’t want to get too far off topic, but for me a VERY HIGH OPERATING COST gasoline (petrol) powered generator is adequate emergency power for my whole house, and space efficient. ( I tuck it in the corner of my garage where it is out of the way but easily accessible should I need to press it into service). I have heard complaints about people buying cheapie (7kw) natural gas automatic generators for around $1800 and they destroy themselves after 4 days continuous use (single cylinder air cooled 3600 rpm lawn mower engines basically). They basically eat their little hearts out. I don’t have that problem with my portable unit, even though I’ve arranged an emergency cord to power my whole house. The difference is, I decide when the unit runs.. If my power would be out for 5 days straight as an example (120 hours), I would only run the generator 3 hours per day, enough to keep all my batteries charged, the food frozen, house very warm, and the basement dry. The other 21 hours I would live in the dark, confident that I could repeat the process for 3 hours the next day (get the freezer cold, the sump pump drained, the house warmed up, dishes and laundry cleaned, etc) during this 3 hour period of my choosing… Makes my gas cans last much longer also. But the economy natural gas installation simply runs 24/7 until the power comes back on, and may be totally destroyed by the time it does simply because the unit is not designed for continuous duty.