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Power failure in California: This is how you can leave the lights on next time

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Millions of Californians have learned this month what it is like to live without electricity in the 21st century, since Pacific Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison, and San Diego Gas & Electric shut down power lines in an unprecedented attempt to prevent forest fires.

These preventive blackouts, known as power cuts in public safety, are likely to continue until the utilities have upgraded their infrastructure sufficiently to minimize the risk of fire. PG&E director, William D. Johnson, recently warned that the use of planned failures could take another ten years.

Experts say there are steps that Californians can take to keep the light on during the next scheduled outage – although some of those steps are expensive.

Here are some options:

Purchase a backup generator

This can be the simplest and cheapest option. But it also has disadvantages.

A typical portable generator costs between $ 400 and $ 1,000 and runs on gasoline, according to one Consumer reports buying guide. Units like this won't power your entire house – air conditioning is probably out of the question – but they need to generate enough electricity for lighting, a refrigerator, and maybe some heating, said John Galeotafiore, director of product testing at Consumer Reports.

Pollution is the biggest problem. Portable generators must be used outdoors with extension cords that enter a house because they produce lethal carbon monoxide. Consumer Reports recommends placing them at least 20 feet from a house, with the outlet opening away from any structures.

The sun rises over a smoke-filled gorge above the Getty Museum while the Getty fire burns in Los Angeles on October 28.

(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Generators also produce hazardous air pollutants such as nitrogen oxides, a primary component of smog – which is a major health risk in Southern California.

"They are much dirtier than a car," Galeotafiore said.

A better backup power option, for households that can afford it, is a permanent standby generator that automatically turns on when the network fails and can deliver more electricity than a portable generator. Standby generators run on natural gas or propane and it can take months to get permits and install.

"You could eventually spend $ 3,000 for the unit, and another $ 10,000 or $ 12,000 to install it," Galeotafiore said.

Go on solar energy (with storage)

Solar panels combined with lithium-ion batteries can offer the same benefits as a portable generator, without worrying about pollution.

Rooftop solar energy was once considered the province of wealthy environmentalists, but solar energy costs have fallen dramatically over the last decade – and battery costs are starting to do the same. Bernadette Del Chiaro, executive director of the California Solar & Storage Assn., Said that a typical home can get a four-kilowatt solar system with a 10-kilowatt-hour battery for around $ 25,000, or as low as $ 15,000 once state and federal incentives are taken into.

When you buy solar panels and storage, or when you add a battery to an already existing solar system, your installer should ask what "critical loads" you want to keep during a blackout, Del Chiaro said. When the electricity grid fails, your battery knows that it only sends electricity to those devices.

As with a portable generator, you can probably keep your food cold and perhaps use a TV and a few power outlets to keep your phone charged.

"There is no standard," it will take X number of hours, "Del Chiaro said." It depends on how large a battery you have, how large your critical loads are and how long you want those critical loads to work during a 24-hour period before the batteries can be charged, "when the sun rises the next day.

Solar panels

A crew installs a solar energy system in Van Nuys.

(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Brett Simon, a senior storage analyst at the Wood Mackenzie research agency, warned that solar-plus storage cannot guarantee uninterrupted power for several days, as it can take a few hours for a battery to charge and get in the way of cloudy weather. But he described a fast-growing market, with even Generac, an old manufacturer of portable generators, acquire the battery storage company Pika Energy earlier this year.

"The different companies will all claim that their products are superior to the others," said Simon. "They can all make a backup."

Feed your house with an electric vehicle

This is still a challenge for non-engineers – at least for the time being.

Electric cars run on the same lithium-ion batteries that power energy storage systems, so in theory they should be able to provide as much backup power as a typical stand-alone battery if not more. The concept is simple, said Eileen Tutt, executive director of the California Electric Transportation Coalition.

"It's a brilliant option," she said.

The electronics needed to facilitate & # 39; vehicle-to-home & # 39; flow are not yet available everywhere in the United States. But various car manufacturers are working on it. The Nissan Leaf is used for vehicle-to-house power in Japanand Mitsubishi Motors started to sell a vehicle-to-home package this month in Tokyo.

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