Thinking again about a backup generator

PalmstormThe power is out where I live (and maybe soon where you live), and I have this to say:

Hallelujah for daylighting (i.e. lots of windows), gas heat, gas stove, gas water heater, cell phones, land lines and a lot of charge on my laptop computer. And when this battery winds down, I’ll plug the laptop into my car charger and get it back up.

But if the power’s not up soon, I’m sure I won’t be singing my gratitude list tonight when it’s dark and I’m getting miserable. And it won’t be the dark and quiet I mind so much, but the fact that my life is being compromised because of the power company’s shortcomings. (Note to power companies: The place for power lines is underground.)

And so I’m thinking about how lovely it would be to have installed a propane backup generator. Of course, now is too late, in the middle of a storm, to be acting on these thoughts. I need to want a generator when the sun is shining and the power is on, like it was back in September when I first blogged about getting a generator. Back then, you may remember, it was a heat wave that took down the power grid.

If anyone reading this blog has a backup computer, I’d love to hear from you. Please gloat a little. Was your investment worth it? How much did it cost? Does it run on propane or diesel? Any regrets? Any recommendations for the rest of us?

Please, please post your comments below. Your experiences could help keep the generator idea alive for me and others when the current storms are long gone.

9 Comments on Thinking again about a backup generator

  1. Ira Serkes

    We installed a photovoltaic system with battery backup, and have been delighted with it. Without a battery backup, when the grid goes down, the PV system goes down.
    The battery backup added about 1/3 to the cost, so a generator would have been less expensive, but we felt that the backup system would be better. For those few times we needed it, it came on instantly.
    Our bedroom, bath, computer systems, and routers are all on the battery backup system.
    Here’s what our roof looks like:

  2. Kathy Price-Robinson

    Thank you, Tom! I’ll study these links and maybe make a post out of it. The potential for an increased appraisal could sway some of to make the solar move. I appreciate this!

  3. Tom

    I just spent the day researching the appraised value portion of this discussion. Here are two articles that place it at 14-20 times annual dollar savings. So if you saved 1,000 / year the appraised value would rise by $20,000.
    In the 2nd article 2/3 of the way through, they provide a real world example (buried in the text) of $23/month translating into $4,000 of increased appraised value. which is about $14 per annual dolar of savings.
    It is certainly true that the appraisers in this country need to get educated pronto about this issue, but CA, AZ and other high sun states should be way ahead on this issue.
    BTW — your correspondent is very correct that solar thermal is way cheaper, but I don’t think I would want a $2,500 system on my roof. $5,000 minimum, and where I live (mountain country: Flagstaff, AZ) it costs $7,500 for a system that handles year round hot water and won’t leak, overheat, or freeze out.

  4. RichW

    Don’t forget about DWP paying up to 50% of your PV costs if you play by their rules:
    I’m currently designing a PV system for my place in Sherman Oaks and for a friends place on Malibu beach. So far the capital investment over the estimated 20-year lifespan of the system pencils against accrued interest.

  5. Kathy Price-Robinson

    Sheila, regarding the higher appraised value for solar homes, can you help me find that information? I need to find info on how green building adds to appraisals in general and have not been able to find it.
    Also, which presidential candidate do you recommend in terms of potentially doing the most for the environment and the advancement of green energy?

  6. sheila

    well, i keep hearing that the price of PV is going to drop 50% by 2010, so it might pay off to sit quietly and wait till then, while other normal citizens like me spend our time and energy pushing hard for policy change (guilt trip!), but if you were to ADVOCATE rather aggressively to politicians and utilities (don’t know if you are LADWP, Edison or what) for financing and pricing along the lines of the Berkeley and San Francisco systems, you would be able to do something amazing and much more affordable with NO MONEY DOWN, and all payments being 100% tax deductible!!! They were suggesting the addition to your property tax would be about $1,200/year for 10-20 years, depending on the size of your system and would stick to the property, not need to be cashed out when you sell — this is sooooo doable! and if foggy SF can do it, why on earth can’t sunny SoCal???
    at that $1,200/year point, you are obviously at $100/month (which, assuming 33% tax break, puts you closer to $66/month) and you are doing better than a “wash.” most utilities charge a little something just to keep you grid-tied, should be no more than $10-$15/month, and they get to keep any output over your usage for FREE (hmmmm). Don’t forget that the value of your home also increases IMMEDIATELY by roughly $20,000 and that homes with solar systems are selling very, very quickly because they are so desireable (routine appraised values are at least 100% of the cost of system, which is an amazing “payback” for any improvement).
    here’s an even better idea — on top of advocating for the type of pricing and financing programs SF and Berkeley are doing, why not further advocate for GUARANTEED BUYBACK of all power generated at the utilities’ highest rate? this is the system they are using in Germany, where i believe the utility is “forced” to buy back 100% of system output at 50 Eurocents/kWh, not just “net meter” and keep any overproduction for free. Northern Germany, as a result, has more PV panels than Los Angeles, even though it probably only gets 60% of the sunlight.
    In case this sounds too socialist to some readers, please consider that EVERY U.S. UTILITY gets a guaranteed payback on capital outlays from the government for building power plants/transmission, including highly destructive coal and nuclear, and those costs are socialized across all ratepayers in the state (while profits are privatized to the utility), so why shouldn’t individual power plants like our rooftops get similar treatment?
    this is ALL ABOUT POLICY — if you want your tax dollars spent to benefit YOU, you need to get in there and throw some elbows, because god only knows, they are flowing to the highest bidder right now. this is still technically a democracy so your leaders are supposed to do what you ask — how about organizing a petition or similar?
    Kathy, it sounds like you are being quote a pretty high price — perhaps because of the extensive battery backup that would be required. Normally, the system should cost between $7-8/W and you would need a small system, maybe 1.5 or 2kW for a cost of around $10K to $18K plus inverter (about $1,000) and batteries (don’t know).
    please don’t forget the measly $2,000 tax credit you can currently get from the Feds (did you call your senators and demand a better deal in the 2008 energy bill?), as well as the roughly $2.40/watt from the state (declining), which should bring a small system like the one you need to about $10K to $12K including inverter and batteries. that gives you a roughly 10 year payback — not including the modest reductions in A/C needs in summer from the reduction of “thermal heat island effect” of sun on rooftop.
    plop on a solar thermal to heat your water (much, much cheaper — roughly $2,500 and eligible for a good rebate from the Gas Co in 2008), and you will be 80% energy independent, and will reduce your carbon footprint by some ridiculous number of thousands of tons of GHGs/year (not gonna do that math for ya!).
    Doing the right thing is not always the same as doing the cheapest thing (see sweatshop goods, big agra, chinese toys), so we all need to put our money where our conscience is… let’s force our politicians to make that possible, and stop giving all our money to coal and oil!

  7. Jeannie

    All of sheila’s suggestions are great. I, too, had a power outage yesterday and discovered a few chinks in my system. The good things were that I was able to use my laptop and a dial up modem (I still keep a subscription to eathlink for back-up purposes). I made a pot of coffee by boiling water on my gas range and storing it in a thermal carafe. I have a little mini-power station I got from Costco for 50 bucks. It provides back-up light and power with an AC adapter. But I did not have a back-up battery for my laptop so I had to conserve. Also, I could not use my oven because although it has gas, it has an electric pilot for goodness sake. And although I was all set with a CD player and mini-camping TV, I had forgotten to stock up on batteries. 🙁
    But I was better off than I have been in past outages.

  8. Kathy Price-Robinson

    Mmmm. A deeply discounted photovoltaic system on my roof so I can blog about it? I like the way you think, Shiela!
    But . . . the L.A. Times only allows a reporter to accept no more than $25 or so in freebies, which equals a nice lunch. So, the PV deal is out.
    However, I do have an appointment for a local solar guy to come out and assess our situation. Over the phone, based on me telling him our electric bill is about $80 in the summer and $140 in the winter, he claims a system that will take care of all but about $20 per month of that will cost about $20,000, and it will cost $30,000 for one that takes care of the whole bill.
    Still the math doesn’t make sense. If I borrowed $20,000 at 7% interest for 30 years, that would be $133 a month, and for a $30,000 system it would be about $200 per month.
    So what am I missing here? How do I make this work without paying so much more for my power? I don’t mind a wash for the sake of the environment and for my own comfort and safety. But to pay so much more is hard, don’t you think?
    One other thought: Maybe I should forget financing the system (the interest alone would more than double the cost) and just save up money to get a few solar panels at a time. That’s what I’d like to do: Install a framework and then add panels as I can on a cash basis to decrease my reliance on the grid. Anyone done this?

  9. sheila

    not to state the obvious, but PV panels would not only zero out your bills, keep your house cooler by converting light to energy before it becomes heat on your roof, but would also have your house lit up like Christmas right now ( i say with a wink, since so many people had no power over Christmas).
    note to voters, ratepayers and power companies: instead of tearing up the ground to bury the power lines, can we please have that money to put PV on everyone’s roof?
    we had a major breakthrough today when the CPUC and BLM, against massive Federal and Utility Company pressure, made a determination that San Diego would be better run off rooftop solar than off new, remote power generation and transmission. THIS IS THE DIRECTION WE ALL NEED TO GO — decentralizing the grid. San Francisco and Berkeley both have incredible financing plans which have the city pay for your panels and put your (tax deductible) annual payment for your panels onto your property taxes.
    In other words, some of the good guys are out there doing the right thing, and proving it’s totally possible, so we need to support them by pressuring politicians for more and better ways to get PV onto every rooftop… Kathy, you need to use your “bully pulpit” here to get some solar company to give you a greatly discounted demo system so you can blog about it weekly!