Tuesday, August 10, 2010

When they said "dark future", apparently it wasn't a figure of speech.

"Just plug it into the wall, and it works!" has been synonymous with reliability in my lifetime in much the same way as "As sure as the sun will rise in the east."

If the power went down, it was an extraordinary, brief, and localized event, like a tree across some power lines or maybe a car hit a pole somewhere in the neighborhood; a really big outage caused by an ice storm or hurricane was national news. I think I've gone without electricity more than 24 hours maybe two or three times in my life. Intermittent power caused by an insufficient or overstressed grid was something that happened in the Third World.

Welcome to the Third World, baby.

Got generator?

EDIT: Broken Patriot shares some of the things he's done to make his place more resistant to grid disruptions. This is stuff that would have made Roseholme Cottage a happier place in the aftermath of the Great Storm of Spring '08...


Fuzzy Curmudgeon said...

Got a small one. Thinking about a bigger one.

og said...

I do. Mine isn't as cool as Berts, but it's functional

Blackwing1 said...

As more and more "alternative energy" sources come on-line, prepare for more and more blackouts. Not only are they inherently unreliable, they also add unnecessary stress to the grid.

Wind power is already getting a direct subsidy (about 1.5 cents per kW-Hr), but it's little known that they get an indirect subsidy. The FERC ruled a few years ago that wind-power farms (and isolated wind-power generators) were NOT required to supply reactive power (as opposed to inductive power) to the grid, leaving their portion of the necessary reactive power to be provided by the conventional generators. This further stresses the sometimes-overloaded generation capacity.

(Your roomie will be able to tell you what this means...I'm just a dumb mechanical engineer, and know just enough to confuse the issue should I try to explain it.)

I work for a MegaCorp which manufacturs and supplies equipment to power plants, so I sort of keep track of these kinds of dot-gov fiats. It's getting really scary out there. The failure to add generating capacity in the face of increases in power usage has already used up the complete "reserve capacity" this country used to have. That situation is only going to get worse.

Roberta X said...

Um, there may be a few things wrong with that statement.

It's not "inductive" vs. "reactive" power -- any AC load other than a pure resistance (space heater with no fan, incandescent lamp, etc. are plain ol' resistive loads) has got some reactance, usually inductive reactance (X sub L), which has as its twin capacitive reactance (X sub C): same thing, different sign. They both much up the nice clean in-phase relationship between voltage (E) and current (I) in an AC system and ELI ICE helps us remember who leads and who lags.

As it turns out, there's a nice man with an EE degree who can explain this in English.

What the short -- and really, really good -- video doesn't tell us is what to do about it; look elsewhere on the site for details but the basic trick is simple: most loads are inductive, E leads I. If, at the load (usually at the meter) we hang a bank of capacitors of the proper value, we can counteract the E-leading-I phase shift with I-leading-E, essentially "tuning out" most of the reactance.

Frikkin' wind turbines are sooo not a gutty ol' steam or diesel genset that will keep on spinnin' into a crummy load; they have to see nice power factors. So the regulatory burden that falls on the end-user, especially big usesrs, is Mr. Power & Light has to come out, lookit your power factor over time, and hang a capacitor bank online. One way or another, this does not come for free.

Anonymous said...

Can we just build some nuclear reactors now?

I'd like to store the waste in Hollywood and New York City.

Give me a shovel and a hardhat and I'll be the first to volunteer to help build Marble Hill.

Shootin' Buddy

Anonymous said...

I flew back to the states with a young engineer who did work in the power generation world. She said the big problem in the US was the old power lines limited the amount of energy that could be put through the system.

Does that makes sense?


og said...

Shootin'buddy: I'll be right there by your side.

WV: Restruc

Jay G said...

I have a shovel I can bring. Dibs on the grounds of the UN...

Gewehr98 said...

We learned valuable lessons from Hurricane Central (Florida) during my last assignment there. 2 weeks with no power makes life interesting, for sure. We have a bank of solar panels charging a rack of 12 surplus TelCo AGM batteries via a solar charge controller. That feeds into a ProSine 2000 watt 24v inverter, and during the nighttime a tiny little 24v trickle charger keeps things topped up. There's also a Generac 3000 watt generator with a couple of jerry cans ready to go in the garage. The gas gets a dose of Sta-Bil, but also gets dumped into one of the vehicles after a few months and replaced with fresh gas and more Sta-Bil. Diesel's better for long-term storage, in that respect.

Be it winter ice storms or summertime lightning hitting the transformer on the pole out back, we've tested the concept on more than one occasion.

Borepatch said...

Roberta's Way Back machine transported me back to my EE classes, and now my head hurts.

GE makes a very nice whole house generator powered by natural gas. You run the power feed through it, and it automatically detects voltage drop and isolates you from the grid. This is potentially useful for brown outs, as well.

Part of me really likes the idea of my house lit up like a Christmas Tree while my neighbors are dark for a week. However, I'm not sure how robust the gas lines are.

A generator in your garage, vented to the outside, with 200 gallons of diesel removes the question of robustness. But "how many gallons per hour" is probably something that's good to know.

BTW, I'm very concerned about the robustness of not just the grid, but the generating plant. The security of the SCADA control systems stinks (is a house of cards, really), and it's probably entirely possible for someone to take down a major portion of the country's power if they wanted to.

Rob K said...

Power outages are the number one reason I got a wood burning stove. It's a big benefit that, even buying wood, it's cheaper than burning propane.

aczarnowski said...

After a three day outage caused by a tree taking itself out during a storm a genny made it onto the to-buy list. Our moods waiting for the sparks to show up in the heat and humidity after the storm were an eye opener.

I've had a self sufficiency mind-set for a while now and canoe camping is part of our life style. We know how to rough it. But at the home it was mostly "survive" level sufficiency. Now that I'm better off with those basics a few perks like personal electrical generation are making appearances. Keeping the furnace running in a MN winter outage is my primary concern. No room for a wood stove or the wood to feed it.

Roberta X said...

Depending on where you live and what the weather is like, a solar-cell roofing job, battery bank, inverter, the the switching to both run your house from it when he power is out and sell power back to the power company when you have extra can be cheaper to run than a liquid or NG-fueled genset & switching. Up front costs are higher, but it's making money on sunny days. In Texas, it's sensible; in the Pacific Northwest, probably not.

Blackwing1 said...


Thanks for the clarification and link...I said I was just a dumb M.E., and then proved it.

I've gotten the house through a couple of Minnesnowta ice-storm/blizzard induced blackouts by throwing the breaker on the line to the furnace and powering it with a deep-cycle marine battery and 800W inverter. It's a circulating-pump boiler, so the amp draw is really low (the pump is only 1/4 amp...no blower). The only other draw is the thermostat (which was so low my old-fashioned volt/amp meter couldn't measure it) and the draft damper motor, which only runs to open/close the damper when the furnace starts and stops. The battery is on a solar maintainer (not charger, though) to keep it topped up.

Aczarnowski: The battery is double-duty...it's also a trolling motor, important here in Minnesnowta.

doubletrouble said...

I have a post describing what we did for the ice storm of '08 here in NH:


It's not all inclusive, but we stayed fairly comfortable...

Revolver Rob said...

It's times like these I wish I could afford to buy a house or even rent a house.

I guess I will buy some oil lamps, lamp oil, and plenty of firewood (at least I have a fireplace). Then ammunition...more ammunition for sure.


CGHill said...

OG&E didn't say so explicitly, but their "electricity advisory" earlier this week laid bare the unpleasant fact that on one of these ridiculously hot days, they hit their maximum capacity.

We're not likely to get brownouts; they'll just buy it from somewhere else on the grid. But they're not going to be able to recover the extra cost under existing state tariffs, so they're busy jawboning us to turn down the A/C already.

og said...

The only smart plan i ever saw was to use windmills to power pumps to move water uphill- effectively, refilling reservoirs- and use that as a sort of "battery" to store the off-peak generating capacity. Maybe not the best plan, but maybe better than 400 acre lead-acid cells.

Fuzzy Curmudgeon said...

Something I recall reading a while back suggested that many homes don't have big enough supply pipes from the mains to both heat your house and run the generator simultaneously (or that the standard gas regulator on the meter isn't big enough to allow sufficient flow, something like that).

If you decide to look seriously into one of them, be sure to talk to the gas company before pulling the trigger.

Fuzzy Curmudgeon said...

Oh, and as for locations for nuclear plants -- seems like you could build one on Capitol Hill and never tell the difference. (Generator houses to the north and south, containment in the Rotunda...plenty of river water from the Potomac for cooling...)

Seems like a better use of the space than Congress.

aczarnowski said...

Nathan is onto something I think. Gas supply seems all over the map to my untrained eye. One friend has a 1/2" ductile copper line coming into the house from the meter. But there's a 3/4" black iron pipe coming down to her wash dryer.

I just got the new dryer hooked up and working, but I was obviously left wondering about weakest links and chains and what not.

As for a solar setup, yeah, that'd be nice. There's just so much up front planning that goes into a capital project like that. Maybe at whatever we get ourselves into next time, along with a pistol range. ;)

Fuzzy Curmudgeon said...

Should be at least an 1-1/4" feed coming in from the meter if you have gas heat. And copper is supposed to be right out for natural gas. (On the other hand, that's how propane is generally delivered...are you sure your friend isn't on a propane tank?)

The meter itself is generally fed by a 3/4" or 1" pipe, but the gas is under higher pressure on the gas company's side. That's the reason for the big pressure regulator on your side.

Rabbit said...

Hasn't Roberta bought and installed a Listeroid genset yet? I told her about those a few months ago. I still want to know why General Electric hasn't started mass-production of their LP gap powered home fuel cell (I know, I know, .gov restrictions). I'd love to replace my roof with solar shingles, but my deed covenant keeps me from it. About 12 years ago I had a source for surplus wet cells for use in diesel-electric subs, but the source went away. Could discharge for 6 months without a real drop in voltage, and about the size of a refrigerator. Would'a, should'a, could'a.

Anonymous said...

Not onl;y a diaster personally, but allthose small generators/engines are WAY LESS efficient & probably pretty polluting compared to that one big ass plant.

aczarnowski said...

Nathan, the friend's place is an old house in an old neighborhood. City service so I'm sure it's gas and not propane. Up here a propane tank in the yard would have the meter not the house.

With what I've seen in my old house in an old neighborhood, anything is possible. Pretty sure I remember finger thickness copper from the meter (oh shiny).

Don't remember how her place is heated but she's stayed warm and had dry clothes so far. *shrug*

Anonymous said...

Tam: I was all prepared to lay down my typical couple hundred words in answer to your "Got generator?" quip and the limitations of them based on experiences during and subsequent to the hurricane season of '04 here in central ef el a.

Then I read your awesome-as-usual comment section, where all of my points were not only hit on, but beautifully made.

And you've got the engineer geeks and geekette; I don't know what the f' RX is talking about, but I'm pretty sure she does. And her advocacy of the personal solar system addresses the genset limitations; being in Fla it may be particularly viable. 'Course that was true in '74 too. It is my impression that the weakness then is the weakness now; adequate and affordable power storage (batteries). Unless there's been a lot more advancement in the field than I'm aware of, or we can locate that submarine-cell source of Rabbit's, I guess we're still where we started.

So if the five-day power outage we had here after Himican Charlie (six years this Thursday!) is any indication as to just how shockingly (heh) dependent we are on electricity and how vulnerable its production and distribution really is...and how fast events and "society" can devolve into anarchy and survivalism without it...then your final sentence, pondering not a few days of inconvenience caused by a storm, but a systemic and widespread failure of infrastructure and "disruption" of LAWKI?

Well, let's just say that every day brings a bit more reasonableness and practicality to the warnings and methods espoused over at survivalblog, among others.

Huh, got my two hundred words and two cents in anyway.


jimbob86 said...

Having grown up on the raggeddy edge of the grid, where it was not unheard of to have week-long outages due to blizzards.... we did not think to much of it. Mom melted snow on the gas stove to flush the toilet.... had a coleman lantern for light, and a deck of cards for entertainment.... most folks these days wouldn't fare very well if the juice went off....

....I could make it ..... though I would miss air conditioning.

Anonymous said...

"...Himican Charlie (six years this Thursday!)"

No, dumbass, it was Himicane Charley, and it will be six years this Friday. Friday the 13th actually, just as it was then. Huh.


Jim said...

Having no natural gas in the neighborhood, and propane outlawed by city code, I'm aiming at a good, water cooled, skid mounted diesel.

Likely one by Imperial Generator. 12kw will handle HVAC, the fridge, and the 'lectric stove, just opt to turn off the AC while cooking.

The garage structure will handle the load above the rafters, once I've sistered-up all the joists, and sheath them, top and bottom, with 1/2" ply, glued n' screwed threto. (It's only an 11' span)

That'll keep the genny well above the 5' of water Ike so generously shared.

Just gotta save up the $7k for the project. *ouch*

Sunk New Dawn
Galveston, TX

Beaumont said...

@ Nathan, Shootin' Buddy -- ditto.

We can also store waste in Boston, Chicago, & SanFran. We could store it in Detroit, too, but how would anyone tell the difference?

Bubblehead Les. said...

CHEAP way to keep power going until you get a generator: Get a 1000 Watt inverter ($80-$100 at Auto Zone, Advance, etc.) that hooks to your car battery, run a long, garden-type extension cord through a window, and plug in your Refrigerator. Turn on your car, run it for an hour, should keep your food cold enough for a day. Also use a car charging adaptor for your cell phone while you're at it. Worked for me for a four-day Blackout a couple of years ago. We cooked on the BBQ, and used LED lights with a Crank Radio to get News. Night Patrol was taken care of by 12 Gauge and 357. Still want a generator for the long haul, but this should work if you're on the lean side of the money supply. Just make sure you have plenty of Gasoline and Propane.

Anonymous said...

No utilities, but Electric where I built my house. No electricity means no water, no cooking, etc. We have a fireplace for heat, but with out the blower it just doesn't circulate enough. We just bought a 65000 watt Honda and put in the transfer panel. The day after I picked up the generator a substation blew and everyone in 10 mile radius was without power. Perfect timing.

Dr. StrangeGun said...

i keep seeing cheap $99 units at harbor fright and pondering... but other than some discomfort, I'd be fine w/o power for several days, save for throwing out a handful of foodstuffs. Most food I eat these days is in cans or dehydrated... I'd just have to figure out boiling water and staying cold/warm and I'm fine. I have a fire pit but little wood, though I have a pressurized white gas stove somewhere and a half gallon of fuel, and plenty of other flammables and tons of hand tools (been on a 'made w/o power' kick on projects) capable of turning junk metal into firey objects (lamps, stoves, etc). To be used outside, of course.

There's a company out there making mowers and trimmers that use the small propane canisters to run the engine. That tech hooked to a small genset would be awesome... just enough oomph to keep the fridge cold (or smaller cooler), a light or two on, or the furnace blower going (gas heat), and all's good... and the fuel doesn't go bad or have tuning issues, and from all reports the engine itself lasts MUCH longer due to no oil contamination.

Solar panels and such are getting cheaper by the minute (re: northerntool.com et al) and inverters have bottomed out... I'd love a shot some day of playing with an idea of just rectifying house AC directly into two DC streams to charge a dual battery bank sized so that's appropriate charging current and then just drawing straight into a frequency locked switching circuit to get 117VAC back out without much loss (suppose that's more up Bobbi's alley). Also want to play with a self-circulating solar-heated water radiator system, but that's more for winter. Right now the issue would be staying cool, and for me all I've got would be hanging a tarp over the basement/workshop stairwell and hanging out in the cave... stone floor and enough of it underground that it's always somewhat cool, though pitch dark and a little crowded (the tool inventory... grew, lately, hence my scarcity).