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Thursday, November 8, 2012

Disaster Relief

"NO GAS" signs like this were all over. Most stations even blocked their entrances with cones and yellow caution tape to let motorists know they were closed.
It's now nine days after Hurricane Sandy battered New Jersey and the surrounding areas. Unfortunately the storm was so severe and destructive that signs of improvement are only beginning to appear in many areas. Since the storm barreled through the area last Monday, many areas of New Jersey are without power, telephone, internet access and so many cell phone towers were damaged that even the cell phone service is spotty, especially the data connectivity. It's simply a mess.

I'm fine and so is my family, which is the most important thing. Unfortunately there are a lot of people here who weren't as lucky. Just a few miles from my house a tree fell on a car as a local family tried to make it home during the storm and both parents were killed. This was the worst storm we have ever faced and it has changed the physical landscape of the Jersey shore forever. Entire communities and beaches were literally washed away and will most likely never be rebuilt.

My 16kW home generator
A few years ago I installed a whole home natural gas generator for extreme conditions like this. I live in a rural area with a lot of trees and occasionally get power outages for a few hours or so but I always worried about 'the big one' that would knock out the grid for a long time and unfortunately it hit. So personally I'm doing OK. I have even had some friends and employees stay at our house for a while because without power they have no heat and it's been very cold lately, especially at night. As the power slowly gets restored to different areas there are fewer and fewer house guests now. My area is still without power and the latest update said the earliest it will be restored would be sometime Sunday, making the outage two full weeks.

Dozens of people stood on line for gas at every station
It's hard to tell, but this line is a 1/2 mile long
The generator has been a life saver and I highly recommend anyone who can afford to install one to do just that. Having power at home is taken for granted until it's taken away. Another thing taken for granted is the accessibility of gasoline, something else that was taken away from the people in the area. Without electricity to pump the gas, most area stations were closed. The few open stations quickly ran out of gas and couldn't get resupplied because the local refineries were also closed from damage and lack of power. Within a day lines at gas stations were over a mile long with hundreds of cars waiting in line. People with gas cans also descended upon the stations in need of gasoline for their portable generators. It became so bad every gas station that was open had to have a strong police presence there to control the crowds and keep an orderly line. The lines were so long the cars would block intersections and driveways. People didn't want to allow any space for cars to pass through fearing other cars would cut in front of them and it was causing traffic jams near every open gas station. This stressed the already overworked police force dealing with all the other emergencies.

Many trees fell on my block taking down all the power wires
Luckily I didn't have to deal with all the hysteria over trying to get gasoline. I was driving past all the long lines in my ActiveE, very thankful I was driving on electricity instead of gas. I even loaned my car to friends that couldn't get gas for their cars and picked up some of my employees and took them to Nauna's so we could open. Yes, I know that there were power outages and that would make it difficult for many people to charge their electric car like I could on my generator, but the thing about electricity is there are many ways to make it and it's everywhere. Even in severe power outages like we are having here, there are places to plug in like a relatives or friends house. Plus with a little planning before hand, you can make sure you have a way to make your own electricity in times of crisis.

A Volt charges at Nauna's after the storm
Somehow Nauna's didn't lose power even though most of the surrounding ares did so my public chargers were available and I had many Volts and LEAFs come by to charge. Once we improve the public charging infrastructure even in times of crises like this there will be plenty of places to plug in if your house loses power. I'm just glad I was able to let so many people charge on my chargers during this crisis. You can't make your own gas, and you are at the mercy of gas stations to deliver it to you. Electricity is different. While there is no fuel that is completely disaster proof, I believe the versatility of electricity is extremely valuable in times of crisis. Just look at how Japan used electric vehicles for disaster relief after the tsunami and you can easily see why.

News that I was driving around unfazed by the gas shortage got around and I had quite a few journalists call me and ask me for an interview or to send them pictures. Brad Berman did this excellent piece for the NY Times and I also spoke to Peter Valdes-Dapena from CNN Money, Jim Montavalli who is doing a piece for Txchnologist and John Volecker from GreenCarReports also used my story for his site.   If nothing else, perhaps some people can at least see the value an electric car can provide during these difficult times. Now if we can get the automakers to allow the cars to backfeed a home with vehicle to house technology, then an EV will be even more valuable in these times of crisis.

Here are some more random pictures I took except where credit was given:

Snapped poles are everywhere

I had to clear the trees from in front of my house to get out
Roads closed everywhere
Thousands of trees were downed

Down the shore some people had 2 feet of sand inside their house! Courtesy of the NY Daily News
I'm glad that's not my ActiveE! Courtesy of Reuters


  1. Well stated, Tom. In an extended crisis, electricity is ultimately much easier to get than gasoline, and thus that benefit overwhelms the slow charging times.

    My sister's family in Lambertville (western edge of NJ) just got power last night, so they endured nine full days without it. By good luck (well, effort) they had managed to buy a new generator JUST before the storm hit (that Monday morning); their power went out that night. After getting through to them on their land line (resilient old tech!), I spent a large chunk of Tuesday talking my brother in law through wiring the generator into their panel. They had overseas visitors and 8 people were under that roof!

    Over in the Chevy Volt world, there have been articles and blog posts about people using their Volt as a power source, including one guy who strapped a 750W inverter to the 12V DC bus. Not very efficient but it works in a pinch!

    Hooray for redundancy :)

  2. Glad to hear you're OK Tom. I had been checking the blog every day to hear from you. Everything I've read echo's your account of the situation. I'm sorry to hear how bad things are there and I pray for a speedy recovery.


  3. Happy to see that you're relatively unscathed. The shore really looks bad on TV and the fuel shortage is a challenge.

    I had considered a natural gas generator for my home as well, however, the challenge is the "Big One" for Californians usually mean an earthquake and the Nat Gas lines are one of the first things you shut off... The cost of adding battery backups to the solar power is expensive, and I went with a PPA option, so I don't even OWN the PV on my roof.

  4. I especially like your license plate. "EFOPEC" Very fitting! :D

  5. It looks terrible there. I hope everyone there recovers as quickly as possible.

    How much more evidence do we need to confirm global warming is changing the weather patterns? It may already be too late but low and zero emission vehicles combined with renewable energy sources are the way to slow this down


  6. Tom,
    Well-stated, so well-stated, it's, well, worth stating again ;-)

    "Yes, I know that there were power outages and that would make it difficult for many people to charge their electric car like I could on my generator, but the thing about electricity is there are many ways to make it and it's everywhere. Even in severe power outages like we are having here, there are places to plug in like a relatives or friends house."

    What are your thoughts on a home solar PV system + battery backup system and/or using an EV as a storage device to power one's home, as Nissan has done with the LEAF in Japan? Seems like another great way to go -- assuming, of course, that one's home isn't directly destroyed by a flood, etc.