Regardless of what is feeding power to a centralized grid, disasters sometimes cut off that source of power. Sometimes power lines are broken, other times the generator is forced to shut down due to flooding, heat, or other conditions.
If this happens during hot weather, hundreds of thousands of people are faced with a choice between generating their own power, or losing perishable food and suffering – or dying – from the heat.
At the moment, most emergency generators available run on gasoline or diesel, which comes with a few problems. Ensuring a fuel supply can be difficult under disaster conditions, and stockpiling fuel can be dangerous, and can be vulnerable to damage from the same conditions that make the generator necessary in the first place. On top of that, having thousands of households burning fuel to power their cooling systems during hot weather is going to increase local, ground-level air pollution, and all the health problems that come with that.
And most urgently, these generators produce carbon monoxide, which can be lethal if there’s not adequate ventilation. NPR reports that in the aftermath of Hurricane Laura, more people have already died from carbon monoxide poisoning than died from the storm itself, and tens of thousands are still facing weeks without power.
Eight of the 15 hurricane-related deaths confirmed by the Louisiana Department of Health are attributed to carbon monoxide poisoning from portable generators, which can provide life-saving power in emergency situations but also pose a deadly threat if used incorrectly.
The unidentified victims of carbon monoxide poisoning range in age from 24 to 84 years old, and outnumber the deaths caused by drowning, fallen trees and storm cleanup.
Officials in Lake Charles said at a press briefing on Friday that five people in one house succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning after fumes from their generator — which was running in an attached garage — entered through a door that was either partially or fully open.
Most generator-related fatalities are caused by carbon monoxide, a colorless, odorless gas that can build up especially quickly in enclosed spaces. At certain levels, just five minutes of exposure is enough to be fatal.
Lake Charles Police Chief, Shawn Caldwell, acknowledged that many people are likely relying on generators in the aftermath of the storm but cautioned they should be used at a distance. The safest place for a portable generator is at least 20 feet away from any door or window.
“Chain it to a tree if there’s one left out in the yard,” he said, “but don’t let a generator cost your life.”
It’s common, in circumstances like this, to wave this sort of thing away as people being stupid about how they use their generators, but the reality is that people do make mistakes, especially in a crisis. Ignorance or carelessness does not need to be lethal. Beyond that, generators like this aren’t likely to be practical for emergencies in the long term.
Regardless of what mix of power sources we use to replace fossil fuels, the goal is to eliminate their use to the greatest degree possible. Under those circumstances, fuel for generators will become increasingly difficult and expensive to get. Under those circumstances, having access to individual-level or community-level solar power would save food, purify water, and save lives. We should expect climate-related disasters like this to be an increasingly large part of our lives going forward, and under those circumstances, I think federal and local governments should be investing in the widespread distribution of emergency photovoltaic generators to aid in relief efforts, help maintain communications, and to reduce the harm caused when the power grid becomes unavailable.
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