Power to the People

By Bob Hazard   |   October 24, 2019

The hottest topic last week was “When will we lose our power in Montecito?” And, if so, “How often and for how long?” In the past, some 60% of power blackouts have been caused by bad weather such as violent storms. However, 30% of power outages can be attributed to aging electrical grids that are overloaded, poorly maintained and unable to turn off power selectively at the neighborhood level. Welcome to Venezuela on the American Riviera. 

The “New Normal” in Montecito

Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), which provides all electrical power north of the Gaviota Tunnel, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection last January, estimating that it faced $30 billion or more in potential wildfire liabilities. Southern California Edison (SCE) is not far behind. It is said to be one fire away from bankruptcy.

This month, PG&E shut off power to 738,000 customers in 35 counties radiating out from the Sacramento area. The president of PG&E told regulators to expect that for the next 10 years, frequent intentional power outages will be planned every time gusty sundowner winds are strong enough to break tree limbs or fan wildfires. In other words, protection of our public utilities from fire-related lawsuits has taken precedence over providing reliable power for homes, farms and businesses. This is a new low, even for California.

Sundowner Winds and Power Outages

Still in recovery from the Thomas Fire and the 1/9 debris flow, Montecito residents are now facing red flag alerts from warm temperatures, low humidity and sundowner winds with gusts up to 60 mph. Along with an elevated fire risk, power utilities are warning local customers that their electricity may be cut off at any time.

Last weekend’s proposed shutoff of the Sheffield Circuit would have affected part of Birnam Wood, eastern Montecito above and below East Valley Road (State Route192), Ortega Ridge, Summerland, and the western portion of Carpinteria.

Life Without Power

For Montecito residents, planned power outages means no Google, no computers or printers or copiers. No lights. No TV. No Montecito Journal. No cell phone or hearing aid chargers. No garage door openers. No gasoline pumps. Food spoils, traffic signals die, cellphones fade out. Schools come to a standstill and frustrations grow into concerns over safety as hospitals, water, sanitary and fire protection districts switch to emergency standby generators. Not to mention the inability of electric car owners to charge their vehicles… in case of emergency.

Power outages can destroy small businesses. No lights. No cash registers. No credit cards. No point-of-sale computers. No hot water. No heat or A/C. No refrigeration. No security systems. No affordable backup generators.

To Buy, or Not to Buy a Generator

Faced with planned power outages, many homeowners ask themselves the same question: “Is now the time to buy a generator?” It could be, especially if you live in an area prone to high winds. Power shutoffs will surely become more common as drought conditions and the threat of wildfires continue.

Local Efforts to Inform

Last week, Das Williams, 1st District Supervisor of the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors, warned residents of Montecito, Summerland and Carpinteria of pending public safety power shutoffs (called PSPS by Southern California Edison).

In remarks to the Montecito Association (MA) Board of Directors, Das warned “I highly discourage people from going out and buying generators. The air quality gets demolished. It would be counterproductive if a massive amount of diesel generators are purchased.” Das said he would direct his staff to look into solar options.

Not satisfied with this response, MA, prodded by meeting attendees and led by president Megan Orloff; Directors Cindy Feinberg and Kathi King, and strongly supported by MA executive director Sharon Byrne, unanimously passed a motion for the formation of an ad hoc committee working with Supervisor Das Williams, Montecito Fire Protection Chief Kevin Taylor and the Montecito Journal to meet with Montecito residents to provide knowledge and guidance for those considering the purchase of home generators or exploring neighborhood micro grids.

The intent of a consolidated research effort is to collectively research and price optimum standby generator manufacturers, professional installers and individual generator costs. 

Homeowner organizations, such as Birnam Wood, Ennisbrook, Bonnymede, Montecito Shores, Riven Rock or Sea Meadows could possibly aggregate individual purchases of generators with one or more manufacturers, and/or negotiate group installation contracts with installers to cut costs. Individual homeowners with access to a Montecito shared database will have a place to start their own research efforts. Permitting costs and regulation and compliance costs could possibly be examined and reduced by the County.

One option, favored by MA Directors Feinberg and King is the formation of a private Micro Grid where, for example, the historic Birnam Wood clubhouse might upgrade its commercial emergency generator capacity that services the clubhouse to accommodate an emergency power supply for all 135 homes in its gated community. This could be an environmentally preferable solution to installing individual emergency generators at each of the 135 homes in the Birnam Wood community.

Various Power Sources

Today’s standby generators operate on natural gas, liquid propane, gasoline or diesel. The best ones kick in automatically when electrical power is cut off. They are permanently situated outside with good ventilation, so they can go to work immediately when needed. 

Homeowners seem to favor natural gas, if available. Environmentalists prefer solar or wind powered generators. Good luck. Wind and sun can be unreliable. Lithium storage batteries can pose a fire hazard. Diesel and gasoline powered generators tend to be noisier, less environmentally friendly in terms of fumes and fire safety and require higher maintenance. 

Choosing the Brand 

Standby generators are becoming the option of choice for homeowners who are tired of being left in the dark. They are a necessity for people with home-care medical equipment.

The Generac Guardian Series ranks near the top. Reputedly the 16-kW Generac Guardian Series Air-Cooled Home Standby Generator, operated on natural gas or propane, with a 200-amp automatic transfer switch (Model 7178) is the #1 selling home standby generator at $4,247 plus installation. A 30-kW Generac Liquid-Cooled Home Standby Generator comes in at $9,897 plus installation.

Briggs and Stratton generators utilize reliable commercial-grade Vanguard engines to power their family of air-cooled, natural gas backup generators. The Symphony II Power Management system balances power demands for a more reliable generator. Briggs and Stratton back their air-cooled generators with an industry-leading 5-year parts, 5-year labor, and 5-year travel warranty.

Other home backup generator brands for backup generators include Cummins, Kohler, Champion, Predator, GE, Westinghouse and Honda. Your installer will size your generator to meet your needs before recommending the right brand, at the right price, for the emergency power you may need.

The Cost of Backup Power

Having your own standby power source is not cheap. A basic 22kW air-cooled standby generator, enough to power a typical 2,500-sq-ft home, costs about $5,000; double that to include installation. 

A larger capacity 45-kW standby generator for a 5,000 sq-ft, high-end home can run $10,000 to $15,000; up to $30,000 installed. Commercial generators can cost even more for owners of large estates.

How to Get Started

Before buying a standby generator, have an experienced electrician calculate your home’s energy loads and systems, then come up with a plan. Generators need professional installation and there are restrictions on their placement. They also can be noisy; imagine a motorcycle running next to your house around the clock. Then multiply that noise by all your neighbors with the same noise roar.

When shopping for a generator, think about what you really need power for. Focus on a “partial-house generator” that will have enough power to operate kitchen appliances, furnace, well pump and water heater plus a few lights and outlets (to charge cellphones, etc.). Central air conditioning, electric clothes dryers, computers and television sets all take a lot of energy; you’ll need a much larger generator to keep them powered.

Local Installers

The professional reputation of the installer is the key to success. Reliability, access to 24/7 customer service, noise control, safety, automatic kick-in, customer referrals and consumer reports are tough to come by, but vital in decision-making. Locally, two names keep cropping up. One is McCoy Electric Corporation at 132 Garden Street in Santa Barbara and the other is Powell Electric Corp at 4415 Carpinteria Avenue in Carpinteria. 

Bottom Line

I am by no means an expert on emergency generators. This is just the beginning of pulling together generator or micro grid solutions for Montecito. Those who have gone through the process of installing backup generators are invited to e-mail me at bobhazard@gmail.com to share actual experiences and recommendations. Bringing together the combined knowledge of the community, posted on a community website, is the longer-term goal. We need your advice and ideas. 


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