Handling blackouts at my mom's house: could solar help?

A power outage at my mom's house means trouble: no water, no lights, and potential basement flooding. Solar power could help keep the lights on during emergencies at nearly the same cost as converting to natural gas and public water supply.
Written by David Worthington, Contributor
Counties highlighted by the impact of Hurricane Irene on power transmission last summer. It took several days for power to be restored to my mother's house. (Image credit: IEEE Spectrum Magazine)

A power outage at my mother's house means trouble. She has well water, oil heat, a sump pump, and it takes the utility company a while to restore power to her development. I've explored back-up generators, public water, and even converting the home to natural gas. Solar power could be another viable option.

Your parents might be living in a similar situation. When the power goes out, you worry about their well being and wonder whether the basement will remain dry. Unpredictably intense weather has been prolonging blackouts, and is increasing the likelihood of flooding.

Coincidentally, a PR firm representing a renewable energy company contacted me on the same day that I was evaluating potential solutions. Here's what I learned today.

OutBack Power is a Washington state based company that manufactures components for integrating PV panels into an emergency power system. Its systems can either partially meet a home's energy requirements with battery energy storage or take a home ‘off the grid' under the most ideal conditions.

How prepared a home is for days long outages depends on its solar capacity. The cost is also variable, but is typically 10-20 percent higher than a conventional solar installation, said Harvey Wilkinson, general manager of OutBack Power.

Some homes are incentivized to maximize solar capacity through a net metering program where the local utility pays liberally for green energy to enter the grid. State and local credits could likewise lower the cost of an installation, Wilkinson noted.

My mother owns a suburban colonial style home with four bedrooms and a two-garage garage. Wilkinson said that a ballpark estimate would be similar to what his family paid for their home in Massachusetts: between US$15,000-$30,000.

An Outback Power residential installation (Image credit: Outback Power)

That's a lot of money, but it's not far off from what it would cost to convert the home to natural gas (that includes paying to extend the neighborhood pipeline), adding a natural gas generator, and connecting to the metered public water supply.

While the cost of natural gas is near a historic low, Wilkinson noted that the price would eventually stabilize. Solar power also offers a 97 percent return on investment, and a recent U.S. Department of Energy study found that homes equipped with PV sell twice as fast, he added. Data shows that solar can also increase home values.

It's possible to make due with bottled water, a battery equipped sump pump, flashlights, and maybe even a portable propane generator, which requires re-wiring the house. However, there's a compelling argument to at least consider renewable energy.

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