August 12, 2006
Trend Toward Home Backup Electric Generators

Writing for the Christian Science Monitor Amy Green reports on the rapidly growing trend toward purchasing back-up electric power generators for homes.

LONGWOOD, FLA. The first power outage lasted five days. So did the second one. And the third. The hurricanes that racked Florida in 2004 were a miserable experience for Andre Biewend and his family - including his 3-year-old twins at the time. They were left in a stinking, sweltering home as Mr. Biewend argued with local store owners for dry ice for the fridge.

Not anymore. Biewend, a real estate developer in this suburb of Orlando, invested $15,000 more than a year ago in a standby power generator that keeps his 5,200-square- foot home running through any outage. He likens the generator to an insurance policy - he hopes he never uses it, but now with a baby at home, too, it gives him a sense of security.

The growth in sales has been huge.

The standby generator industry grew five-fold between 2000 and 2005 to a more than $500 million industry, according to Generac Power Systems, the nation's largest generator manufacturer.

I see an important implication of this trend: There's a big demand for non-grid electricity. That electricity costs far more than grid electricty. Therefore electricity from solar photovoltaics does not have to become as cheap as big power plant electricity in order to compete. A substantial portion of the population will buy photovoltaics and batteries for their homes once the price allows them some feeling of environmental satisfaction or increased security against natural disasters. Some will also buy rooftop wind microturbines to generate home electricity from the wind.

As living standards rise for the upper middle class and upper class they find they have money to buy things they never bought before. So more people buy second homes, private jet flights, and other luxury goods. While some people buy big $50,000 SUVs others spend far less on a Toyota Prius in order to feel they are doing something for the environment and in order to signal that they are acting on their political beliefs by putting their money where their mouths are.

The combination of rising affluence and eventually falling prices for photovoltaic installations will drive installation of photovoltaics well in advance of when photovoltaics make sense purely from the price standpoint as compared to local utility electricity. Some will be driven by the desire to make a statement. Others will see photovoltaics as utilitarian luxuries that assure they'll never be without electric power. The desires for status, independence, and security will all push photovoltaics along faster than a simple economic analysis would lead one to expect.

In order for photovoltaics to work as a more secure form of electricity in hurricane zones photovoltaics will need to become integrated into roof tiles and siding so that it will stay anchored to roofs under hurricane force winds. Also, home electric battery arrays will need to become cheaper and longer lasting. But the batteries, photovoltaics, and microturbines will make big in-roads in the home electricity market before their prices fall all the way down to the price of grid power.

Update: The willingness to spend money on convenience rises as incomes rise. Once people have satisfied basic needs they tend more toward satisfying desires. One desire is to never be inconvenienced. Loss of electric power for 5 minutes, 5 hours, or 5 days is an inconvenience and people will spend increasing amounts of money to reduce the risk of that inconvenience the more affluent they become.

Pluggable hybrid vehicles and batteries with higher energy density also increase convenience. First off, one can reduce the frequency of trips to get gasoline. Second, the batteries in a car can run a house in event of a power outage. People will spend to save time. People will also spend to reduce the risk of life disruption from natural events or human technological failures. The desire for greater convenience is going to drive the development of better energy technologies.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2006 August 12 01:06 PM  Energy Electric Generators

gmoke said at August 12, 2006 8:26 PM:

In case of emergency, you're advised to have on hand a flashlight, a radio, and an extra set of batteries. Mine is a solar/dynamo flashlight/radio that I've modified to charge AA batteries. It sits beside my bed and now I have a source of low voltage DC power day or night from sunlight or muscle power for as long as the rechargeable batteries work. It is also my morning radio.

Above my bed, are two solar powered LED lights connected to two small PV panels in the most nearly unobstructed south facing window in my apartment.
My system cost considerably less than $200 and is adequate to most emergency needs as well as fulfilling daily functions.

You can see video of my solar experiments at

BTW, Amory Lovins believes that decentralized, smaller scale generation will obviate the need for nuclear power. He refers to this idea as "the herd of mice" that can best the elephant.

PacRim Jim said at August 13, 2006 9:50 AM:

What about backup backup generators? You never know when the backup might fail. And what about....

Contra FEMA said at August 13, 2006 7:37 PM:

If you buy generators for use in disaster-prone areas, think about securing them against confiscation by FEMA's armed "procurement officers." I don't have details, but I understand they drove around the New Orleans area after Katrina and took whatever they wanted, including generators.

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