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Seven ways to build household energy resilience to climate-related disasters

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The concept of energy resilience has become mainstream in recent years in Australia, as devastating floods, followed by catastrophic bushfires, followed by more devastating floods have left some regional communities powerless – literally and figuratively.

A royal commission into the 2019/20 bushfire black summer has revealed that more than 280,000 customers of various energy providers experienced a bushfire-related power outage at some point, mostly due to poles and wires damaged by fire. Some went without power for up to 10 days.

In response to this problem, grids, regulators, and governments are exploring (slowly and haphazardly) how they can improve the power system’s preparedness and response to power outages from storms and other extreme weather events.

At the grid level, many responses to increasing resilience lie in the development of more localized energy resources like solar and storage-based stand-alone power systems (SAPS), community batteries, and microgrids.

But this will take time. So what can households, small businesses and communities do to improve their own energy resilience, in the context of more frequent, intense, prolonged and destructive weather events?

Total Environment Center posed this question to Dr. Glenn Platt, former head of the CSIRO Energy Centre, and supported by funding from Energy Consumers Australia, commissioned him to research the subject.

The resulting 30-page report on Autonomous Energy Resilience was released by the TEC this week.

“This year’s multiple catastrophic East Coast floods reinforced what we learned from the 2019-2020 bushfires,” says Mark Byrne, TEC’s energy market attorney.

“When all hell breaks loose, we can’t always wait for the ‘cavalry’ – the emergency services – to save us immediately.”

Platt’s detailed research reveals that the options available to consumers to build their energy resilience are diverse and variable, depending on the circumstances and energy loads of individual households. The report even has a section on “new approaches, not commercially available”.

But Platt also distills a list of seven key recommendations that can be made to most consumers that could make a significant difference in reducing the risks they face during a power grid outage. We share them here:

1. Use a plug-in energy meter or check the appliances’ energy efficiency label to understand how much power your appliances need and decide which ones will be most important to keep running during a long power outage.

The report details this trick and notes that the range of potentially critical appliances is quite wide.

Essentially, when weighing a device’s power requirements, there are two key characteristics that must be understood: its maximum (maximum) power demand at any given time; and the total energy required over a period of time – say, 24 hours.

Platt provides a handy reference chart (below) with some examples of these.

Source: Total Environment Center

2. Buy a wind-up or solar-powered combo torch, radio and battery, so you can keep in touch with the outside world (including charging your cell phone).

Source: Total Environment Center

3. Prepare a backup source of electricity (such as a portable power station) or alternative appliances that do not need grid electricity to operate (eg, solar water heaters and cookers) .

The report provides various examples of portable solar chargers, portable batteries, a combination of the two, and other options. The table below offers a comparison of different backup battery options and the approximate amount of time they can run different devices.

Source: Total Environment Center

4. If you are able to buy a home battery to store solar power on the roof, make sure it can also work as a backup power supply.

Not all batteries can operate in stand-alone mode. And you need to make sure it has enough capacity to power your essential services.

5. If you’re thinking of buying an electric vehicle, consider buying one that can power plug-in devices (“vehicle to charge” or V2L).

The report describes the V2L – although its availability is limited in Australia at the moment, in terms of EV models that offer the feature – as “an excellent energy resiliency solution”, thanks to its inherent portability (battery on wheels) and its storage capacity. (See table above)

“A typical EV battery with only a 10% state of charge would still have several times the usable energy capacity of the portable power supplies described earlier in the report,” Platt writes.

Source: Total Environment Center

6. Tell your neighbors and the local council about essential community facilities to keep running during outages (e.g. evacuation centers, health services, emergency services, general stores and charging stations gasoline and electric vehicles), and how this could be achieved.

There are a number of measures that communities can put in place to act as a safety net for residents in the event of an extended power outage. One suggestion made by Platt – albeit in the “not commercially available” section – is the creation of a “battery library”. It is a system of several portable batteries, charged by solar energy and kept in a centralized emergency response center. These portable batteries can be taken into homes or local businesses where they can provide 1-2 days of backup power to critical devices. Platt says that although this solution is not currently used in Australia, the concept is based on commercially available technology and would be fairly easy to implement.

7. Practice what you would do in an emergency and make sure your equipment is operating safely and charged or otherwise ready for use at short notice.

This speaks for itself.

“People often think [energy resilience] means completely disconnecting from the grid, either at great expense or without many normal comforts like air conditioning and space heating,” says Mark Byrne, energy market advocate at TEC.

“However, Dr. Platt’s report discusses a range of other options. At the expensive end of the spectrum, this could include buying an electric car that can use its battery to power devices in the event of a power outage.

“But some of the most useful tips are extremely cheap, like buying a wind-up radio that has a small battery that can help charge your phone. It can keep you in touch with the outside world, which which can save your life when the grid goes down and a bushfire or flood is heading your way,” says Byrne.

“It’s also important to plan for the long term and think about reducing your overall energy consumption, where you can do so without compromising your safety or comfort. This makes the prospect of an extended outage more manageable.