Emergency Power and Renewable Energy

Why Not Just Use A Gas Generator?

Like many people in the world, I’m concerned about environmental impact. At the same time, I also very much value human life. In a life-or-death situation, I would never, ever advise someone to endure freezing or sweating to death instead of using a generator they have at their disposal. Even if the generator is not environmentally friendly, running it for a few days every few years is a far better option than risking people’s lives.

That having been said, I would not recommend purchasing a generator for occasional use. Inactive internal combustion engines can develop issues over time. Fuel lines may corrode or become clogged, and fuel stored in tanks can deteriorate. Although fuel stabilizer can prolong the life of fuel, it does not preserve it indefinitely. Starters, spark plugs, distributors, and various other components can also fail to function. Rubber seals can dry out and develop cracks.

So, if a generator is not regularly operated, tested, and maintained, there is an unacceptable risk that it may fail you when you need it the most. Considering the demands of daily life and the tendency to overlook emergency preparations, it is all too easy to neglect the maintenance of a generator.

Need evidence that small combustion engines can pose problems? Simply consider the occasions when you’ve grappled with starting a gas-powered lawnmower or witnessed someone else struggling with it. Now, envision a scenario where your very life hinges on the machine springing to life. No thanks!

Unless you live somewhere that doesn’t regularly get sunshine, longer emergencies will be a problem for a generator, even if kept in good working order. If you run out of fuel and the power is still out, you won’t be able to get more gas. But, solar power can be topped up again the next time the sun is out.

My 1200-watt portable solar power setup. I can add 25 miles of range to my EV per day in good sun with this.

Some Basic Concepts For Emergency Solar Power

Now that we have discussed the importance of renewable energy during emergencies, let’s delve into the essential aspects that you need to grasp in order to effectively utilize it.

Units of energy can be understood by comparing them to water. Just like collecting rainwater, energy can be saved and measured. Watts represent the rate of energy flow, while watt-hours or kilowatt-hours indicate the capacity of a battery or how much energy was used during a given time period. When more water goes into a barrel than comes out, it fills up, and vice versa. Understanding these concepts helps grasp the fundamentals of energy measurement.

Before building or buying a renewable energy system for emergencies, it’s important to determine your power needs. Identify essential appliances and their power consumption. Calculate the required energy storage based on watt-hours or kilowatt-hours. It’s advisable to have two or three times the calculated storage needs so you aren’t left up the creek on cloudy days. For solar power, aim for enough panels to fill the battery system in 8 hours or less, and then doubling it for losses. A comprehensive home energy storage solution can be costly but provides near-absolute energy security.

This lower-power setup doesn’t provide a lot of power, but it’s available for under $400.

What If You Don’t Have The Money?

Not everyone has the means to invest in a costly solar roof, a large bank of batteries, inverters, and other miscellaneous components, along with the expenses of installation. If you are fortunate enough to afford these, that’s fantastic! However, if that’s not the case, you’ll need to find alternative ways to reduce your energy needs and do something cheaper.

If you’re renting or unable to have a traditional permanently-installed emergency power system, consider portable or temporary-install options. These systems are typically smaller in size but offer a range of price points depending on your electrical power needs. Even the smallest systems, capable of performing basic tasks such as charging a phone, can be obtained for less than $100.

There are numerous ways to conserve power and reduce system size and costs.

When it comes to heating and air conditioning, a heat pump AC unit for an entire house consumes a significant amount of power. Even a resistive space heater for a single room consumes nearly 1500 watts while in operation. However, a smaller heater designed for a smaller room could use as little as 200 watts. Or, electric blankets require only a few tens of watts per blanket. By adding sleeping bags or extra blankets to retain the heat, you can manage with a relatively small battery. Although a small evaporative AC unit may not be ideal, it still consumes significantly less power compared to refrigerated air.

There are numerous other areas where energy can be saved. When it comes to cooking, consider using an inductive cooktop instead of a resistive heating element. For microwaves, opt for a lower power setting or a smaller microwave. Use LED bulbs for lighting. During emergencies, utilize low-power electronic devices (phones/tablets) instead of energy-intensive options like gaming computers.

Lastly, for transportation, you might consider using e-bikes or electric scooters. I’m not necessarily suggesting you use them for everyday transportation, but in a long emergency, having some quiet and low-power vehicles that can be charged with small solar panels can be extremely useful.

In other words, you could get by in an emergency on a lot less power than you probably thought, and providing for those power needs isn’t terribly expensive.

Personally, I’ve tested a lot of portable solar and battery units for another job, and my favorite two brands tend to be Ecoflow and Jackery. There are some other decent brands out there, but be sure to read reviews before pulling the trigger on one. Also, feel free to visit the forums and get my help.

Home-Built Systems and RVs

It’s definitely possible to construct your own battery-solar energy systems. I have personally built a few, but I would only suggest it if you already have some basic knowledge in low-voltage electrical work. There is a plethora of YouTube videos available that discuss the process of building your own system, and I would recommend referencing those resources.

In short, you will require panels, a controller, and a battery. For the battery or a bank of batteries, you could opt for a more affordable lead-acid deep cycle variant. However, in my opinion, it is preferable to invest more in a lithium-iron (also known as LFP or LiFePo4) battery. These batteries are not only safer and more reliable, but they also boast a longer lifespan.

But, unless you’re permanently mounting a system in an RV, you’re probably not going to save any money doing it this way. Portable systems are generally a lot cheaper, safer, and easier to manage.

I’ve used an 800-watt system to power a campsite and e-bikes to explore the backcountry.

Setting Up A Portable System

For permanently-installed solar systems, there’s no need to worry about aiming panels or setting up and taking down. If you have professionals install the system on your roof, they will assist you in determining the optimal panel orientation for maximum output throughout the day and year. On the other hand, for vehicle or RV-mounted systems, the ideal direction is generally straight up, ensuring efficient power generation from various angles that you might park at.

However, if you have a portable power system, it’s important to keep it consistently aimed at the sun to maximize its potential. The easiest way to achieve this is by positioning the panels facing south at a 45-degree angle. Should you desire increased power output during the day, you may consider readjusting the panels every hour or two to track the sun’s movement. To determine the correct direction, you can utilize your shadow and the shadows cast by the panels to make sure they’re pointed at the sun.

By following these guidelines, you can ensure optimal performance and make the most of your solar power system.

When it comes to portable systems, it’s crucial to avoid any partial shading. Even if the majority of a solar panel is receiving direct sunlight, even a small shadow from a branch or leaves can significantly diminish its power output, sometimes by half or even more. Therefore, it’s advisable to ensure that each panel is exposed to full sunlight across its entire surface whenever possible, in order to maximize its power generation.

Storage Between Uses

When setting up a portable solar generator, it’s crucial to consider the care of the battery. While the panels can be stored in a shed or dry storage space, it’s advisable to keep the lithium batteries at room temperature for their long-term longevity. Hence, it’s recommended to store at least the battery portion of a power station indoors. In most cases, the battery can be maintained at full charge.

However, for optimal long-term performance, the more advanced power systems can be configured to limit the charge to 80%. This precaution ensures even better durability over time.

Optional Self-Quiz

Emergency Power and Renewable Energy