Alternative Energy Kept Some New Yorkers Plugged In During Black Out

Solar and wind powers Long Island residence during blackout

Published: 19-Aug-2003

id=text>NEW YORK -- If it hadn't been for the electronic beeping that filled his house at the start of the blackout last Thursday, George McGough might never have known anything was wrong.

First his smoke detectors began to sound _ a warning that they had switched to his backup power system. Then his telephones chimed in, another sign of trouble.

"That was a lot of beeping," McGough, 62, says with a chuckle. "So there was no doubt in my mind that there was something going on."

McGough, who lives in the tiny village of Orient on the eastern tip of Long Island, is one of a small number of people in New York state who use solar or wind power for at least part of their electrical supply. Those who had batteries to store excess electricity _ like McGough and Joe Colao, of Riverhead, N.Y., also on Long Island _ had a continuous supply of energy during the blackout.

"I didn't even know the power was out," says Colao, 55, a retired landmark restoration consultant. "Everything was working as normal."

Colao's system includes 26 solar panels that can generate up to 3 kilowatts of energy at any given time _ enough power to light 30 100-watt light bulbs _ depending on how sunny it is. He also has a wind generator that can produce up to 500 watts at a time and 16 batteries to store energy he doesn't need immediately.

While many of his neighbors sat in darkness, Colao sent e-mails to concerned friends and watched cable television news. McGough, meanwhile, served refrigerated drinks to less fortunate neighbors.

"People were calling me and saying, 'Joe, you must be rolling in laughter,"' Colao says. "I wasn't. I just wish more people were doing it. If more people had it, they could share power with their neighbors and we wouldn't have these problems."

Many of the state's users of solar and wind power live in remote areas of eastern Long Island and in small island communities off shore, where hurricanes and spotty power lines have long caused periodic power outages. At least two communities _ Hen Island, off Westchester County, and Oak Island, off the south shore of Long Island _ rely entirely on solar and wind-generated power.

"In 1983, there was a big hurricane, and we went without electricity for almost three weeks," Colao says. "I realized this is insane, there must be another way."

Few New Yorkers rely entirely on solar or wind energy for power. On a typical day, most _ like Colao and McGough _ use a mix of traditional and alternative energy. But their systems revert to stored alternative power during blackouts.

The systems are expensive: A 1-kilowatt solar-wind system costs about $10,000, according to Joel Gordes, of the New York Solar Energy Industries Association, a nonprofit group that promotes solar energy use. Batteries to store a three-day supply of excess power run $3,000 to $4,000, he said.

But the state offers several incentive programs to defray those costs, including tax credits and reimbursements for installation. Most users sell part of the energy they generate back to public utilities, decreasing their electricity bills.

"At first, it's not going to be a positive cash flow," Gordes says. "You have to look at it as an investment."

Gordes predicts that in the wake of the blackout, the largest in U.S. history, more people will consider taking the plunge.

"The episode we just had shows the vulnerability of the existing system," he says. "We need to have a more resilient and more (diverse) energy source. This time it was an organizational screw-up, but next time it could be a terrorist attack."

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