A surge in self-made electricity

Patrick Kline usually gets four or five inquiries a week about emergency generators. By last Monday, just days after the Northeast's huge blackout, the Pompton Plains, N.J., dealer had nearly 50. Backup power has become a front-burner issue in many consumers' minds.

And sales are heating up.

Even before last week's blackout, spending on units capable of providing all home power was surging. David Pettigrove, a senior analyst at Bainbridge Inc., in San Diego, was projecting spending on residential backup generators would climb to between $200 million and $250 million nationwide in 2003 - up 15 to 20 percent from last year, when spending grew 30 percent from 2001, thanks in large part to California's blackouts and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Now, manufacturers are gearing up to meet even more demand.

Should you join the frenzy and get backup power for your own home? The key, dealers and industry spokesmen say, is to determine your needs and the costs involved now - certainly before the next crisis.

Once the power goes out, buyers "have a four-hour window to buy a generator before they're gone," says Honda Power Equipment spokesman Sage Marie.

One popular option is a portable backup generator. Hardware stores sell these at prices that typically start at around $400. These gasoline-powered units can generate enough electricity to keep the refrigerator going while operating a computer and microwave.

But powering your entire house during an emergency involves more planning - and some real expense.

Costs for these systems range from $2,000 for a portable unit that can be plugged into a home's wiring to $12,000 for a perma- nently installed power plant that will start up automatically after the wires to the house stop delivering electricity, Mr. Pettigrove notes.

At a minimum, the generator buyer has to pay an electrician another $150 to $200 to install a switch that will isolate one's home from the power company, allowing the portable generator to send electricity directly into the home's wires.

And for less than the cost of energy-efficient windows, a power plant attached to the same gas lines that go to your water heater and kitchen stove can automatically take over for the utility in less than 10 seconds.

Meanwhile, a number of homeowners have been turning to alternative energy, such as solar panels. Typically, they're doing it for environmental reasons or (in very isolated locations) to save money, rather than as backup systems.

That's because most solar-power buyers are unwilling to pay the additional 15 to 20 percent for batteries that store the energy during the day and power homes at night, says Angelo Lombarto, who heads Solar Home Solutions, a residential marketing program BP rolled out this year in California, the New York City area, New Jersey, and greater Philadelphia.

Instead, they opt for systems that shut down when local power deliveries stop, in order to avoid sending power back up the wires to where linemen are fixing the breakdown.

By the end of last year, the Solar Energy Industries Association says, about 70 megawatts of solar power were connected to the grid - the wires owned and operated by the local utility - and estimates suggest that about half of that was installed on homes, mostly in California.

Now, with its new marketing effort, BP Solar is hoping to expand the number of solar-powered homes in the Northeast. Another solar panelmaker, AstroPower, has enlisted Home Depot to market its systems.

The company is targeting "sunny, coastal areas with high-cost power and with good rebates," says Jerry Shields, a spokesman for Home Depot. Some 100 stores in California, New Jersey, Long Island, and Delaware now carry the systems.

They don't come cheap. Although BP will install solar systems generating as little as half a kilowatt (KW), enough to power five light bulbs at once, most buyers install 3- to 6-KW systems, Lombarto says.

Such a system costs about $8 per watt in New Jersey, before a state refund of $5.50 per watt, and $9 per watt in California, where the state subsidy is now $3.80 per watt.

A total of 13 states provide such subsidies, according to DSIRE, a program of the Interstate Renewable Energy Council funded by the US Department of Energy and operated by the North Carolina Solar Center.

Nevertheless, a 3-KW system in, say, Parsippany, N.J., would set a homeowner back some $7,500 - even after the state subsidy.

And, for about the same price as adding batteries to that solar system, a buyer could install a gasoline-fueled system from Kohler Power Systems or Coleman Powermate that would provide more than double the power on cloudy days as well as at night, points out George Zirnhelt, an analyst at Power System Research, a Minneapolis firm that conducts market research for for various energy- industry equipment makers.

That's why, in the wake of last week's blackouts, Kohler Power is doubling the production at its Kohler, Wis., plant through October, says Mark Repp, the company's marketing director.

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