News roundup for Tue, May 17, 2022

Hot weather caused a blackout in Texas. California and the Midwest will also struggle this summer

Record temperatures (i.e. too hot, too early–can you see the pattern yet?) in the 90s and 100s caused six Texas power plants to trip offline, which resulted in 2,900 MW lost. FYI one megawatt of electricity is enough to power about 200 homes on a hot day, so the 2,900 MW were enough to power about 580,000 homes. ERCOT urged residents (including bitcoin miners), to set their thermostats to 78 degrees or above and avoid using large appliances during peak hours between 3-8 pm throughout the weekend. Tesla pushed notifications to their cars alerting its customers of potential grid disruptions and urging them to recharge their cars during off-peak times. Here is a really good, non-technical thread explaining why Texas’ grid is failing, why it keeps failing, and what you can do about it, including storing non-perishable food and water, using the dishwasher at night, and turning on your thermostat and closing your blinds during the day:

California’s and the Midwest’s grid operators have already announced that they will be unable to cover peak load during the summer months

How can you prepare for a blackout:

  • Store enough water, and non-perishable food that does not need heating. We usually recommend 15 days’ worth as a baseline, which would carry you through several short blackouts (or a longer one).
  • Learn how to deal with severe heat in case your AC is out.
  • Identify the most important appliances or electrical items you cannot afford to lose so you can understand what you need to keep them powered when the actual power is out. Fridge/freezers are a no-brainer, but maybe you use a PAP machine or other medical equipment, etc. Don’t forget about phones and laptops.
  • Phone = small power bank (+ portable solar panel). I’ve put the solar panel in brackets because, in theory, a fully charged bank could carry you over a couple of days on its own. If the blackouts are intermittent, you should be able to recharge the power bank in between. But if you add the solar charger, then you don’t have that worry anymore. A small power bank and solar panel are also perfect to keep in your go-bag, travel bag, etc so you’d kill more than two birds with one stone.
  • PAP machine or a laptop = bigger battery + solar panel. Something like this. This type of combo is a nice sweet spot to be able to have a lot more power, while still being portable. Either the whole combo or just the battery is perfect for camping, as an example.
  • A fridge/larger appliance. A fridge/freezer might keep cold without power for long, especially if it’s filled, and it’s kept closed. But if you don’t want to risk it, a backup generator is the way to go.
  • These are just some broad suggestions, please remember to check your specific appliance’s energy consumption before you buy a battery or generator. FWIW our guides usually do a good job at helping figure these things out.
  • And don’t forget that kids, pets, the elderly, or a physical illness or limitations will need a lot more planning. So start preparing now.

More resources:

Climate and extreme weather

A new tool helps you identify your home’s wildfire risk factors now and 30 years into the future. Wildfire risks are becoming widespread, severe, and accelerating rapidly while rising housing prices in cities and suburbs push Americans to live in more fire-prone areas with little awareness of the local risks. Homeowners need these types of tools to help make better choices.

via New York Times

A new UN report shows that roughly 2.3 billion people—one-third of the world population—are facing water scarcity, and that number is expected to double by 2050. The frequency and duration of droughts will keep increasing due to climate change. Africa is the hardest hit, but the Americas, India, and Australia are also affected.

The World Weather Attribution group shows that global warming made South Africa’s floods twice as likely and that extreme downpours will be 4-8% heavier than if global warming had not occurred.

Deaths from storm surges have dropped, but flooding is now the deadliest hazard. As an example, the majority of deaths from Hurricane Ida were caused by drowning and flash flooding. For this reason, the National Hurricane Center is working on increasing its lead time by 12 hours for 2023.

And, last but not least, a new study from NOAA shows that less air pollution in Europe and North America is creating more hurricanes in the North Atlantic. Similarly, increasing pollution from India and China had the opposite effect, reducing hurricane activity in the Western North Pacific.

Economy and supply chain

US electricity prices going up 4%. The Energy Information Administration said that the national average electricity price for households is on track to rise 4% since 2021, the largest increase since 2008. The cause of price increase is linked to the prices of natural gas which is one of the main forms of energy for power plants:

via Inside Climate News

USPS will increase stamp prices in July. As an example, the cost of a Forever stamp will go from 58 cents to 60. Prices will keep rising “at an uncomfortable rate” until the agency becomes self-sufficient:

via USA TODAY

Plane tickets, hotels, and summer camps are going to be expensive this year. Airline fares rose 13% since last year and hotel prices by 40%. Summer camp costs are also expected to rise. Travel demand is high and the chief executive of Star Alliance hopes that “customers will tolerate [increasing prices] for a long time,” while airlines pass high fuel and labor costs to the customers.

Opinion: To control inflation, we must address climate change. Sure, inflation is caused by a myriad of factors, from a disruption in the supply chain caused by Covid and the ongoing shutdowns in China, to the war in Ukraine, to plain old corporate greed, but droughts, floods, and other extreme weather events interfere with the ability to grow crops, to process them, or to get those things to market. Climate change is also creating a need for a lot of spending that would otherwise be unnecessary to mitigate the effects of rising sea levels, extreme storms, etc.

Abbott’s baby formula could hit the shelves end of July at the earliest. The FDA allowed Abbott to resume production of their baby formulas. Abbott confirmed that they could restart production within the next two weeks, but they didn’t give an exact date. Products would hit the shelves six to eight weeks after the start of production. Perrigo, who makes store-brand formulas for Amazon and Walmart, said that they are working round the clock to meet demands, but expect shortages to last for the “balance of the year.”

India banned wheat exports. Now the EU is looking to the US in a newly improved transatlantic bond to come up with a way to deal with this and other possible export bans.

The rest

Finland confirmed it will apply to NATO. Sweden is expected to follow suit. Here are some ways Russia could react to it.

FEMA will no longer require disaster survivors living on inherited land to prove they own their homes. The change follows a July report that detailed how FEMA was regularly denying help to Black families living on land passed down a generation after slavery. The new guidelines will apply retroactively to Aug. 23, to cover damages from Ida and flooding in Tennessee only.

Who had ‘jumping worms’ in their 2022 bingo card? Unfortunately, as cute as they sound (no they don’t), it seems that these fellas are too hungry and gobble up everything in their path, leaving soil less productive. The worms have been in the Americas for a long time, but it is only recently that they’ve become more of a problem. Here are some ways to deal with them (according to this article):

  • When buying plants at a sale or trading with neighbors, wash the plants of garden soil. Buy or trade plants bare-rooted or repot in a sterile potting medium.
  • Jumping worm cocoons are also in mulch. Purchase mulch from a reputable producer and make sure it’s been heated to 130 degrees F for at least 3 days.

A computer powered by a colony of blue-green algae has run continuously for six months using photosynthesis. Similar technology could soon power up our phones or other small devices.

Here’s an interview with a Ukrainian prepper. A lot of Ukrainians started preparing right after Crimea when they realized that no one will help them, but themselves. It was interesting to read how power banks are important due frequent power cuts.


  • 14 Comments

    • M. E.Contributor

      I have found the GoSun cooler line to be very helpful for me in terms of backup refrigeration for power outages. #ProTip: Remember to keep the battery charged! For me this was a better option than getting a generator.  Given the cost, noise, and carbon monoxide risk of a gas-powered generator (not to mention the challenge of finding fuel in a disaster), I decided that it was more cost-effective and safer for me to get the GoSun.  Just an option to think about for all the peeps in Texas and other locations expecting regular outages. As logic would dictate, keep the products requiring the most cooling (meat etc) in the lower portion of the unit. 

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    • Karl Winterling

      It’s interesting to look at inflation in graphics cards and gaming PCs. You have supply chain issues, scalpers (people who buy anything they expect to go up in price), scalpers who also mine cryptocurrency, people using direct checks to buy graphics cards or gaming PCs, and corporate greed.

      The TLDR of why this is so weird is you don’t need a high-end graphics card unless you edit photos and videos as part of your job, you want to run Microsoft Flight Simulator on max settings in 4K, or you’ve yet to come clean with your therapist about the deep-seated reasons why you feel compelled to let everyone else know you have a powerful computer. Almost nobody who plays video games needs the latest hardware.

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      • Eric Karl Winterling

        “you don’t need a high-end graphics card unless”

        I am a counter-example. I bought a high-end graphics card a few years ago and don’t fall into any of those categories.

        I was studying machine learning and self-driving car engineering as a hobby. I purchased a used Titan X for $500, which had cost someone else $1000 to purchase new just one year before that, and which was ridiculously overpowered for any video game at the time. High-end video cards are extremely helpful for the kind of computational work that the computer needs to do for machine learning, and I would not have been able to make substantial progress in my hobby without that kind of hardware.

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      • Virtual reality users need the latest hardware.

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      • VR is currently pretty niche and there’s a ways to go before it’s mainstream. But yeah, you need a high-end graphics card for current-generation VR.

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    • Carlotta SusannaStaff

      Here’s an interesting loop by NWS showing where and how temperatures broke their record in the past week:

      https://twitter.com/NWSWPC/status/1526298698036174848

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    • Carlotta SusannaStaff

      The latest NYT newsletter featured an interview with one of the authors of that piece on the new wildfire risk tool and the study that came out of it. I copy/paste it here as well:

      Chris, hi. In your maps, big patches of the American West, including much of California, where my family and friends live, turn ocher-red in 30 years, meaning that they are projected to face significantly higher wildfire risk in 2052. Are we just supposed to get out of all those areas?
      It’s unlikely that people will abandon homes in even the most fire-prone areas, and it’s probably unnecessary, for now. State and local officials can use this new data to prioritize where they spend scarce dollars to reduce risk. In some places, that could mean thinning out nearby forests and other vegetation that act as fuel. Elsewhere, it could be making sure firefighters have the equipment they need. In other places, it could mean making sure roads are accessible to get people out and fire trucks in.

      If I own a home in one of these areas, what can I do and how much will it cost me?
      Unlike flood-proofing your home, which often means elevating the structure at a cost of $100,000 or more, reducing your exposure to fires doesn’t need to be prohibitively expensive. If you have a wood roof, think about replacing it with a material less likely to combust. If you have single-pane windows, consider getting double, to make it harder for embers to break through. Create what’s called “defensible space” around your home by removing anything within five feet of the structure that can catch fire. You can find more tips here.

      California has a statewide building code for new homes built in fire-hazard areas. It includes things like defensible space, double-pane windows and noncombustible roofs. But what if I’m a renter?
      A renter has fewer options. First, be careful about where you rent, and buy renters’ insurance. If you have to leave your home because of a fire, the level of federal assistance depends on whether state officials seek a federal disaster declaration, whether the federal government grants it, and then, on what type of aid the government provides. Renters forced out of their homes may qualify for help from FEMA. Don’t count on it.
      Second, assess your risks now. If you live in a fire-prone area and worry your landlord isn’t taking that threat seriously, consider asking your local Fire Department for an assessment. Inform your landlord. Remember, she or he has a financial incentive to reduce those risks. Insurance may not cover the entire cost of rebuilding after a fire.

      Wow. That seems designed not to protect the poor, who are more likely to rent. We’ve been talking about what individuals can do to protect themselves. What can people do to reduce risks in their community?
      If there’s new development being planned in your area, you can ask your local planning officials to explain what level of wildfire risk is associated with it. You can ask whether local building codes match the risk. If your community is surrounded by forest and only has one road in and out, ask your local officials what you should do if that road is shut down. If you live near lands managed by the state or federal government, you can ask your state or federal representative when officials last removed excess vegetation to reduce wildfire risk.

      What if I’m thinking of vacationing in a fire-prone area? Should I just avoid seeing the California redwoods?
      If you go to a fire-prone area, avoid visiting in times of heightened danger. Check before you go whether there are nearby fires that might reach the area you’re visiting. Figure out an evacuation plan. Weigh the risks. Go see the redwoods when the risks are low.

      Here’s the mind-boggling thing. A recent study found that, between 1990 and 2010, areas with the highest fire risk have had the fastest population growth, including in California and Texas. People are literally moving into danger. Should we rethink living in forested hills and canyons?
      One way to reduce risk now is to expose fewer people to risk. So rather than continuing to build houses (and schools and shopping malls) further into the wilderness, from a safety point of view, it’s better to build denser urban communities, where people aren’t near dense, dry forests. In much of the country, living so close to the wilderness may be already too risky.

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    • Karl Winterling

      Baby formula update:

      • Biden invoked the Defense Production Act to try to ease supply chain issues in formula production. This means, for instance, suppliers need to fulfill orders from formula manufacturers before other orders. The Department of Defense will use commercial aircraft to import formula from other countries that meets FDA standards
      • One bill lets the Department of Agriculture issue waivers so that people can use WIC to buy any available formula, not just your state’s WIC brand. Both Democrats and Republicans strongly support this bill.
      • A more controversial bill that Republicans have expressed skepticism about would give the FDA $28 million to hire more staff. It isn’t clear whether 60 senators will vote for it or whether Congress can negotiate something else (and not exactly clear what more FDA staff would accomplish without more details).
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    • TraceContributor

      When you’re preparing for the blackout and thinking of what items you have to power, really think about it. I politely disagree that the fridge/freezers are a no-brainer — or even that electronic items are a priority.

      Start off by first knowing how cold your freezer gets (use a thermometer) and test how long it stays below freezing when unplugged. Deep freezers stay cold for a long time without power (ours stays about 5 degrees and takes about 84ish hours before it starts to thaw).

      If it’s your main fridge/freezer I like @M.E.’s suggestion that you get some type of battery powered cooler (or even a standard cooler, dump the ice in the freezer into it!). A lot of things don’t t really need to be refrigerated: cheese, butter, juices, beer, many sauces or condiments. Milk is cheap, drink it or dump it (give it to the animals?). Prioritize your meat — if it’ll all fit in your cooler you don’t need to power the fridge. Do a cost analysis, is keeping your broccoli frozen worth the cost of a generator and storing fuel?

      As far as powering a laptop or tablet — if the power goes out do you have internet? Do you have wireless? In our (rural) area, if we lose power we almost always lose internet. There’s not reason to prioritize digital items if they can’t be used for their main purposes. A solid external battery for your phone may be all you need.

      Think about it and have a plan (it’s what we do). Maybe it’s summer and some areas get really hot, and your backup power is for your A/C. Or you have a well and can’t get water without backup power. But all in all people lived without power for a long time. Hopefully you have food that doesn’t have to be cooked, some water on hand, and some non-digital/electronic entertainment (bored people do stupid things).

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      • Carlotta SusannaStaff Trace

        And I politely disagree with your assessment that during a blackout your phone or laptop will be useless: I don’t have a tablet and all of my downloaded entertainment is either on my laptop or my phone so I would personally want to keep those juiced up.

        But I can see how the use of “no brainer” might have seemed too prescriptive. TBH that was not my intention; when I wrote that I was thinking about those people with big chest freezers that have lost their yearly food supplies because of blackouts. But as a matter fo fact, I didn’t even suggest straight away to have a generator, only that if that is your priority, you’d need a genny (rather than let’s say a mid-size battery and solar panels.)

        I still stand behind my main message: assess what your priorities are, and plan accordingly. 

        (Edited for clarifications.)

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      • TraceContributor Carlotta Susanna

        Then we completely agree if the goal was making people think and plan! (And good usage of ‘prescriptive’ that’s not a word that gets used enough 😎)

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    • John Chamberlain

      Hi Carlotta, I  have been living off the grid for over 25 years in south east Queensland Australia [sub tropical ], we have been living in our present house for six years with a good solar electricity and hot water system so far in 25 years of living with solar we have very rarely used our back up generator maybe 20 hours per year, that all changed thanks to climate change, in the last 6 weeks I use the generator every day costing Aus$20 per day [Us14] , I have nether seen so much cloudy weather and rain , I still think solar power is the way to go but how reliable it is with the way the climate is changing remains to be seen, I am now looking at a small windmill to help charge the batteries ,  no system is perfect on the grid or off, but for me the last 6 weeks has been a real eye opener that I never saw coming 

      Regards

      John

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      • Great data points, John. And thanks for bringing up wind. We’ve also been interested in wind for years but felt the technology wasn’t there yet.

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      • Robert LarsonContributor Carlotta Susanna

        John – I’m interested in what you come back with in regards to wind. From the little I looked into it, I’ve felt that the tech isn’t there like Carlotta says.

        The past two years of where I live in the mountains sure is changing my opinion of wind though. Maybe it has to do with climate change as well, but it has been windier here than in decades past. A windmill would probably serve me very well.

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