When CO2 doesn’t matter

When CO2 doesn’t matter.

It’s wild and windy in the Sierra Nevadas. Usually I talk about automobiles and energy, but today the power is out and the winds are blowing over 50 mph, gusting they say up to 75 mph.

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The winds started last night and we knew it was going to be a bad one because our dog. PJ, our black lab/Australian shepard hates wind and gunshots. He will come in when the wind starts whipping or when the guns start going off. Last night he was sick to his stomach, and then the winds started. Stretch can’t believe our dog would react to weather like this, but I remember when I lived in San Francisco with my lop-eared rabbit, Lucas. Right before the earthquake Lucas started stomping on the floor and creating a racket. He did the same thing during the middle of the night when the aftershocks started.

We’ve heard the reports, the warnings; we’ve known the storm was coming. We did everything we could to prepare for it: we bought wood, took down all the Christmas ornaments, and brought in all the plants that weren’t in the ground. In the morning, before the storm knocked out the power we started a fire and had the heat up to 72. We usually only put it up to 68 and start a fire, but we were afraid the power would go out. We, of course, made our coffee and tea and oatmeal. I had just put a chicken in the oven and my husband, Stretch, was making eggs when there was a poof and the magic of electricity disappeared.

Stretch finished cooking his eggs over the fire and I took my chicken done to my neighbor Barbara’s house. Barbara has a generator, powered by propane. Her husband, Louie, had lived here all his life and Louie set the house up for times of emergency. Louie has an 1100-gallon propane tank, his water heater has solar panels and his generator kicks on when the electricity goes off. The oven starts on electricity, but uses propane once it is started. Louie died this year, after 65 years of marriage to Barbara, but left her in good shape.

When a storm of this magnitude happens one isn’t as concerned about reducing their CO2. It brings to mind my conversation with Bill Ramsay, Deputy Director of the International Energy Agency (IEA). Ramsay said that in developing countries they would use the energy they can get, so that they can make money. The EIA tries to have discussions with those countries, as they develop to make them understand that as they develop they need to invest in clean energy. I don’t know if anyone has done a study between energies used to stay warm, versus the black coal China uses to create energy to make the products that are sold so cheaply at Wal-mart, but today we are concerned with staying warm. Schwarzenegger doesn’t mind mandating the auto companies, but mandating home developers, aka political contributors, now that’s another story.

The cracks start happening and soon a neighbor’s roof was hit and they had to move out in the middle of a storm.

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We heat our home two ways: propane and wood. Our wood stove can keep this house a cozy 72, but that is with the help of the air blower. When we don’t have electricity the air blower, nor the propane work. We are relegated to using wood.

The first thing I did was make sure I had enough propane. I was glad to see that our 500-gallon tank was still at 55 percent capacity. The propane distributors will only fill the tank to 80 percent full, in case the fuel expands. That means I can only get 400 gallons. I had my tank filled at the end of September at $2.00 a gallon. Our other neighbor, Sheri, got her propane tank filled yesterday and it cost her $2.66 a gallon.

I couldn’t understand why she bought propane instead of wood till I talked to her and found out she has gravity feed on her propane tank. She doesn’t need electricity and there is a safety valve if the pilot light goes out.

I have questioned before why the Directors of the county Air Pollution Control District are restricting use of fireplaces, a functional burn that creates warmth. California allows people to burn their yard clippings; in fact it was a burn day the day before the storm. Why does California allow yard clipping burnings, but not in-home wood fires that actually keep people warm. There are many people out here in the country that live on fixed incomes. They can’t afford $2.66 a gallon for propane. If you have oak trees on your property, or you know someone, you can get the wood cheap.

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Even wood is expensive this time of year and you have to get it before the storm, because no one will deliver during the storm. I called around to different firewood guys and got prices anywhere from $270 to $399 a cord. That’s a big difference in price for the same amount of wood. Propane prices usually try to stay competitive with each other, so I couldn’t understand why the prices of wood would be so different. A couple of reasons are:

1. Whether the wood is seasoned. Seasoned wood is lighter and burns more efficiently. Apparently, there are two places wood burns, in the fireplace and in the baffle. If the wood isn’t seasoned there is water in the wood, which creates steam, which doesn’t allow the second fire to burn as hot.

2. The wood it’self contains different BTUs. Wood is measured by the (British thermal unit’s) BTUs it produces and different woods create different BTUs. For instance, soft wood (pine, etc) doesn’t have the same amount of BTUs as hard wood (Oak and walnut). I called Ron, at Ron’s firewood and he told me that blue oak has about 15 million tons per cord more of BTUs than white oak.

It makes sense to me that blue oak would be denser. Blue oak, I’m told, grows about 6 inches a year. We had about 800 blue oaks down the road from us and the county people were in an uproar because the city people wanted to pull them up and build homes. It’s against the law to pull up trees that are less than 6 inches in diameter, but since these blue oaks were only 75 years old they hadn’t grown to 6 inches in diameter.

Not having power makes me wonder how our electric cars would work without electricity. I still haven’t figured out why Schwarzenegger hasn’t given a mandate that any home costing over $475,000 has to have a solar roof. Really, if you can afford that much for a home, tack on another $20,000 and get a solar roof and a jumbo loan. Every solar roof we put up is like taking one car off the road.

After 36 hours with no power the fun was over. We didn’t have power and I was tired of lighting candles, making fires and eating off paper plates. The winter blast was still going on, we needed a generator. I called Home Depot, Lowes and Costco. All of them told me the same thing; there were no generators in any store in the area. Even the parts needed to bootleg the system into your house were sold out. But once again, when you’re in the country, neighbors help neighbors.

We got a generator and bootlegged it through our dryer. We put the generator in the carport with both windows open, because the fumes were so heavy. The generator could hold 5,500 watts and run for ten hours on five gallons of gasoline. Our house would be warm and our fish would live.

After sixty hours of no power Sheri walked over and told us the power was restored. We had turned all our power off to bootleg the system, and had less than 5,500 watts on at any given time. But not everyone was as lucky. Ann and Bob’s electric wire to their house had broken and when the power came back on it surged through their house and started a fire in the computer room.

But this is the country and another neighbor opened their home and hearth to them.

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About the Author:

Lou Ann Hammond is the CEO of Carlist and Driving the Nation. She is the co-host of Real Wheels Washington Post carchat every Friday morning and is the Automotive, energy correspondent for The John Batchelor Show and a Contributor to Automotive Electronics magazine headquartered in Korea. Hammond is a member of the North American Car and Truck of the Year (NACTOY), Women's World Car of the Year (WWCOTY), and the Concept Car of the Year.

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