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Encore: Home generator sales spike with mass outages, climate change and COVID


Climate-driven events can leave hundreds of thousands of people without power and in the dark. People thinking about hurricanes or wildfires or bomb cyclones are, more and more, installing home generators. NPR’s Jeff Brady reports

JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: outside christopher Glenn's Oregon house, next to the garage is a home standby generator installed after an experience in 2019.

CHRISTOPHER GLENN: We had a major snowstorm that brought about three feet of snow to our backyard, and we were without electricity for approximately a week.

BRADY: Glenn's spouse works remotely. And without electricity, he couldn't work. They also have an organic tea business that was shut down during the outage.

GLENN: A customer in Ohio or Florida or Texas, they don't care if we're with or without power out here in Oregon. They want to know why we're not responding.

BRADY: Beyond snowstorms, Glenn also is concerned about wildfire season. Like in California, Oregon utilities sometimes turn off electricity so power lines don't spark fires. Glenn says the next time the power goes out, this big white box next to his garage will keep the lights on.


BRADY: The generator powers the entire house, the business and charges an electric car. And the cost - $9,000, including installation. Despite that, the home generator business is booming. One manufacturer, Generac Power Systems, had a 50% jump in revenue last year, according to president and CEO Aaron Jagdfeld.

AARON JAGDFELD: Our typical homeowner would live in a single family, unattached house, probably lives a little bit more suburban than urban, right? So this is not a product that would be for if you live in a condominium or an apartment.

BRADY: These large home standby generators typically burn natural gas or propane. Paul Hope with Consumer Reports says because they were expensive, they account for only about 5% of the generator market.

PAUL HOPE: The vast majority of generators run on gasoline and are different sizes of portable generators.

BRADY: These cost as little as a few hundred dollars. You'll have to choose what gets power during an outage. You can connect a generator directly to your circuit breaker box to power your house. That requires an electrician. Without that, you have to run extension cords from the generator to individual appliances.

Safety is a big issue. The Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates about 70 people die each year from carbon monoxide poisoning from portable generators. The agency says the machine must be at least 20 feet from a house, but that can be a problem for some people, says Hope.

HOPE: Maybe they don't have five or six heavy duty outdoor-rated extension cords to run, you know, from a generator that's at least 20 feet from the house. So they naturally try to bring it a little bit closer, plug some things directly into the generator and, you know, use fewer cords that way.

BRADY: But that risks carbon monoxide poisoning. Most new generators have automatic shutoffs if carbon monoxide levels get too high. Finally, Hope says you also should consider the climate change consequences of backing up your power this way.

HOPE: The sort of tragic irony of generators is they're actually horrible fossil fuel-burning polluters.

BRADY: So they contribute to the same climate change that's producing more severe weather and outages. A cleaner but more expensive option is installing solar panels and batteries. Those will keep the power on like a generator but only as long as there's enough sun to charge the batteries. Jeff Brady, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jeff Brady is a National Desk Correspondent based in Philadelphia, where he covers energy issues and climate change. Brady helped establish NPR's environment and energy collaborative which brings together NPR and Member station reporters from across the country to cover the big stories involving the natural world.