Power transmission lines stand against the sky at sunset.

Disaster 101

Blackouts are likely this summer — here’s how to prepare

There are steps you can take to prepare yourself, and your home, for these times.

Getty

In June, state officials from Arizona to Illinois warned of impending blackouts across the West and Midwest over the summer months due, in part, to extreme heat. These warnings come on the heels of a U.S. Energy Information Administration report stressing that the megadrought in California could have serious impacts on the state’s electricity generation this summer.

“There are places in the world where people are used to power outages. It's just we're really not used to that in America,” Kyri Baker, an assistant professor of building systems engineering at the University of Colorado Boulder, tells Inverse.

With looming blackouts on the horizon — Texans are already being asked to conserve energy amidst extreme heat due to power outages — Americans may need to become accustomed to adjustments they wouldn’t previously have considered. Inverse spoke with energy experts to explain why power outages will become more frequent and what steps you can take to prepare yourself — and your home — for them.

Will blackouts become more frequent?

“I think, unfortunately, blackouts will continue to increase. That's what the data suggests,” Baker says.

Blackouts are on the rise for a few reasons, but especially because of extreme heat.

“There are the direct impacts, where the heat literally reduces the ability of power lines to deliver the same amount of power,” Baker says, adding that metal carries less electrical current at higher temperatures than at average or low temperatures.

Another direct impact is increased consumer demand, such as higher usage of air conditioning during extreme heat. Baker says one reason why California suffered blackouts in 2021 is that their grid couldn’t handle the demand.

Many energy systems, ranging from hydrothermal to nuclear plants, rely upon water to power their operations. Therefore, water shortages can lead to power outages, too.

Nuclear plants “need millions of gallons of water a day to cool,” Baker says.

These factors, along with recent power plant retirements and aging of the electrical grid in the U.S., are “exacerbating the frequency of outages,” according to Baker.

It’s always a good idea to have spare water stored on hand for emergencies, experts say. Getty

How to prepare for blackouts

Keep cool

Loss of power means no air conditioning, which can be life-threatening during extreme heat. Baker says she was in San Antonio, Texas earlier this summer, which saw extremely high temperatures exceeding 101 degrees.

“I hate that this was one of my first thoughts, but one of my first thoughts was if the power goes out, there's going to be a lot of people that die,” Baker says.

You can read our guide on how to prepare for extreme heat, but here are some essential tips:

  • Stay in the basement or lowest level of your home. That’s where it will be the coolest.
  • Check-in on elderly relatives and neighbors
  • Find community cooling shelters or other indoor areas like malls
  • Wear loose-fitting and light-colored clothing
  • Drink small amounts of water frequently, about every 15 to 20 minutes
  • Pack a to-go bag in case you need to temporarily evacuate to a friend’s home or a cooling center
  • Go outside in the early morning and late evening when it’s the coolest
  • Don’t exercise during daytime hours
  • Purchase a battery-operated portable fan and keep spare batteries on hand

When preparing basements as shelters during power outages, Adelle Monteblanco, an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology at Middle Tennessee State University, says to make sure you have a first-aid kit down there and other special needs accommodations, such as oxygen concentrators.

If you don’t have a basement, consider “keeping your bed as low to the ground as possible,” Sarah Jameson, Marketing Director of Green Building Elements, which offers resources and services for building-related needs. Jameson has a background in green technology and construction practices.

“This is useful during the night when the humidity from the air rises up in the air,” Jameson adds.

Check your community’s information resources

“You should check your city or town’s website to see if there is an emergency alert system you can sign up for,” Samantha L. Montano, Assistant Professor of the Emergency Management Department at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy and an expert in disaster preparation, tells Inverse.

It’s also wise to follow your town’s social media pages on Facebook and Twitter to receive real-time updates on disasters and emergency situations like blackouts.

“Through those channels, you should be able to see updates about extreme heat warnings, information about power outages, the location of cooling centers, etc,” Montano says.

Keep your neighbors, friends, and loved ones informed about scheduled outages or community cooling centers — don’t assume they have access to the same information that you do. Monteblanco says community care and social networks are “necessary” during extreme weather.

“There are so many communication hurdles, leaving the most marginalized without access to information,” Monteblanco adds.

Buy portable power stations

If you can afford to buy a portable solar panel power station, it might be a good idea, though it depends on the frequency of outages in your area. If you have only one power outage for a few hours in the summer, you may not find it worthwhile, says Bri-Mathias Hodge, associate director and a fellow of the Renewable and Sustainable Energy Institute (RASEI) at the University of Colorado Boulder.

But if you live in a place where blackouts are likely to be frequent, especially in areas in the West where utility companies cut off power to reduce the likelihood of fires, it’s probably worth purchasing some type of inexpensive backup energy source so you can charge small devices like phones or power laptops for remote work.

“Portable solar panels are a cheap and easy way to keep your USB-powered devices running in a blackout,” John Ramey, founder of The Prepared — a resource and community offering tips to prepare for emergencies and life disasters like extreme heat — tells Inverse.

If you depend on certain life-saving devices, like oxygen generators, a backup power source would be necessary, even if the outage lasts just a few hours.

Loss of power means no air conditioning, which can be life-threatening during extreme heat.

Companies like Jackery and GoalZero offer portable solar panels ranging anywhere from $60 to $500-plus depending on the size and parameters. The amount of time it takes to charge a portable solar panel varies depending on factors like time of year and day, the angle of the panel, and the amount of sunlight, but it typically takes at least four hours.

“There are now solar generators on the market that are fantastic in hot climates, most of which are safe to run indoors and can keep crucial appliances and devices running,” Bob Newman tells Inverse. Newman is an emergency preparation expert with Batten Safe, a company that offers emergency preparation products and services.

Small solar panels probably won’t work for bigger devices like fridges or air conditioners, but you can try powering a small DIY air conditioner with it, according to Davin Eberhardt, founder of Nature of Home. Eberhardt has expertise in home redesign and has been an electrician with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers since 2004.

But for individuals whose life-saving devices — such as oxygen machines — require electricity, it’s a must to have some kind of larger backup power station or generator.

“But if you want to generate enough solar power to support something like a mini-fridge or a CPAP machine, you'll need to get panels that are too large for a backpack,” Ramey adds.

If solar isn’t an option in your area, you can also try purchasing a smaller, inexpensive power bank specifically for your phone or laptop or a larger rechargeable power station from Jackery or Goal Zero that you charge normally in advance of blackouts, which could power small devices like phones for several hours and power medium-sized devices like electric grills, a small air conditioner unit or even a CPAP machine depending on the type of power station.

Basic power stations can range from just above $100 to several hundred dollars. For those who can afford it, there are also power stations in the $1500-plus range that can power major devices in your home like a fridge, keeping your perishable items from going bad. Among these higher-end power stations, Derek Detenber, the Chief Marketing and Merchandising Officer for Batteries Plus, which offers battery and lighting services for customers, recommends the Yeti 1500X Portable Power Station, which can charge a fridge for 55 hours or a CPAP machine for 24 hours.

Baker says that if you work remotely for a company, it could be worthwhile to ask your employer to pay for a rechargeable power station that can power a laptop because even a few hours of power outage can translate to a loss of economic productivity.

“So, that might even make sense for companies to pay for some of their workers to have these backup power systems,” Baker says.

Insulating homes, especially in cracks around doors and windows, can help reduce energy consumption. Getty

Store drinking water and food for emergencies

Blackouts in your area could affect the water supply. Montano says having a gallon of water on hand for drinking and functions like flushing the toilet could come in handy for homes whose water supplies are connected to electricity.

But Hodge says most water supply systems can deal with a lot of pressure, so it would have to be a “more sustained outage” to really affect the water in your toilet or shower, such as during the blackouts that occurred in Texas in 2021.

Yet, Ramey says it’s generally a good idea to have safe drinking water on hand in any emergency situation — not just blackouts.

“One of the most critical, universal preps is to have potable water stored in your home ahead of time, and ideally a filter or other way to treat more water when you run out of what's stored,” Ramey says.

Keeping shelf-stable food — especially if your home requires electricity for cooking — is also necessary during a blackout.

Keeping shelf-stable food — especially if your home requires electricity for cooking — is necessary during a blackout.

“You should make sure you have supplies at home like an air conditioner, fans, generator/ gas, shelf-stable food, and drinking water,” Montano says.

Minimize sunlight into the home

The southern side of the home typically gets exposed most to sunlight, so any longer-term planning you can do to reduce sunlight to that side of the home would be wise.

These other tips also help.

Join energy-saving programs

Some states offer programs that help to reduce energy consumption. In California, residents can enroll in a clean energy program known as OhmConnect, which “pays residents to lessen their energy consumption when the grid is stressed,” Cisco DeVries, CEO of OhmConnect and former aide to the U.S. Secretary of Energy during the Clinton Administration, tells Inverse.

If you live in a place where blackouts are likely to be frequent...it’s probably worth purchasing some type of inexpensive backup energy source.

During peak hours, the program asks users to unplug devices such as computers or avoid using their laundry machines. The program saves households anywhere from $25 to $50 a month on their energy bills. Other states may offer similar programs through local utility providers.

The federal government, in partnership with states and utility providers, also runs the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), which assists low-income individuals with energy costs.

Run energy-intensive devices during off-hours

But even if an energy-savings program doesn’t exist in your state, you can still voluntarily avoid using energy-intensive devices during times of peak demand. According to DeVries, energy usage is highest — and most expensive — at 6 pm.

“If people shift their behavior and do laundry in the morning or throughout the day instead of at 6 pm, their home would be greener – and their bills will decrease,” DeVries says.

Hodge refers to running devices during peak energy demand as “vampire loads.” Reducing these vampire loads could be as simple as unplugging your TV or other devices not in use during the peak early evening hours since these devices continue to draw power from the grid even when they are not in use.

“There's a lot of things we call sometimes vampire loads that maybe don't need to be on during the peak time. You can help the power system out by turning some of those things off,” Hodge says.

Use energy-efficient appliances

To save energy and money, DeVries also suggests buying energy-efficient appliances recommended by Energy Star — an energy savings initiative that partners with the Environmental Protection Agency.

For example, Energy Star-certified washing machines use 25 percent less energy and 33 percent less water than typical machines.

Energy Star also offers energy-efficient tankless heaters, which “don’t have to keep a large hot water tank hot, therefore eliminating the standby energy loss that occurs with traditional tank water heaters,” according to DeVries. Tankless heaters can cost between $500 to $1000, but use 30 percent less energy than storage tank heaters on average.

If you’re a renter, you may not have control over the large appliances in your home, but you can still consider swapping out your incandescent bulbs for energy-efficient LED bulbs.

“Incandescent light bulbs generate more heat than energy-efficient light bulbs,” Jameson says.

Finally, DeVries suggests using “smart” power strips, which “will detect when you’re no longer using a device and turn off the power supply.” Smart thermostats like Google Nest, which automatically adjust your temperature to make your home energy-efficient, are also a good move.

Insulate your home properly

Proper insulation, especially around your windows, will reduce energy loss, keep your home cool and make the home more resilient during power outages. It might seem expensive but it will save you money in the long run.

According to Energy Star, air leakage can account for somewhere between “25 percent and 40 percent of the energy used for heating and cooling in a typical residence.”

“Improving the insulation — the glazing around the windows — really helps hold in the temperature that you want so your A/C doesn't have to be blasting for as long,” the University of Colorado Boulder’s Baker says.

“If you live in an old house of single-pane windows, going to double-pane or triple-pane windows can make an enormous difference in terms of your energy usage,” Hodge adds.

One common type of insulation is air insulation, which uses methods like caulking, spray foam, and weather stripping to seal cracks around doors and windows in the home.

Buy a heat pump

If you can afford it, Baker suggests purchasing a heat pump, which is more energy-efficient than A/C because it can both heat and cool your home. During the summer, the heat pump transfers heat from the home to the outdoors, and vice versa during the winter.

“Heat pumps offer an energy-efficient alternative to furnaces and air conditioners for all climates,” writes the Department of Energy on their website.

They aren’t cheap, however. The average heat pump costs nearly $6,000.

Solar energy can help

Renewable energy is much better for the environment than natural gas, and it can be particularly helpful during blackouts, too. Any energy the household doesn’t use goes back to the grid, helping ease power supply during times of peak demand and typically providing users a financial credit for the extra energy generated.

“If you have distributed solar on your rooftop, for example, you're generally producing power during some of the peak load times,” Hodge says.

Additionally, some solar-powered homes can disconnect from the grid and retain power during a blackout, depending on how they’re installed.

Both Hodge and Baker say you can consider looking into community solar for a cheaper option than purchasing individual solar panels for your home. But such a measure would also require community approval and to pass any local regulations, making it potentially complicated.

“During the case of a wider grid blackout, they can disconnect from the main grid and they can power their local community in the microgrid,” Baker says.