How come no generators?

Newshour tonight had a piece on rebuilding the electric infrastructure trashed by Ike. It began with a family in an undamaged suburban house almost a week after the storm, using candles and a camping stove for cooking. Interestingly, the housewife interviewed illustrated her main gripe as wondering every day where and whether they can get ice. A week after the storm, only about half of almost two million customers (I think this means people, not households/meters) have their power back. The show was mostly about how complete the electric system destruction was and how much has to be rebuilt, but I’m wondering about that family trying to function hauling ice in their car.


Here’s a generator that costs $350; another hundred bucks gets two five-gallon safety cans. I bet that looks like a mighty fine deal to a lot of those folks. If you’re careful about opening the fridge door as little as possible, and run the generator a few hours a day, ten gallons of gasoline will keep food cold for three or four days, with a couple of real lights in the evening (cfls, of course). The roads are open, most people have their cars, and they can drive to a functioning gas station every couple of days; what they don’t have is electricity and won’t for a long time.

Why doesn’t everyone in places liable to hurricanes and earthquakes, who isn’t really poor, and doesn’t live in an apartment, have a generator? Even one for every two houses would be a big help. Why hasn’t the market flooded the area with generators instead of all that ice? Why hasn’t FEMA been on the spot with trucks full of generators and gas cans for the grasshoppers, for sale at market price (maybe cheap for anyone whose house is less than X square feet, a crude means test)?

Safety note: RBC readers probably know all this, but I have to add this nanny-posting appendix: Do not store any gasoline in your house, any! These Darwin Award contenders got off very easy! If your water heater, or anything with a pilot light is in your garage, not there either! Gasoline vapor is heavier than air, and will flow down to the basement where your furnace is; if there are stairs from the garage down to the basement, no gas! Don’t store it in anything but a real, metal safety can! Don’t fill the can unless it’s sitting on the ground (not in your trunk, not your pickup bed)!

Be sure to put gas stabilizer in the gas cans each time you fill them, and cycle it (every few months, put it in your car and refill the cans). If you don’t keep the gas fresh, it will gum the carburetor of the generator terminally and you’ll be on the road for ice when you didn’t want to be. And of course, keep the generator empty; drain the tank and then run the engine dry after you use or test it.

Finally, don’t connect the generator to your house wiring unless you have, and know how to install and use, an interface kit. You run a real risk of knocking a lineman off his pole when he comes to hook you up; use extension cords.

Update:Andy S, grouchy perhaps because he just whacked his thumb putting up a picture, differs here.

Update 2: A reader points out that unless the gas station has power, and deliveries, the generator isn’t worth much, and points out the Florida now requires gas stations to have generators for this reason, which seems like a good piece of policy. But note also that if anyone has ice to sell, it’s probably a gas station/convenience store…

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.