I'd rather be in Margaritaville, but the reality is that it's snowing and each night the temperature settles into the teens. The old heat pump grinds away (for how much longer?), keeping it 65 degrees inside; quite comfortable with thick socks and my trusty Old Navy fleece vest on. We are totally dependent on electricity and have no backup if it went out -- and it can: last winter's ice storm in western Kentucky and Tennessee left people without for up to three weeks. You'd better know how to turn off your water and drain the system when that happens. If your home is old and uninsulated, like Zach's or many of those in rural areas, lack of heat is going to freeze those pipes much sooner than later. Years ago, we had a kerosene heater like everyone else around here, but quickly found out that it was even more dangerous than smelly. As a backup, it would only be marginally good for a very short while.
We don't have a good record of choosing alternatives to stave off emergency or save on energy consumption. The kerosene heater was abandoned years ago (I just used it to heat garages when working in them; ours now is too small to be useful as a shop), and recently we gave up on the electric on-demand hot water heater. Zach's two Chinese-made electric space heaters both died just when he needed them this month. Our Bosch on-demand water heater's performance was bizarrely erratic and it produced only a tiny stream of hot water. So much for going for a quality brand instead of a cheaper Chinese piece of junk.
In the county seat of Carlisle, they're making much more progress. The school district has started up their solar farm, and Dickinson College has had an environmental studies program since the 1970s. In 1990, an experimental dorm, the Center for Sustainable Living (known as "The Treehouse"), was established and it was extensively renovated four years ago. The residents practice a self-directed, low consumption lifestyle, composting merrily, drying clothes on lines, and have hit a mark (in mild October) of using 12 kilowatts of energy all day. That's less than one KW hour per person, while an average residential customer uses 30 KW hours.
The ES Department has renovated its building to include a green roof, solar, geothermal, natural lighting, and major water conservation. It was LEED Gold certified. Those ES students walk the walk in class, in the community and at home. They were also involved in the school district's success in building the solar farm -- speaking of which, they have a 6-acre vegetable farm, too. They have installed wind turbines and solar arrays on their campus; the solar hot water heater for their dorm was designed by Dickinson physics professor Hans Pfister and built by them using recycled parts.
They're doing a lot better than we are!
I'm thinking, after much of my usual low-quality research, of a liquid-alcohol fuel fireplace as backup heat if the power goes out. Gel alcohol fuel in cans is more expensive and has to be delivered; liquid denatured alcohol is available locally. It's half as much per gallon if you can get it in a 55-gallon drum, but you're not supposed to store that inside and it may not be legal anyway. More data needed. Alcohol burning produces nothing but CO2 (as much as a person breathing) and a little water vapor; such a fireplace does not require coal, wood full of insects, piles of wood pellets in 50 lb. bags, or a big ugly LP gas container outside. It would heat about 500 square feet, or our main living/dining room and stairs.
Anyway, the wheels go round and round, thinking about what should or can be done to be ready for energy-supply loss, sudden or gradual.
If the example at Dickinson had been embraced all over the world decades ago, we could face diminishing energy supplies with some confidence.
If houses had been built smaller, well-insulated, passive solar, with rain-collecting/graywater recycling systems, we would not be so pathetically vulnerable.
Nice try, Dickinson.