Power outages are increasingly common, putting everything from clean drinking water to medical equipment at risk. Some communities are installing solar power and large batteries to protect themselves.



Thousands of Texans still lack clean drinking water after the historic blackouts two weeks ago. Extreme weather is increasingly causing these kinds of disasters around the country. So some communities are keeping the power on for vulnerable people and infrastructure by installing giant batteries. NPR's Lauren Sommer has more.

LAUREN SOMMER, BYLINE: As the power outage dragged on in Austin, a lot of residents worried about heat. But another problem quickly emerged. Without power, there's no water, as Austin Water Director Greg Meszaros alerted the community.


GREG MESZAROS: Our Ullrich Treatment Plant, which is our largest plant, had experienced an electrical disruption and was out of service.

SOMMER: The main water treatment plant went dark, which meant the water wasn't clean enough to drink. Water infrastructure needs power, something that became very clear almost a decade ago in New Jersey.

ANDREW POWERS: I'll never forget driving that day, and the whole state was just black.

SOMMER: Andrew Powers is with PSEG, an electric utility in New Jersey. Superstorm Sandy had caused the largest power outage in state history, including at sewage treatment plants. Many had backup generators, but they didn't hold up.

POWERS: It took several weeks for the state to really come back. Generators were destroyed, and they weren't able to get diesel fuel to their generator.

SOMMER: Without power, wastewater treatment plants can't clean the sewage, and many were flooded by the storm. Billions of gallons of untreated sewage were released into waterways. Powers says the storm was a wake-up call, so the utility began installing these.


SOMMER: That hum comes from a giant battery, about as tall as a person. At the wastewater treatment plant in Caldwell, N.J., it's connected to solar panels.

POWERS: In the event of a storm, we're prepared during those outages or those - let's say that prolonged outage. Sun comes out. The solar generates energy.

SOMMER: That solar energy helps run the plant. And when the sun goes down, the battery kicks in. Combined with the backup generator, Powers says the plant could run like this for weeks. The utility also installed battery and solar systems at other key spots, like a hospital and a high school that can serve as a warming or cooling center during extreme weather.

But sometimes during blackouts, people need solutions closer to home. In Northern California, Richard Terrano's life changed when the Camp Fire burned through his town in 2018.

RICHARD TERRANO: It basically took an entire community and wiped it out. I've lived here, oh, 50 years, and everything that I knew prior to the fire is gone.

SOMMER: Since then, Terrano faces regular blackouts during fire season when the utility turns off the power to reduce fire risk. It's a problem because he needs supplemental oxygen, and that medical equipment runs on electricity. He tried using a small generator, but the fuel runs about a hundred dollars a day, and he's on a fixed income.

TERRANO: It'll take your entire monthly fuel budget. It'll eat it up in a matter of hours.

SOMMER: Then he heard about a program from the California Foundation for Independent Living Centers, in partnership with the utility PG&E, to loan out portable batteries.

TERRANO: Probably about 18 inches square. It's like a large block, and it'll run my equipment for several days before a recharge is necessary.

SOMMER: Almost 3,000 batteries are being loaned to Californians with medical needs this year because the blackouts will keep coming.

MELISSA LOTT: I remember being in Texas in 2011 and having a four-hour blackout in the middle of that cold storm.

SOMMER: Melissa Lott is research director at Columbia University's Center on Global Energy Policy.

LOTT: People are going, once-in-a-century storm. Here we are 10 years later with an even more extreme storm.

SOMMER: Lott says batteries can help keep crucial services running when that happens. While the cost is coming down, they're still more expensive than traditional power sources, though maybe not when you compare it to the cost of these blackouts.

LOTT: If we'd really saw that risk coming and we did a calculation, we might figure out it's a heck of a lot cheaper. In the back of the envelope, calculations say it's a heck of a lot cheaper to invest in some of the technologies we didn't invest in.

SOMMER: No electric grid is perfect, she says, especially with climate change creating more extremes. So the key is to be ready when things go wrong.

Lauren Sommer, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.