In advance of big storms, widespread evacuation and consumer stockpiling nearly tap out local supplies of gasoline and diesel. Nearby refineries that supply those fuels must shut down operations, and they frequently suffer storm damage that can delay their restart for weeks.
After the storm, emergency response vehicles and heavy equipment needed to reinstate services and clear debris introduce a priority demand on scarce local supplies of gasoline and diesel. When the electricity goes out, critical infrastructure such as communication towers, hospitals, response command centers, and essential government and business operations rely on standby generators, which only adds to gasoline and diesel demand. Gasoline stations without backup power are useless. Individual consumers often end up waiting in long lines to fill their cars and plastic gasoline containers.
My professional interest is how propane is affected by and responds to natural disasters. Most people only know propane by that small gas tank connected to their backyard grills. Actually, propane is a clean, highly portable energy source used for a variety of applications in homes, businesses, farms, and vehicles across the country. A globally traded commodity used in both developed and emerging societies, propane is a microcosm of the global energy market.
Very useful in disaster response, propane can be moved quickly to where energy is needed and, once there, meet many energy needs. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Red Cross use a lot of propane (and other fuels) in disaster response. It is a preferred energy resource at relief stations and temporary shelters for displaced citizens, providing fuel for cooking, hot water, space heat, and generators.
Providing electricity during power outages creates substantial demand for all fuels to power portable and permanent standby generators. That's especially true for propane. An estimated 40% of the usual November propane deliveries on Long Island were made in just the first five days after the storm, primarily to supply generators. Cylinder exchange providers saw demand soar some 35% above the all time peak as people used more propane for cooking and heating.
Demand in the region for generators and combined heat and power units is likely to grow over the next year or so. That's what happened after Katrina along the Gulf. Even now, individuals, governments, businesses and other organizations are assessing the impacts and response, determining their readiness needs for the future.
As recovery progresses, everybody will learn something from the experience. The wise find ways to better prepare for the next storm. They know it will come.
Willis is president and CEO of the Propane Education & Research Council (PERC).