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Generator question arises after storm

Should West Virginia's 1,392 gas retailers be required to have a standby power source in the event of another long-term power outage?

That question may be tossed around as West Virginia continues to recover from a storm that left hundreds of thousands in the dark for days.

Jimmy Gianato, the state's director of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, thinks lawmakers can look into the issue during their next session.

Gianato acknowledged that the lack of electricity and standby power at gas stations led to long lines and fuel shortages at stations that did have power.

Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va, expressed concern.

"I would hope some of our area learned the necessity of having backup generators, especially gas stations," the Third District congressman said.

"That's been a surprise to me, the number of gas stations that have not had backup generators, therefore unable to pump gas. Some had generators, but they didn't do any good."

Rep. Zeke Zalaski, D-Conn., vowed to introduce a bill mandating backup generators in gas stations and senior housing in his state after a freak October 2011 snowstorm knocked out power to hundreds of thousands.

Michael Fox, executive director for the Gasoline and Automotive Dealers Association of America in Stamford, Conn., called Zalaski's plan "the dumbest thing in the world."

Fox said it could cost as much as $27 million to equip Connecticut's estimated 1,100 gas stations with sufficient generators. He said a generator capable of powering gas pumps is "the size of a car" and would cost about $25,000.

Only Florida and Louisiana require service stations to be able to switch to an alternative energy source in the event of a power failure.

Florida enacted such a law in 2006, the year after Hurricane Wilma caused widespread power outages. The aftermath created gas lines up to five miles long on the Florida Turnpike.

Under the statute, every service station in the state must have a power transfer switch installed by a certified electrical contractor, and the fuel pumps, life-safety equipment and payment terminals must be capable of operating on an alternative energy source for at least 72 hours after an outage.

Corporations or entities are required to have one generator per 10 gas stations owned. The generator must be stored in or within 250 miles of the state of Florida, and it must be available for use in an affected area within 24 hours of a disaster.

Louisiana's law is similar to Florida's but affects only service stations in certain southern parishes constructed after Oct. 1, 2009.

In 2011, California assemblymen Jeff Gorell and Wesley Chesbro proposed a bill that would have given service station owners a 50 percent tax credit, or up to $2,500, for the purchase of an energy-efficient standby generator. The bill died in committee.

People contacted via the Daily Mail's Facebook page had mixed opinions on requiring gas stations to have standby generators.

"I think WV should keep their hand out of private industry, and let the stations themselves figure out that it would behoove them to have backup power," Logan Wheatcraft wrote.

"People should be better prepared for these events," Christina Piper agreed. "These wide spread outages happen how often? Would it really be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars for these companies to retrofit equipment for that once a decade possibility?"

Rita Winser argued in favor of the requirement.

"It should be part of the requirements for gas on interstates and main roads," Winser said. "Travelers were stranded People needed fuel for breathing equipment and necessities."

"It wouldn't have done much good last weekend," Sandy Drake pointed out. "All the back-up generators in the world can't pump gas that hasn't been delivered yet."

Gianato said most of West Virginia Homeland Security and Emergency Management's fuel stations have backup generators. He thinks this week's experience will help those affected be better prepared next time.

"You have lessons learned from every event and this is no different," Gianato said. "I think this is something people will look at and make a determination on whether (buying a generator) is the right decision for them.

"It would certainly help for the facilities to have the capability to operate without power. We always want to be better prepared. I'm sure when this storm is over, we're gonna take a look at things and see what we did right and did wrong, and see what we can do better."

Rahall also predicted changes would stem from the disaster.  

"I think after this is all over, and every person's power is back on, then we sit down and decide what lessons we really learned," he said.

Daily Mail Capitol reporter Jared Hunt contributed to this report.

Contact writer Marcus Constantino at 304-348-4872 or marcus.c@dailymail.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/amtino.


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