With Blackouts, California’s Electric Car Owners Are Finding New Ways To Charge Up

Clarence Dold used his 2013 Nissan Leaf to power his house during a four-day blackout in Santa Rosa, Calif., as a result of the Kincade Fire.

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Lawrence Levee’s evacuation call came at 4 a.m. The Getty fire was just a few miles away. He and all of his Mandeville Canyon neighbors needed to evacuate.

He grabbed what he could and threw it into his bright blue electric Chevy Bolt. His car battery only charged halfway, but that left him with plenty of power to make a quick getaway and then some.

But after driving around the next day, running errands in an area he didn’t know well, he was in a pickle. He couldn’t find a charging station. And he had 25 miles left to his tank.

“Where are the cheap charging stations?” Levy asked a Facebook group for Bolt owners, where members have been talking about how to charge up in a disaster situation.

Levee is one of hundreds of thousands of electric car drivers in California, many of whom are caught in a state-wide struggle for electric power. As flames rip through rural and urban areas, utilities are cutting about a million customers off the grid. The blackouts sometimes last for days at a time, forcing some electric car owners to find alternative ways to charge up.

It’s an ironic conundrum in a state that’s home to more electric cars than any other other. California has just under half of the electric cars in sold in the U.S., EV Volumes, a group that tracks electric car sales.

In Levee’s case, he didn’t expect to be away from his house so long. Normally, he’d pull into his garage and connect to a solar-powered battery. But that was impossible. Instead, he tried to hit up a nearby public charger that he remembered driving past a couple of times. But when he got there, it was broken.

Dreaded “range anxiety” set in. If he didn’t plug-in soon, he could end up stranded.

But his trusty Bolt Facebook group came to the rescue. That’s where electric car fans commiserate, offer advice and do the occasional gas-car-driver bashing. Lately, they’ve been talking about black outs. They pointed him to an app, and he found a free charger at a mall a few miles away.

Levee has only owned his Bolt for eight months, and already he says he’ll “never go back to a regular car.” Despite the brief inconvenience and the fire evacuations that are in his future, he notes California has better electric car infrastructure than any other state with 18,000 public charging stations, according to the California Energy Commission.

And some electric car owners are taking advantage of these charging stations in new ways.

Clarence Dold lives in Sonoma County, which had been ravaged by the Kincade fire. Dold owns a 2013 Nissan Leaf and was left without power for four days.

But Dold found an ingenious use for his car: as a generator to power his house.

All it took was a pair of jumper cables that he connected to the Leaf’s battery and an inverter about the size of a dictionary. The inverter box changes direct current (DC) power, the kind that powers electric cars, into alternating current (AC), the electrical current that powers homes.

After that, he ran a series of heavy duty extension cords into the main rooms of his ranch house. Throughout the blackout, Dold said, “were watching TV, and had a cold fridge and a couple of lights and things seemed normal.”

The whole thing cost about $200 — a fraction of the price of a generator, which can run thousands of dollars.

Every few hours, Dold said, he’d make his way back into the car to check the battery gauge. He wanted to make sure the house didn’t depleting the car of too much power. If it did, he’d disconnect the cables and drive 5 miles away to recharge at a public charging station.

“The power outages are not over a broad area; this isn’t like a hurricane hitting Florida,” he explained.

During the blackout, the rest of the neighborhood was a cacophony of gas and electric generator rumblings. Meanwhile, his Nissan Leaf was virtually silent.

For Dold, and other enterprising electric car owners like him, that’s the secret sauce to surviving what’s becoming the new normal in California.

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Wildfires Rage In Australian State: ‘We’ve Simply Never Had This Number Of Fires’

A firefighter monitors a fire on Saturday near Port Macquarie in New South Wales. Australia’s most populous state has been subject to a large outbreak of wildfires because of drought conditions.

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An unprecedented number of wildfires are raging across Australia’s most populous state. Fire officials say there were nearly 100 active fires in New South Wales on Friday, with dozens reaching “out of control” status.

The wildfires have charred hundreds of thousands of acres across the state, driven by extremely hot, dry and windy conditions. Thousands of residents in New South Wales have been forced to leave their homes.

“We’ve simply never had this number of fires burn in North South Wales at the same time,” NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said at a briefing Friday.

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Fitzsimmons says Australia’s persistent drought is one of the major causes of the massive outbreak of fires — and that as Australia enters its summer months, erratic and dangerous fire behavior will continue.

“There’s just nothing in our forecast to suggest anything but a dominance of above-average temperatures and below-average rainfall,” he said. “We’ve still got to get into summer, where typically we have our worst of weather conditions.”

This shows the dangerous conditions that have confronted firefighters and residents today. This is the crew from Warringah HQ at the Hillville fire near Taree. #nswrfs #nswfires pic.twitter.com/lIhnF8P1Qf

— NSW RFS (@NSWRFS) November 8, 2019

Rainfall last month was extremely low across New South Wales and other parts of Australia, with some regions recording their driest October ever. The nation’s Bureau of Meteorology says this trend will continue until the end of the year.

Bright orange skies engulfed coastal towns in New South Wales on Friday, and smoke and ash from the wildfires covered Sydney with a gloomy haze. As of Saturday, 100 homes in New South Wales had been destroyed and two people were missing, according to the state’s Rural Fire Service. At least one person has died, after a body was discovered inside a vehicle burned in the Kangawalla fire near Glen Innes.

Horrible fires burning across NSW. I took this apocalyptic photo in Port Macquarie at 2pm today- no filters used. 24-h average PM2.5 = 625 μg/m3. Summer hasn’t even started… pic.twitter.com/4vugHGLPba

— Luke Knibbs (@lukeknibbs_au) November 8, 2019

There have been several reports of people being trapped in their homes. The RFS said that one fire, which has burned more than 160,000 acres, grew so quickly that it was too late to evacuate the neighboring town.

“Unfortunately, many people have called for help but due to the size and speed of the fires we couldn’t get to everyone, even by road or helicopter,” the agency tweeted.

Firefighters were continuing to battle fires that remained out of control through the night and into Saturday morning. The biggest fire was in Carrai National Park to the north of Sydney, where nearly 300,000 acres have been burned.

People overlook the Sydney Opera House, which has been covered by smoke from fires in New South Wales.

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Last week, one fire burning near Port Macquarie destroyed over 5,000 acres. Experts said some 350 koalas died and the colony’s natural habitat was devastated. The Port Macquarie Koala Hospital has been rescuing koalas from the burned area, however, fresh fires bring more danger to the animal.

“We cant seem to win,” the organization posted on Facebook. “Just when we were putting up a positive happy post…The area they just finished search work today — some of the unburnt country with koalas in it, is now burning like hell again!”

Paolo Zialcita is an intern on NPR’s Newsdesk.

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After Democrats Seize Power In Virginia, Gov. Northam Sets His Sights On Gun Control

Virginia’s Gov. Ralph Northam (D) speaks to supporters at a Democratic victory party in Richmond, Va., Tuesday. Democrats will control the Governor’s mansion, and both chambers of the General Assembly for the first time since 1993.

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Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam vows it’s “a new day and a new landscape” in Virginia. He says when Democrats take over the state legislature for the first time in a generation at the start of the new year, passing gun violence prevention laws will be a top priority.

He adds guns “shouldn’t be a partisan issue,” even though he says he’s prepared to pass new “common sense” gun laws without Republican support.

“We had a tremendous tragedy in Virginia Beach over Memorial Day weekend. We lost 12 precious lives,” Northam told NPR’s All Things Considered host Mary Louise Kelly on Friday, alluding to a mass shooting that took place at a municipal building earlier this year.

“So I think Virginia spoke loudly on Tuesday and said enough is enough,” Northam said.

The interview comes just days after Democrats seized control of both chambers of Virginia’s General Assembly. The change of power in the state house, coupled with Northam residing in the Governor’s mansion, means it’s the first time Democrats will have total control of the legislative agenda since 1993.

“Dealing with the gun violence in Virginia will be a top priority of our administration,” Northam said. “Now certainly with a Democratic Senate and House, I believe we can move forward with common sense gun legislation.”

Passing new gun laws in Virginia, which has a rich gun culture and is home to the National Rifle Association, has been elusive.

Following the mass shooting in Virginia Beach, Northam unveiled a series of gun control measures, including universal background checks, a ban on assault-style weapons and outlawing sound suppressors like the one the Virginia Beach shooter used.

But during a special session Northam called in July, the GOP-controlled General Assembly met for less than two hours and adjourned without considering a single piece of legislation.

Kelly pressed Northam on whether he has the votes to get gun laws passed without Republican support. He said he does, but he’s hoping to get some GOP legislators on board.

“I think they listen to voters. I know they do. And seeing how this election went on Tuesday, I hope they’ll be at the table,” Northam said.

“They should be. This shouldn’t be a partisan issue.”

On the issue of banning assault weapons, Kelly asked Northam what he will do about the ones Virginians already possess. “Will you confiscate them?” Kelly asks.

“No ma’am, not at this stage,” Northam said, “We’re looking at banning the sales of assault weapons … that would be what we would start with.”

Northam, a former Army physician, said the eight bills he introduced in June are a starting point, adding “I’m sure there will be others introduced.”

He added: “I have been to enough funerals. I’ve been to enough vigils. I have heard enough well-intended people say that our thoughts and prayers are with these families,” Northam said.

“But now it’s time for legislators, for our leaders, to come to Richmond and take votes and pass laws.”

Governor Ralph Northam addresses the media Saturday, February 2, 2019 at the Governor’s Mansion in Richmond, Va.

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Northam’s burgeoning influence in the state seemed unthinkable nine months ago.

He appeared on the verge of resigning his post after a photo on his 1984 yearbook page from Eastern Virginia Medical School surfaced, depicting a man in blackface and another in Ku Klux Klan regalia. After initially admitting he was one of the two men in the photo, he quickly backtracked, saying he had no recollection of appearing in the picture.

He later admitted to wearing shoe polish on his face when dressing as Michael Jackson to compete in a dance contest in the 1980s.

He resisted calls, even by some within his own party, to resign.

A few days after the photo surfaced, Virginia’s other statewide-elected Democrats, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax and Attorney General Mark Herring were swept up in a cascade of scandals of their own.

Fairfax was accused of sexual assault by two women. Herring also admitted he had worn blackface decades earlier.

The saga threatened to topple all three men and cede control of the Governor’s mansion to the Republican House Speaker.

But all three Democrats weathered the storm, defied calls to step aside, and are now poised to oversee the most dramatic change in state gun laws in recent memory.

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