Years later, lesson still not learned: No power, no gas



The threat comes with every big winter storm -- snow and ice knock out the power, and drivers face a desperate search for a gas station that's open.


That's what happened during the ice storm in December 2006 that sparked calls for action.


Six years later, KIRO 7's Essex Porter investigated and found the problem will be just as bad the next time.


Drivers know it can happen again.


“Uh, panic. I think that's the biggest thing, you don't stop at a gas station unless you have a direct need for something, right?” said driver Forest Hayes.


Your car may run on gasoline, but gas stations run on electricity.


After the 2006 storm, some said there ought to be a law requiring gas stations to get backup generators, but it didn't get far.


Tim Hamilton once owned three gas stations. Now, he represents 500 station owners as executive director of the Automotive United Trades Organization.


“In many instances, if you say, ‘you shall have a backup generator or not do business,’ it will put them out of business,” said Hamilton.


Hamilton took Porter outside his rural Mason County home for a lesson in generators.


One of Hamilton’s $1,000 units can handle a house OK, but doesn’t come close to powering a gas station.


“When you go to a gas station, unlike a house, you have huge draw for electricity for these very large pumps, for the large lights, for electricity, for refrigeration -- and it takes a much bigger generator,” said Hamilton.


So what would it take to power a gas station?


Frank Desimone says a few years ago, his supplier Chevron brought in a backup power generator and the extensive wiring necessary to hook it up to the station.


“I was chosen to be one of the emergency stations, should something happen with that dam on the Green River,” said Desimone. “All these are extra panels that had to be installed to hook to a generator, a large generator.”


It’s not just the pumps that rely on electricity, but also the computers that run the pumps and collect payments for the sales.


Plus, Chevron wanted to be sure the convenience store could stay open for people who needed food and water.


The price?  $26,000 for wiring and an estimated $175,000 for the big generator.


Desimone said Chevron picked up the full cost.  He certainly couldn’t.


“To buy the generator, and that's something that you might never use, or you might use it once every two years, no, I don't think it's worth all that expense,” said Desimone.


There’s still room at the station for the generator, but Chevron pulled it after three weeks when the threat of flooding ended.


After seeing the gas lines during the 2006 storm, state representative Roger Goodman tried to mandate that gas stations have backup generators, but after objections from station owners, all he was able to get passed was a tax credit to pay for half the cost.


“It's going to happen again, and we are not prepared,” said Goodman.


The tax credit to help gas stations buy generators was in effect for three years. And by the time it expired in June of 2011, only 21 stations had taken advantage of it.


“The only thing we can do now is to start this program again, with a more generous incentive and see if more gas stations take us up on the offer,” said Goodman.


On Mercer Island, there’s a unique approach. The city bought its own backup generator that it can offer to gas stations.


The idea is to make sure first responders can get fuel if the island is cut off.


“It's so that we can go ahead and respond to emergencies and be able to help people,” said Mercer Island police Officer Jennifer Franklin.


Then once first responders are taken care of, the public could be served.


So Marty Ulrich paid $7,000 to install the necessary wiring at his station.


“They're going to wire up a main hub here,” said Ulrich.


He’s glad the city is willing to supply the backup generator.


“They shouldn't force us, they should help,” said Ulrich.


One of his best customers will be ready for the next storm, electricity or not.


“Every week I fill it half up, regardless if it needs it,” said customer Bill Pringle.


And because so few gas stations have backup power, that’s good advice for us all.


During KIRO’s investigation, Porter learned state emergency managers do not keep an official list of stations that have backup power.


Instead, they rely on web resources to track stations that are open.  The links are below.