No electricity

I want you to picture what the power going out, and staying out, means.

It means broken communication. Land line phone systems have batteries to keep them running for a while. Then they die. If you have a modern handset at home, and it needs to be plugged into the mains to work, then it fails, too. Cellular systems are similar: eventually you’ll need to recharge, and although many of the cell towers now have a solar panel to power them the central office structures will be battery and generator dependent — all time-limited.

Your radio is off. Your television is dead. So is the Internet. (The internetworking protocols may have been designed to survive in an emergency, but the devices you use to reach the net require power. Eventually you’ll flatten the batteries, and do without.)

Air conditioners aren’t working, of course. If you have a forced air gas system for heat, you may be all right for a while, but elements of those furnaces also require power. Hot water depends on the type of water heater you require.

In fact, water itself may require electricity. Pumps don’t work on nothing — and pumps are required to load reservoirs, water tanks, etc. in many cases.

If you have a gas stove (and some matches to replace electrically-fired igniters) you’ll be all right to cook. Electric stoves? Good luck with that.

“No problem”, you say, “we’ll go to a restaurant”. How does it operate?

In fact, how do you fill the tank in your car? Petrol pumps at gas stations use electricity to operate.

Hope you have a lot of cash on hand, too, because the debit and credit card systems are not going to be operating. Neither will ATMs — nor those fancy cash-issuing machines behind the counter that are used to foil bank robbers.

Back home again, refrigeration’s an issue. So much for that freezer full of food.

If you have medications that require cooling — insulin, for instance — you have bigger problems.

Now. Let’s stop and think for a moment.

How could this story have been different?

Well, perhaps you had invested in some solar technology on your roof. Some solar water heating panels would have given you a hot water system — and, if you ran the pipes under your floors, a heating system. Photovoltaic cells would provide some electricity, enough to keep some basics running, perhaps (refrigeration, communications, maybe a few lights).

Did you forget that once dark came you had no entertainment from the glass teat — and a problem reading?

You might also have a solar oven in the yard, next to the barbeque. In an extended outage, there can be some rude awakenings when other supply chains break because of a power issue you didn’t know about. Once you start thinking about alternatives, why not think about more of them?

Why am I thinking about this?

Power grids are difficult to restart once they fail.

India’s going through a restart right now — 700,000,000 people were suddenly plunged back into the pre-electric age. It takes a minute or two for a third of a continent to be plunged into darkness, and days for a restart to be pulled off.

The Washington, DC region had a week-long outage earlier this summer. Then there was the Eastern outage covering the US and Canada in 2003 — three days to restart. (What most people overlook is “and several more weeks for supply chains to come back to normal”.)

This system is much more fragile than it appears. It also lacks robustness.

One solar flare — one generation-to-demand imbalance — and the system can tip into a cascade failure.

Years of stretching maintenance, going for efficiency, avoiding the challenges of the black swan event, have us literally “hanging on a wire”.

Decentralising and building in robustness locally just makes a great deal of sense.

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