By Cam Mather
A brutal windstorm moved through Ontario this past summer, clearing out a hot, humid afternoon. A massive power outage affected multiple households. Some of them went quite a few days before electricity was restored. Just after this storm I talked to a lot of people who agreed with me that this was the creepiest, nastiest, darkest, scariest storm we’ve ever seen. Perhaps you become used to weather like this in tornado alley in the U.S. but we don't often experience storms like this around here. As I was scrambling to get the chickens into the coop I had visions of that scene from “The Wizard of Oz” where Dorothy’s house is getting sucked up in the tornado and it’s spinning around. I had visions of me clinging to the outside of the coop as it got airborne and started to spin.
Lots of trees came down on power lines and lots of people were without electricity. My Dad’s friend Shirley was taking stuff from her freezer over to his so that it didn’t thaw and go bad. There seems to be a sort of low level mania going on out in the “grid” world as people scramble for generators and to have some semblance of normality when they find themselves without power. But the truth is, they can’t. Life in North America without electricity is chaos.
So how did this happen? How did we come to allow ourselves to become completely dependent on other people for our basic comforts, and even necessities? When did we get duped into believing some guy in a suit in a big city gives a hoot about whether our lights are on or whether we have natural gas to stay warm?
We work away earning an income, and after we pay tax on that money, we take those after tax dollars and send them to that guy in the suit and hope that he’ll manage to send us a little power. Come on people. This is a bad model of human behavior.
For the last decade I’ve been doing workshops on renewable energy at colleges and conferences throughout my province. In January of 1998, Eastern Ontario and Quebec experienced a massive ice storm that crippled the electricity infrastructure. Very quickly, people were in a critical situation. No electricity. No furnace fans. For those living out in the country it meant no water without the power to pump it. No way to cook. People couldn’t shower. They couldn’t prepare food. Pipes froze. Many people couldn’t purchase gas because there was no electricity to run the gas pumps.
So I ask people at my workshops “How many of you were without power for three days?” Most hands go up. “A week?” Half of the hands go up. “Two weeks?” Maybe 10 to 20% of the class put up their hands. “Three or more weeks?” A couple of hands go up.
And then I ask, “How many of you have done something to prepare for the next ice storm?” “Have you bought a generator? Put in a back-up woodstove?” A couple of hands might go up. “Has anyone put in a solar/battery backup system?” No hands go up. Really? Your life was turned upside down for a week or two, or more, and you haven’t even bought a generator? Are you serious?
Most people like to think that the ice storm was a once in a lifetime event. It’ll never happen again. Well, it did happen again for a lot of people, and it happens all the time. The electricity grid is a massive, insanely complicated machine and the fact that it works at all is a miracle. We have been blessed in North America to have pretty reliable service, but we haven’t been investing in infrastructure and the severity and regularity with which blackouts occur is increasing. Climate change will mean more severe weather and more storms more often.
Earlier this month a major power outage knocked out electricity to up to 5 million people in California, Arizona and Mexico. Last month Hurricane Irene caused more than 5.8 million customers to lose electricity. These massive black outs are happening more and more frequently.
I tell this story all the time, and if I were paying him a royalty I’d be broke by now, but William “Bill” Kemp who wrote “The Renewable Energy Handbook” provides a wonderful example of the right way to deal with an ice storm or other widespread blackout. After a few days of chaos during the ice storm the military was called out because people were in real dire straights. They went door to door to check on people and when they knocked on Bill’s door he opened it as heat wafted from his woodstove, music was blaring on his stereo, he was in a bath robe because he’d just had a shower and he was holding a steaming cup of coffee. The military personnel looked at their clipboards, then they looked at Bill and said, “Well, we think we know the answer, but is everyone in the house okay?”
“Never been better!” was Bill’s response. Bill, of course, lives completely off the grid using solar and wind and a battery back up to power his home. We have the technology today to live a typical North American lifestyle powered completely independently of the electricity and natural gas grid. People just get lazy. They don’t bother to invest in this stuff because they believe that the odds are low that they’ll be inconvenienced by a major disruption. Inertia keeps them from taking action. They’re glued to their couches. They just keep doing things the way they've always done them.
Or they claim that they don’t have the money to invest in back up systems. Judging by the never-ending pages of photos in our local paper that show people as they travel all over the world, apparently many people have enough money to fly all over the place on vacation, but not enough for a generator. And many people can spend $30,000 for a new vehicle as opposed to spending $15,000 for a used one and investing the rest of their money in a renewable energy system.
I just don’t get it. I understand that some people just don’t have the money for any of these things, and I accept that. But I will never understand people who have the means to spend money on “luxuries” and yet don’t bother to prepare themselves for the next natural disaster.
The little pigs that built their homes out of straw and sticks, vulnerable to the wolf, were just lucky that their brother, the smart one, was so accommodating to let them into his brick house. Next time Mother Nature comes through huffing and puffing and blowing trees on your powerlines, you should be the one with the back-up generator. Sell off things you don’t need to make yourself $500 and buy yourself a generator. And get it wired into your panel box properly. And then take that money you were saving for your trip to Hawaii and instead put up some solar panels and install some batteries and make yourself resilient. Shocks are coming. They’re inevitable. Fight the inertia that breeds inaction and get prepared. Trust me, there is nothing more gratifying than being unaffected by the chaos that is going on around you while your fridge and freezer are keeping your food cold, your TV is keeping you up-to-date on the weather forecast, and the lights and all those creature comforts that make life so great just keep humming along.
Photo (screenshot) by Cam Mather.