What Are You Waiting For?

Reader Contribution by Cam Mather

 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.

For more information about Cam Mather or his books please visit www.cammather.com or www.aztext.com