I chose this picture because it was literally and figuratively a 3 dog night in our house the other night. Last week our power went out the night before Thanksgiving and was out for two nights in 30 degree weather during a heavy wet snow storm (or as I called it, Thanksnowmagivingedon). There are worse fates in life, like never having that power or any of the possessions associated with it to start with, I know. But I had two immediate thoughts heading into day two (you know, after our generator crapped out the night before and you start to worry about things like the pipes freezing)
1. Unless he starts hoarding batteries, my dad and his Cpap machine will not survive the Zombie Apocalypse due to eventual lack of sleep and fatigue (sorry dad, but seriously though, I’m googling energy alternatives for your machine as I work on this post. We’ll figure this out!)
2. THIS IS EMBARASSING!
That’s right. I mostly found our (as in the majority of people) inability to function rationally after such a short time without electricity embarrassing. We’ve built a system and developed lifestyles centered around recharging. This is 2014, and the fact we’re still cringing over trees falling onto a skimpy little power line is silly. Not just that, it’s the fact I have to worry about whether it will fall a mile or two away and how that will impact my service.
So cleanup from the storm essentially went from Thursday morning into Monday and by then, the snow was gone. That hardly seems worth the costs and effort put into the 4th largest power outage in state history, over 300,000 customers. And what’s the definition of insanity? Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.
The power company can’t cut back trees on private property without permission, and burying the lines is an exorbitant up front cost (and makes failures much harder to find), so dealing with tree falls and these wide spread outages are inevitable, though I feel they’ve been a bit excessive as of late. Growing up, I remember two periods of time where we lost power significantly. The first was during Hurricane Bob, and it came back that night while we were asleep. The second was during an ice storm when I was in Jr. High, and we went 4 nights without power. A few years ago, PSNH cut back trees through Nashua that were “too close” to the power lines. Since then we’ve had increased outages and more often prolonged outages. My parents first bought their generator following an ice storm in December of 2008. We lost power again in 2011 during Hurricane Irene (for a day) and two months later in the Halloween Nor’easter, in 2012 in Hurricane Sandy (3 Days), and this recent event (2 days), along with flickering/brief outages during most thunderstorms. It’s pretty easy to argue that we’ve seen an increase in storms strong enough to knock out electrical services during a short period of time. I’d also like to note that during all of these events, if we hooked a television up to the generator, our cable was still functioning.
Yet for all these storms with downed trees and lines, we keep cleaning things up, fixing them to how they were before, and hoping the next storm doesn’t cause an outage. This is far from a resilient system, and in fact by my previous definition, it’s insane. Going back to the way things were before a failure and expecting it not to fail again without having made improvements will not work. But we invest so much time and money into just getting things to the way they were, no one can foot the bill to make it better.
I have a love/hate relationship with the generator. It uses fuel rather quickly, produces fumes, and is loud, so much so I had a migraine when I woke up Thursday morning. Multiply that by everyone in my neighborhood and I just can’t stand it. I tried charging my cell phone on a solar charger out of spite (which much to my dismay I wasn’t able to get to work). I understand the furnace needs to run, and the fridge (though we wound up putting stuff on the back porch because it was cold enough to keep things from going back outside anyway). We switched our Turkey to the Barbeque grill and did all of our Thanksgiving food either their or on the stove top. Overall I think we are generally able to get by without power, but I generally have found peoples tensions run high really quickly.
During the 2011 Nor’easter I was working in a take-out restaurant at the time. Power had gone out around 9-11 the night of the storm for most people. I went into work for 10am and just moments after we put everything in the restaurant on ice and were set to go home and hope for the best, the power came back on. Within 45 minutes our place was packed and our phone was ringing off the hook. We were one of the few places in the area open and doing business and dramatically understaffed. We couldn’t even make the time to call to get people to come in. It was so busy people were complaining about waiting. People were complaining about delivery times. People were complaining about everything. I was delivering that day and had more trouble getting through areas between trees down, lines down, and neighborhoods that hadn’t been plowed yet. It was insane, and a nightmare, and at the end of 10 hour shift with one bathroom break and no food break, we closed because we ran out of food. I went home to a dark house with no power. People had come unhinged on me so quickly, and it upset me because I was dealing with the same problem at home as everyone else, yet for some reason it was ok to take it out on me and the other employees. AFTER LESS THAN A DAY. It went like that for the next 3 days. But I can’t for the life of me understand how people suddenly become so unreasonable. Yes it’s frustrating and stupid to not have the light switch work for the 100th time that day, but when your community is all facing the same issue, what good is it to yell at someone with zero control over the situation.
Urban areas can recover quicker because there’s less infrastructure to cover higher densities, but suburbs are prone to prolonged outages because there’s more exposed lines serving less people. More importantly though is that our Grid system, national or otherwise, is gaining and becoming more and more susceptible. 40% of cyber-attacks focus on network based infrastructure. In Detroit yesterday, a majority of the city went down because… well because it could perhaps? It was feared to be a hacking attack but deferred maintenance on the city’s power grid ultimately resulted in a faulty cable cutting off power from street lights, schools, hospitals and courtrooms. It is going to cost $200 Million to upgrade their grid to reasonable standards.
Most communities just don’t have that kind of money to spare, but is the cost of clean-up over and over again worth it? If everyone could chip in for neighborhood microgrids run by solar and wind, that’d be fantastic, but that’s probably not in the cards any time soon either. Until we implement a resilient solution to the power grid, we’re going to have to learn how to take things more in stride, play trivial pursuit by candlelight, and figure out how to run my dad’s CPap machine off a hamster wheel. Until we find a generation willing to burden the taxes of updating an outdated infrastructure system for the benefit of the next, we will just have to continue to live with a rather unreliable energy system.