Power Out, People Out

Yesterday at about 15:40 local time, San Diego lost power—along with many other parts of Southern California, Arizona, and Mexico. Our power was out for 11 hours. The experience was fascinating for me, because it changes the rules of the game suddenly, and exposes certain fragilities in our system. This is a brief account of what I learned from the experience.

I continued working at UCSD for a bit, on laptop battery power.  The wireless routers were operating on backup power.  But soon these failed too, and there was no reason to stick around. I headed for the bus, but saw right away that “normal” operations did not apply, and that waiting for my bus may have me sitting idle on campus for some time.  So I took the first bus that came along to get part of the way home, and rode it for 1.3 mi (2.1 km)—taking 20 minutes, after which I walked the remaining 5.7 mi (9.1 km) home in 1.5 hours: same speed as the bus had been. It took a neighbor a full hour to drive the same route I walked. Only one bus passed me the entire time—normally running on a 15 minute schedule.

Traffic lights were out, forcing traffic to a crawl. Gas stations could not pump gas, so I passed several cars pulled over to the side of the road out of gas during my walk. If I wanted to stop somewhere for food or drink, I was out of luck: the places I passed were closed. Even if I had found a place willing to operate on “manual math” and taking cash, I would not be able to find an ATM to give me cash (though admittedly, I did have some). People who needed ice to preserve their cold food would have a hard time finding a place to sell it. Those who felt the need to stock up on groceries in reaction to the outage could not do so when laser scanners and registers would not function. Flights from San Diego were stopped for hours, people were stuck in elevators and on rides at Sea World and LegoLand. The Do the Math site held on for a few hours, but it, too, went under! Society froze, largely—while ice cream melted.

I was personally less worried than many, because my refrigerator runs on my home-made photovoltaic (PV) off-grid system with enough battery storage to get my refrigerator, internet services, TV/entertainment, and laptop use through the night. All the same, not knowing how long we would need to endure the outage, and preparing to share our refrigerator with neighbors, we disconnected non-essential items from the PV system. I was disappointed to find that our internet service was out due to external problems: having this on battery operation is not sufficient to guarantee connectivity to the world.

When I arrived home, the neighbor across the street was setting up chairs in the front yard, and a spontaneous block party erupted. People broke out ice cream to share. The grill fired up. We met neighbors we had not known before. The sky was clear and dark, so I hauled out my 10-inch telescope for the first time in a very long while and entertained kids and adults with mind-blowing vistas (lots of satisfying oohs and ahhs). The green laser I used to point out stars and constellations was especially popular with the little folk. Kids played hide-and-shoot, often using my recycling bin as a popular hiding spot. A musical jam session fired up, with guitar, bongos, and a didgeridoo.

So while many fractures were exposed, and our society ceased to function in many ways, some things functioned better than they had in decades. Community has largely been lost in modern America. Our houses are little castles provisioned with all the entertainment, appliances, tools, and food that we need. We don’t need each other, so we don’t bother interacting. Last night, I was delighted to see just how quickly a community spirit re-emerges. Many adults said they had not had so much fun in a long time. The kids will remember seeing craters on the moon, swarms of stars in globular clusters, and other unworldly sites on that unusual night. (They will also remember not having to go to school on Friday, making this a three-day week!)

So I think we all want to know: When’s the next one going to be?

11 thoughts on “Power Out, People Out

  1. Did you mention Peak Oil and the end of economic growth? How long would have the festivities lasted then? I’m not trying to be cynical but people are so deeply in denial about what’s happening extrapolating from this brief experience is very unrealistic, to say the least.

    • No, I actually did not bring up this sobering topic. And yes, the festive atmosphere is not an indication of how we would actually adapt to the long-haul deprivations that are possible as a consequence of peak oil and related issues—although I do believe community will become a more prominent part of life. Had I believed the power outage to be a direct sign of our exceeding limits, I might have felt justified using the event to raise awareness. In the moment, my message might have had some impact. But the next day, when it was realized that exceeding our limits was not the direct (prevailing) explanation for this event, the credibility of my message would erode, and might end up doing more harm than good (perceived as crying wolf). I chose to enjoy myself for that one pleasant evening.

      • Tom, you better get a shotgun to go with the PV system. After 2 weeks of no power, the community will be more like Road Warrior. I remember hearing someone speak about Katrina and how fast civilization broke down after it happened.

        It would be an interesting book/movie of what would happen today if there was massive solar storms that took out most of our satellites and hugely affected the north american power grid, taking out a lot of transformers.

        Disclaimer: Post apocalyptic scenarios is a interest of mine.

  2. Would you be willing to put up some information and/or point to it elsewhere on the web about how to create your home-made photovoltaic (PV) off-grid system?

  3. While not a direct result of exceeding limits, these events underscore how close to the edge we are.
    This event was evidently caused by a fluctuation in powerline frequency, which triggered a shutdown of the San Onofre nuclear plant, along with a couple of others. Just a minor ripple in the system causes some spectacular domino effects that can wipe out hundreds of square miles of electrical distribution. These outages take hours, or sometimes days to repair, because load has to be brought on slowly while generation is simultaneously brought back up to speed. The outage of 2003 in the Northeast was very similar.
    Living off-grid isn’t the panacea that some think it is; however, in 10 years of living on solar and wind, I haven’t had an outage that’s lasted longer than it takes to change my batteries- and they were both planned. Again, it’s not perfect, but it sure is a step towards the future.
    Kudos to you Tom for having some back-up generation that doesn’t rely on fossil fuel input.

  4. Thanks for great blog Tim – although in this post you actually leave the Do the Math limitation :-) btw, there is a blog with a similar name in Swedish, but it has a much wider scope, the calculate all kinds of things, and in particular economics (http://viharraknatpadethar.se/).

    I firmly believe that HOW we behave is very much a result of which kind of society we live in. If we live in a society that admire and reward, competition and individualism we become such. I am a real traveler and have been struck how generous poor people are. Once I was in Mozambique during a famine and was offered a chicken by a farmer I visited, probably the only animal protein his family would see in a month. I could decline, because the dignity of the person was more important (according to my local friends). I remember a Christmas eve in Sweden when we were stuck in a train for seven hours. After a few hours people were friendly and started to tell their stories. I wish to believe, that if our present society collapse, we don’t necessarily will go into barbarism – it could also be the opposite. Being 53, I think I will see what happened before I die….

    • although in this post you actually leave the Do the Math limitation

      Ah—you must have missed the part where I gave distances and travel times and claimed that the effective velocities were the same. Not up to my usual standards of mathiness, to be sure. But I can still justify the name! :-)

  5. Tom

    great blog, and interesting topics!

    I travel a lot, especially in developing countries, and I think that’s a very effective way to really appreciate the difference in lifestyles promoted by varying per-capita energy consumption. I must say, however, that the stereotype of the people “poor but happy-and-kind-to-each-other” is just that. Often, there is a considerable degree of violence in every society (related to gender, ethnic, religious, and class issues) which usually goes unnoticed by the tourist.

    Your post reminded me of an interesting article by Chris Martenson, “Egypt’s Warning: Are You Listening?”, where, elaborating on the sudden outburst of the Arab Spring, he writes “such is the nature of complex, chaotic, and unpredictable systems. The stresses build for years and years, and nothing really seems to be happening, but then everything suddenly changes.”
    I wonder if you could consider this topic for a future Do The Math post. How would our complex and interconnected economic system respond to the stresses caused by dwindling resources? will it suddenly collapse? is it possible to related the “suddenness” of the change in some way to the degree of complexity of the system?

  6. [shortened by moderator]

    Natural disasters, like hurricanes, disrupt society on deeper levels than a power outage. This being said, a multi-day outage over a widespread area is common after a hurricane blows through, and is a real hassle to deal with even if everything else in your home is OK. As a result, many people on the gulf have generators of varying capacity, enough to at least keep a refrigerator on. We are also taught not to open our fridge or freezer unless absolutely necessary. A well stocked fridge/freezer can ride out a multi-hour blackout without spoilage or thawing.

    It is interesting to note that after a hurricane rolls through, many neighborhood block parties spring up, much like the author noted. People with generators offer up fridge/freezer space, and people fire up their grills and battery powered radios. As power comes back on, people disappear back in their homes and shortly things were they way they were before the storm.

    One thing that might not intitially sink in with readers is the threat of overheating or freezing during a blackout. For the elderly, sick, and people who aren’t used to [temperature extremes], this can be very dangerous.

    So losing power isn’t just about the lose of convenience, entertainment, and refrigeration. However, I’m glad to hear that the block party phenomena isn’t confined to post hurricane scenarios.

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