Wednesday, January 6, 2010

My Daughter Calls It a "Power-Out"

I've mentioned a couple of times that losing power here happens with enough regularity that we decided we needed to be prepared, but I never mentioned some of the reasons the power goes out.

Most of the time our power outages are due to severe weather. Twice in the twelve years I've lived here, we've lost power due to ice storms, which always happen in the dead of winter when it's pretty cold and indoor heat is desired. What happens is that the temperatures warm up significantly (slightly above freezing), and then, we have a day or two of what the weather guys dub a "wintry mix" (snow, rain, freezing rain). Invariably it ends up with ice encasing everything. Not only is it much more dangerous than the usual snow, but it's also heavier.

All of our power lines are above ground on poles paralleling our roads. It's not surprising to me that the power goes out in these conditions, when the ice encrusted lines get too heavy and break. I think the average joe doesn't realize how fragile wires really are, but anyone who has kids and any kind of headphones knows. If the headphone wires are pulled or twisted or bent, the headphones will cease to work, because the little wires inside the plastic casing break. Power lines are significantly more resilient than skinny headphone wires, but the principle is the same, and they can only handle so much.

In January 1998, the northeast experienced a similar ice storm to the one we had in December 2008. That event affected so many people that I remember seeing t-shirts emblazoned with the slogan "I Survived the Ice Storm of 1998" (No, I did not get a t-shirt). Many of the more rural areas near where I live lost power, not for days, but for weeks, and I heard reports from Montreal about some real tragedies due to the prolonged power outage up there. Line crews had to be brought up here from as far away as South Carolina and Georgia to help get the power back on. If I remember correctly, Angus King, who was our Governor at the time, declared a State of Emergency, and people were awarded FEMA relief money.

We lost power that time, but it was only for a day or so. It was my first winter in Maine, less than a month after we bought our house, and I was thanking the fates that seemed to insist we buy this house with the woodstove, although it was, quite literally, our last choice. It was one of the first houses we drove by at the beginning of what turned out to be a five month search, but we kept passing it up to look at what we thought were more desirable properties. It took us four months before we finally agreed to walk through it, and once we saw the inside, we knew we'd found our home ;) - proof of the saying, "Don't judge a book ...."

Life marched on and the electricity meter outside kept making its hourly rounds, until the summer. I live in a resort town, and during the summer our population triples. Our infrastructure has a hard time keeping up with the increased demands, and most utilities are affected. Our roads are all-but impossible to navigate due to the increase in traffic (in some parts of town it's faster to walk than to drive, and I avoid those areas during the summer), the water pressure goes down, the toilets in town flush a little slower, and we have regular "brown outs" throughout the summer, often on clear, sunny, calm days. It's normal, and we just deal with it, making sure that all of our sensitive electronic equipment is plugged into a UPS to prevent burn-outs due to power surges.

We expect such things in the summer, but one day in the late spring, the power winked out for no reason. It was a clear, bright day with no rain or snow or ice and no praticularly aggressive wind. The transformer that regulates the part of the grid that supplies my power sits up the road about a mile or so from my house. Some fellow driving a pick-up truck, not particularly well, ran off the road and hit the transformer. The result was that everyone on that part of the grid lost power. Line crews fixed the problem pretty quickly, and we were back up and running, but it reminded me of how fragile the system is.

Sometime later, on a lovely, clear incredibly windy and cold February day, we and about 40,000 other residents of our county inexplicably lost power. We later learned it was due to high winds.

There's a central power line that runs down the main road. I live off on a little side road, and the power line stretches from the central line and across the main road to a pole that runs down our road. Each of the houses on my road has a line that runs from the poles to the house. The problem, this time, was somewhere at the beginning of the connection that feeds our road, but the central line on the main road was fine.

As such, our road was without power for several days, but we could see lights on in the houses across the street from us. It took line crews several days to restore our power, because we were only ONE road with only seven houses, and our small outage cluster wasn't the biggest priority during this particular outage. It took three or four days for the line crews to get to us.

During the 2008 outage, we actually had a tree fall on the lines on our road, and we couldn't have our power restored until line crews removed the tree and repaired the line. It took four days for them to get to us.

Ice, wind, bad drivers and too many tourist all wreak havoc with our electric grid up here.

I like having electricity. It makes some things in my life so much easier, like food storage. Throwing leftovers in the fridge is infinitely easier than trying to find a low-energy way of preserving them and is significantly better than the alternative of wasting them. Knowing that I can just put them in the refrigerator makes meal prep much easier, since I don't have to worry about making too much. And having the refrigerator makes canning easier, too, because I can put some things, like pickles, in bigger jars, because I know that when we open them, even if we don't eat the whole jar, we can just refrigerate what's left in the jar. Having the refrigerator means I don't ever have to worry about portion control.

The freezer is great, too. It enables us to raise a years' worth of chickens in the spring and summer and keep them all through the winter. It allows us to buy two hundred pounds worth of beef and a quarter of a pig from local farmers.

Because I have my freezer, eating locally is significantly less complicated. Many of the fruits and vegetables we buy during the summer at the Farmer's Market and farm stands can be stored in the freezer until we eat them, or until I'm ready to can or otherwise preserve them. Knowing that we have that option means I can buy larger quantities, when stuff is in season, and we can have local strawberries in February. Without the freezer our only option for local strawberries in February would be in the form of whatever jam I made in June, and my June canning sessions would be a lot more time-consuming.

I also depend on electricity for my job. I work from home as a Virtual Assistant (which is, esssentially, an off-site secretary), and I need my computer. Even if I had a manual typewriter (which I can't actually use with any degree of success, because my skill at typing actually sucks, and it's only because I have that backspace key that I'm any good as a typist), I'd still need electricity to power the transcriber machine (which is basically a tape player that has a foot controller which allows me to stop and start the tape - pretty cool little device, actually ;).

In a lower energy world, I probably won't be a Virtual Assistant, although I may have to practice up on my manual typewriter skills ... or maybe I'll learn to write really neatly and become a scribe.

But at the moment, that is what I do, and in order for me to do the job I get paid to do, I need electricity ... at my house.

We can live without electricity, and have for extended periods of time on many occasions.

But ...

... we miss the television and the Internet, and I much prefer the electric lights to candles or an oil lamp light. I like my electric washing machine, and I'm pretty sure that if we didn't have a dishwasher Deus Ex Machina would be less inclined to do the dishes.

I think in our not-too-distant future electricity will become either very scarce or very expensive. Oil is already hovering near $80/barrel (again - remember 2008?), and maybe in an unrelated story, cable providers will be increasing their prices soon, and the formerly free networks may start charging for their programming, as well. Maybe it's unrelated, but maybe it's all interconnected and related to the overall downward spiral our economy is in right now.

Regardless of the reason, I think in the longer term, we will either have to find alternatives to electricity, or be able to generate our own independent of the grid.

I'm going for door number two - independence - which means that we will still need to give up many of the luxuries we enjoy so that we can keep the few things that are actually necessities.

Both Deus Ex Machina and I will have to learn to do our machine-assisted cleaning chores by hand.

I'm not sure who's getting the shorter end of the stick, though - me with the laundry or him with the dishes ;).


  1. What about door #3? Maybe tuck extra money away and start buying solar and wind power-making systems. I have a dream to do just that. I even keep a couple of old laptops kicking around for such occassions, because unless we get a HUGE system, we'll have to be more frugal with the size of energy-hogging devices. I recently read an article/story? somewhere that said a family bought a handful of those solar torches. They stick them in the sun in the day and bring them indoors for the evenings. You wouldn't be blown away by the lighting, but it would certainly help I'd imagine.

    I am definately with you, Wendy. I'm also looking ahead and wondering what sacrifices and changes will need to be made in order to survive AND flourish in the new world we're creating.

  2. Door #2 was generating our own electricity ;).

    We hope to put up a small windmill this year. A 400w RV-sized windmill power generator costs about $1 per watt, which is pretty typical of the cost of most alternative systems. We use significantly more than 400w of power at any given time. In fact, at our most frugal (CFLs, turning off lights, using power strips, no dryer), we use about 16 kwh per DAY. A solar system that would be big enough to generate the kind of power we would need to maintain our current usage, would cost over $20,000.

    There's just no way we can afford to generate the amount of electricity we're currently using, which is why we have to cut back on our usage, especially if we ever hope to be independent of the grid :).

  3. Just a shout out to say.....Cool Blog!