Power Outage

Like hundreds of thousands of other people in the Pacific Northwest, we have been without electrical power for several days.

The reason for this was a heavy windstorm. All and all it has been an interesting experience, which has lead me to several different conclusions.

First of all, we were not entirely prepared for this. We were also not completely unprepared either, it was more somewhere in between.

We had enough food. We had enough water (the fact that the faucet kept running was rather helpful, of course, but even without that we would have enough drinking water). We had enough batteries to keep several lanterns, a flashlight and a radio running. We did not have several other things that might have come in handy.

We did have hot water all five days we were without power. This is rather convenient, since you can still take a warm shower, and you can still do the dishes. Another thing that made life somewhat bearable was the fact that we have a fireplace that runs on natural gas. What amazes me the most about this thing is that the (electrical) wall switch that turns the gas valve on and off kept on working! And no, it is not a mechanical switch, I verified that myself. I wonder if there is some kind of battery backup in this thing, but I suspect not, since I have not been able to find it. I really have to figure out how this thing kept on working, these kind of things bother me. Whatever the reason, hats off to whoever designed it.

Something that was less encouraging was the fact that the (fixed) phone line kept on working for about half a day. Now, I know that some dude installed an interesting looking gizmo in my garage when we ordered the phone service. And I also remember thinking: "Hmmm, this thing has battery backup, I wonder why it needs that in the first place." I'm almost inclined to think that it does some kind of Voice-Over-IP thing (sorta like Internet phone). That would explain why it would need power. By the way, POTS (Plain Old Telephone Service) should not need any power, other than from the phone line itself. Huh.

Of course, everyone has a cell phone nowadays. We're no exception. The only problem with these things is that you have to keep them charged, which is a bit of a problem if you don't have power. Yes, you can charge them in your car as well. If you have an adapter, that is. An additional problem with the cell phones was that they would last for about a day during the power outage. Normally, it takes four or five days for the battery to drain. My theory is that somehow the cell towers were either down or underpowered during the power outage. This causes the phone to search for an alternative connection all the time. Which has a tendency to drain the battery quickly. Guess what: nowthat the power is back, the phone battery lasts for four days again.

Talking about cars, we could have used a car battery as an alternative power source, using a so-called inverter. Turned out that many people had never heard about there inverters, even though they have been on the market for decades. Anyway, the principle is simple: it turns the 12 Volts of your car battery into 110V (AC), so you can run regular stuff off it. If you think that there must be a catch, you're absolutely right.
First of all, the power of these inverters is limited, typically to a few hundred watts. Which is fine if you want to run a cell phone charger or a energy-saver light bulb off it. Or even a regular light bulb, or a TV. Forget about freezers, refrigerators, washing machines and the likes though, not a good idea.
Another problem is that the energy supplied by the inverter has to come from somewhere. In this case, the car battery. Now, say we run 360 W off one of these things, and it's efficiency is 100% (which is unrealistic of course, but let's assume a best-case scenario). If we pull 360 W out of a 12 V car battery, this means the battery has to deliver 360 W / 12 V = 20 Amperes (or Amps, or A). Depending on the capacity of the battery, this will drain it in a few hours. Say we have a 60 Ah battery (60 Ampere-hours), this means that we can pull 20 Amps out of it for three hours. That's not all that great.
A solution of course is to keep the car running. This will consume gasoline, though (how's that for "duh"?). I'm starting to sound like Captain Obvious here, but anyway. Turned out that gasoline was also a bit hard to come by. More on that later.

A reasonable solution in these situations is a portable generator. These things will typically supply thousands of Watts, which should be enough to run your entire house on. One downside it that they run on gasoline (and they are noisy). So, you'll have to be able to get more gasoline when the generator runs out. Oh, and they cost several hundreds to over a thousand dollars.

Tragically enough, several people died and many more fell ill because they were running a generator in their home, garage, or basement. Carbon monoxide poisoning. Whether this was caused by plain stupidity, ignorance caused by language problems, or both, I'll leave in the middle. Suffice it to say that it should not have happened.

On the positive side, one night one of our neigbors came knocked on the door late at night. He had a carbon monoxide detector, and was checking that nobody was endangering themselves by running generators or using charcoal grills in the house to stay warm. I was fine, not doing anything silly and having two CO alarms running on batteries, but I still appreciated the fact that he took the trouble.

Back to the gasoline situation. That was rather strange. Turns out that gas stations typically do not have a generator to run the pumps in case of a power outage. That seems rather crazy, since they are the guys sitting on all of the gasoline, so they should have plenty of fuel running the generators. Nope. One lame excuse was that it was too costly. A few calculations on the back of an envelope show that that argument does not hold water (apparently Florida has a law mandating that gas stations have a backup generator).

Anyway, the few gas stations that did have power had long lines (complete with fistfights), and ran out of gas quickly. I managed to avoid the whole situation thanks to the fact that my fuel tank happened to be almost full when the storm hit, and the fact that I limited my driving.

So, what caused the duration of this outage? Well, according to the energy company, many high voltage transmission lines were damaged by falling trees blown over by the storm.

In other words: they built the electrical grid on the cheap.

Is it acceptable in a modern, developed, and rich country that hundreds of thousands of people lose electrical power for several days because of a windstorm? I happen to think not. If you are reading this from Western Europe, you probably shook your head in amazement while reading all this. I'll go out on a limb and claim that something like this would not happen in Western Europe, no matter how severe a storm comes by. It just does not happen. Why? Because the electrical grid was properly designed. Where possible, power lines are buried. This has the rather convenient advantage that they cannot be damaged by junk that falls down. Lines that are not buried (such as high voltage transmission lines) will not be damaged in a storm. The towers that hold them up are simply too strong, and will not be damaged by a falling tree (the towers are way too high for most trees anyway). If there should be a slight chance that a power pole could be damaged by a falling tree, the tree will be cleared. Chopped down. Western Europeans are probably the biggest tree-huggers in the world, but some things just have a higher proirity.

Now, the United States is not exactly known for its inability to build high structures. There is also nothing fundamentally wrong with the engineers over here. So, it is possible to build a robust electrical infrastructure in this country. One that does not go down for days when the wind blows, because that is basically what happened.

It costs money, of course. And that's not easy to come by if the electrical power services are run by private companies.

This is a perfect example of where the free market principle fails. There is no free market in this case, you see. If you live in a particular area, your energy will be supplied by this-and-thsi company. There are no options. Hence, no competition.

My opinion is that this country should seriously reconsider the way in which essential services such as electrical power, natural gas, and drinking water are supplied. And you could possibly extend this to phone service, Internet connectivity, and gasoline supplies as well. These are crucial and essential services, and disruption causes enormous economical damage and even costs lives. A responsible government protects its citizens from unnecessary danger.

But that's just me...

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