Tuesday, January 1, 2008

A meditation on a power outage

My electric power went out this morning. I'm accustomed to having parts of my house flick off, because I use space heaters for heating the house, and they often overcome the circuit breakers. But this time was different, because every ounce of electricity in the house was turned off. Hmm, I thought. Then I went through several stages of process which might reflect upon some larger issues.

Amidst growing worry -- was my service cut off due to not paying my bills? Is this outage spread around the neighborhood? Has there been a nuclear attack which knocked out the local power plants? Okay, so my thoughts went a little to the extreme, but I've noticed that when we humans have a gap in our knowledge we tend to fill in the gaps with outlandish theories.

Amidst those worries I noticed how much I've become dependent on electrical supplies. It's worth pondering for all of us, what ways are we dependent on modern technologies, and is this a danger for us personally or for our society. When I went out to check the neighbors houses I noticed the squirrels and birds were getting along fine without electricity. I also noticed none of the neighbors had lights on either.

One of the dependencies came when I started to try and report the outage. What's the phone number for the electric company? I don't know it, and I have my electric bills delivered via email. That meant reading my email to get the information. My computer is a laptop and has its own power, but my internet connection was knocked out by the power outage. Hmm.. And I keep my bills stored on my computer, but they are on an external drive which was knocked out by the power outage. Stymied I turned to a book, the phone book, compressed tree pulp with ink on it. But for some reason even after 1/2 hour searching through several books I couldn't find any listing for the electric utility.

Another dependency comes from being an electric vehicle owner. What if I had converted my life to only have electric vehicles? An EV generally is able to store enough power for 1 day of use. So if there's no electrical service, the EV will quickly become useless. Vehicle-to-grid (V2G) proponents like to suggest that EV's can provide emergency power. Um... EV's are barely able to carry enough power to transport them around for a day, and EV's are generally dependent on the electricity from the grid. It's kinda strange to me to repurpose an EV to V2G usage, unless you're going to consign that EV to not being driven until after the emergency is over. But some emergencies require residents to evacuate - think Katrina and the clogged interstate highways leaving New Orleans.

Another aspect to EV dependency is the retirement home in the neighborhood, and many of the residents have electrified mobility chairs they ride around the neighborhood. Guess what they're capable of if the power goes out?

Another dependency is shared by basically everyone, food storage. Like essentially everyone my food is in a refrigerator. Without electricity these things don't function. And the food will have started defrosting and going bad pretty quick. Our modern society has completely forgotten how to preserve food, instead we are dependent on freezing food and on the canned goods in the supermarket. How many of us remember how to can our own food, or to dry food, etc?

Getting back to reporting the outage - I called '0' (the operator), hoping to get a phone number. But I was hung up on twice. Hurm.

I then started searching and found an old bill on paper from before the time I switched to e-mail billing. That gave me a phone number and if required an account number. I then called the customer service number, and was partway through making the report via their voice mail system, and just as the voice mail system recognized my home address and told me they knew of an outage in my area, right at that very moment, coincidentally at that exact moment in time, the power flickered back on.

While this all turned out well in the end.. I suggest there is something interesting to learn here.

The pinnacle of human society we have achieved is itself based on technological might powered by an electrical supply which .. if removed .. makes all our gadgets useless.

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