Reflections on a Power Outage

I live in Northern California, about an hour North of Santa Rosa, and we experienced a five-day PSPS (Public Safety Power Shutdown) from Oct 26-30. I thought it might be useful (or at least interesting) to others for me to talk about the experience itself.

We did at least know it was coming, which was a good thing. We had no idea how long it would actually last, which was not so good. They said “up to five days.” Could have been one; could have been ten. I’m not sure they had ever done such a large shutdown, but certainly not recently — power could have been out for a lot longer if they had trouble bringing it back up, as they did along the Mendocino coast.

Weather was mild throughout the shutdown. We have normal daily temperature swings of about fifty degrees (Fahrenheit) in the summer, somewhat less by October, so nights can get a little chilly — checking on the web, the low that week was about 40, and the high 86. Forty can lead to hypothermia if you sleep naked on the ground, or get wet, but this is otherwise not deadly weather.

We lost home heating. We have a newly-installed heat-pump system, which is all-electric and (of course) did not function at all. But even those with central gas heating have electric fans and igniters, so those did not function, either. We have a traditional wood fireplace, but those generally cool the house by drawing cold air in through windows and vents to feed the fire; and during fire season here, the smell of burning wood is not charming. However, because the weather was mild, it was enough for us to scrounge up an extra blanket for the bed, and wear layers in the early morning.

We lost running hot water. We have a gas-fired on-demand water heater, but — like central heat — it has electric components which won’t work, as do standard gas water heaters.

We have a gas range, which did work. The electric igniters would not work, but it’s easy enough to strike a match to light the burners. The oven has electric thermostatic control, so that wouldn’t work: no pies during a power outage. We also had our camping stove, with its little Coleman propane tanks, which we could have used. We ended up lending that to a neighbor. We also have a propane grill in the backyard. Cooking was well-covered.

We had clean water and sewage removal. The city kept the systems on, both of which require electric pumps somewhere along the path. We could drink clean water and shower (cold). With the stove, we could heat water and take warm splash baths in the tub, and drink hot tea or coffee in the morning. More importantly, we could get rid of five days of human excrement with a system designed to handle daily effluent.

We had no Internet. I have no idea if Comcast stayed up: it was a moot point, since anything I have that would use it requires electricity to run. I suspect their cable service was down, but I don’t know.

We had cell phone service. The cell towers remained operational, and we could send and receive phone calls and messages, so long as we kept our phones charged.

The level of darkness was impressive. The PSPS began right on the cusp of the new moon, so we had full nights of only starlight, unrelieved by city-glow or moon-dusk or moon-dawn. I had to use a flashlight to find the bedroom or bathroom after sunset, or feel my way around using my hands. Nights seemed extraordinarily long.

We had candles, enough for me to read after sunset. But it takes quite a few candles for my old eyes: you also have to have the book pretty close to them, and my eyes got tired quickly. There wasn’t much joy in late-night reading.

There was also a profound silence. Right now, I can hear a persistent 60 Hz hum in the house. If you listen for it, you can even hear it outside, coming from every house, every power line. With the entire city shut down, it was quiet, the way it is in the mountains. The crickets were loud.

We have an electric refrigerator and chest freezer, and both of those went off and stayed off. We had to pay close attention to food, and ended up losing some.

A lot of the food we normally keep in the refrigerator keeps just fine without refrigeration. Cheese is simply a way of preserving milk without refrigeration, and hard block cheeses will keep for a long time, as well as ripened cheeses that haven’t been cut. Similarly, dried, salted, and fermented (e.g. salami) meats will keep without refrigeration. Intact eggs don’t normally need to be refrigerated at all. Anything pickled or canned doesn’t need refrigeration. Dry goods like crackers or rice don’t need refrigeration. And there is the oldest of all preservation methods, fire: cooking preserves fresh food, though it’s fairly short-term.

Other food in the refrigerator — fresh vegetables, meat, milk — all had to be eaten, or thrown out.

The chest freezer stayed cold. Had there been more food in it, I think everything would have stayed deeply frozen. As it was, we ended up with a thin layer of water at the bottom, though the bags of ice we had in there were not visibly melted when the power came back on. We made judgment calls on what was in the freezer.

The grocery stores all shut down. None of them had enough failover generator capacity to keep all of their refrigeration running for five days: some, like Safeway, had no failover generators at all. They all lost all of their frozen food, and after five days, had to throw out all of their fresh meat, vegetables, and fruits, which people weren’t buying a lot of, anyway, since they had no way to keep it, either. By day three, the grocery stores were all closed, and entire shelves were empty for the next week after the power came back on.

A few other stores stayed open.

Costco kept their gas pumps running: people with generators needed gasoline, and we could still use cars to get around — and ironically, to recharge our cell phones. I saw people sitting in their cars in their driveways, idling, while their phones charged: an expensive charger, to be sure. None of the smaller gas stations could run their pumps, and closed.

The hardware stores stayed open, though they only had small generators to power the cash registers, and the aisles were generally dark, lit only by skylights or worklamps clamped to a shelf and powered by a long extension cord snaking across the floor back to the generator: they had employees who would greet you at the door with flashlights, and would walk you around. They sold out of batteries, flashlights, and Coleman lanterns almost immediately, of course, as well as generators.

A few restaurants and pubs that had generators stayed open, at least early in the power outage, with specials to get rid of their food while it was still good.

Other stores simply closed: without electricity, cash registers won’t open, credit card scanners won’t scan, store lights won’t come on.

Schools and the college all shut down.

They brought in a generator for the library, to provide a working community space, and a place to get news and charge phones.

Streetlights and traffic signals were dark: every intersection with a signal was treated as a four-way stop, but there wasn’t a lot of traffic.

In short, the experience was — personally — a bit easier than the five-day mountain retreat that Marta and I would go to in Colorado every summer: here, we didn’t need to pack in our own water and use porta-potties; nor did it get as cold at night.

I held that mountain-retreat image in my mind, and relaxed into the inevitability of forces beyond my control.

I spent some time writing letters. I had paper, and pens, and during the day, light. I sat in the back yard, at our patio table in the sun.

It was interesting to return to that lost art. I used to write a lot of letters, in the days before the Internet. It’s a lot harder than using a word-processor.

Marta and I also worked outside in the yard during daylight hours, which is how I knew the hardware stores were open: any work around the house always requires trips to the hardware store. We did a little unpacking, took walks. We retired early, rose early.

If this all sounds relatively benign, even pleasant — well, for us, it was. We were quite fortunate.

For others, it was neither benign, nor pleasant. A lot of lower-income people lost food they were counting on being able to eat. They lost work hours they could not afford to be without. Many businesses took a serious hit in terms of lost inventory and income.

In reflecting on this, the big issues were the things that have always made cities marginal places to live: food, water, and waste.

I would say waste is the most important of the three. Had the sewage pumps shut down, the city would have quickly become uninhabitable. It was the first thing travelers noted about many Medieval cities: the stench as you approached it, becoming unbearable once you were walking the streets. Pestilence and plague follow.

Access to clean water comes only shortly behind. Our “aqueduct into every kitchen” model isn’t the only model. Water can be delivered, just like milk used to be, or people can travel to get it from a central source, a kind of urban equivalent to the “village well.” Without water for washing and drinking, however, a city dies pretty quickly.

We didn’t experience any interruption of waste removal or water supply.

What we experienced was the consequence of our reliance upon electricity for fresh food. Again, the supermarket with bright lights, freezers, and electric credit-card readers is not the only model. We could have more corner stores, each taking more frequent deliveries of fresh, locally-procured food in smaller quantities: the “corner grocer” of the sort you find in very large cities, with a cash-only, or neighborhood account-based payment. It would likely mean less variety, more frequent “sold out” conditions, and certainly higher prices.

There’s a basic rule in life: efficiency is the enemy of resilience. When a violinist buys extra strings for his fiddle, it is inefficient: the money spent on strings, and the time spent pre-stretching them, when they may not be used for years, could have been more efficiently spent on something else. Economists even have a term for this: “opportunity cost.” But it compensates with resilience: if a string breaks just before a performance, or even during a performance, the show can continue — otherwise, the show must be canceled.

Our supermarket system is quite efficient. But it is also quite fragile. A five-day loss of electricity exposed just how fragile it is. A five-week loss of electricity would require a completely new system of food distribution, and a lot of chaos getting it set up, possibly including food riots, violence, and even starvation.

That’s in a little village surrounded by vineyards and pear orchards and squash patches. Rural country, close to local farms.

Right now, everyone is angry with Pacific Gas and Electric, because they’re what’s called a regional for-profit monopoly, and they’ve been making substantial payouts to investors and company officers for many years, and “deferring” (neglecting) maintenance on their systems, resulting in failing systems that are causing some of the fires up here. For which they’ve been sued into bankruptcy.

Some people want to “fix” PG&E, and punish the miscreant officers who mismanaged the company.

But the real issue is resilience, which pretty much the entire nation has sacrificed in favor of efficiency. In some ways, this PSPS was a blessing. We don’t need a better regional monopoly. We need a resilient system.

One comment on “Reflections on a Power Outage

  1. Susan says:

    I very much appreciate reading your personal and thoughtful account of the power outage. As someone who lived off-grid for 5 years and thinks about the fragility, complexity and interdependence of the systems which currently supply me with comforts and convenience (and water, food and sanitation) it adds useful information to my understanding. I also enjoy your clear and articulate writing style. Thanks!


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