What Happens When the Electricity Is Off for Three Days?

One of the hidden realities of modern life is its fragility. For example, few people are aware of the precariousness of the supply chain that refills gasoline/petrol stations around the world every few days.

A new book, When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation explores the fragilities of our truck-dependent supply chains.

Longtime correspondent Bart D. (Australia) recently experienced a multi-day regional loss of electricity. His first-person observations help us understand what breakdowns in energy are like on the ground.

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Observations of life in an extended power failure by Bart D. (Australia)

South Oz is continuing with its streak of extreme weather. The latest being our encounter with what’s being described as a category 2 ‘hurricane’ with the added bonus of a severe front preceding it that produced many low-grade tornados. A score of major power transmission towers were twisted off their footings, 80 000 lightning strikes fried out a lot of ‘secondary’ electricity infrastructure … 40% of power that is usually being generated from wind had to be shut down due to extreme winds and base load backup generators failed in many locations (including my region).

Power ‘gradually’ returning after blackout plunged state into darkness

End result … entire state without electricity for a day and a half. Some regions, including my home region, (about the size of the state of Tasmania) were without electricity for 3 nights and 2.5 days.

It was a fascinating opportunity to observe firsthand what happens when an electricity dependent society and economy has an extended and complete loss of electrical grid and communications.

Key observations for my local area are:

1. Many people have small petrol generators thanks to our lovely coastal wilderness and a preoccupation with Glamping (Glam Camping)

2. Very few people had a store of petrol at home more than 5 to 10 litres. (usually kept for use in lawn mowers, brush cutters, chainsaws). Some owners of small boats had up to 20 litres on hand.

3. When the electricity goes out … the pumps at fuel stations don’t work. To my great surprise, only 1 fuel station in my nearest city of about 14 000 population had (or quickly acquired) a back-up generator to work their fuel pumps. There was a 3 hour wait for customers to get from back of queue to the pumps … and a ridiculous show of ‘bulk buying’ where people didn’t just take fuel that they personally needed; they showed up with between 3 and 8 X 20 litre (5 gallon) fuel cans as well as filling their cars. Hopefully the canned fuel was distributed among family and friends. (My assertion is that the owners of the station should have rationed fuel to 40 litres per customer to keep the que moving faster and to make sure everyone had some, rather than creating an ‘all or nothing’ situation)

4. Due to the difficulty with getting hold of petrol after the blackout started … almost everyone with generators at home could only run them for a few hours over the course of the entire blackout. Even then, the small camping gensets usually lacked the capacity to run large modern refrigerator/freezers. So … most people lost the contents of their fridges by the end. Due to cold weather, at least freezers stayed cold for the most part.

5. Big shops had their own gensets … but they can’t power the banks of chillers for meat and dairy … so these items became unavailable by the evening of the blackout starting.

6. The full loss of grid, grid back-up and other smaller backups caused telecommunications and data transmission to practically cease. This meant limitations of EFTPOS in stores. Banks were shut, ATM’s didn’t work and some shops that were open could only take cash. Generally though, everyone muddled through the sketchy electronic payment systems one way or another. Internet access failed for the most part. Social media pretty much collapsed … my two daughters though their social lives were over. I didn’t miss it. My wife found more time to do other things too.

7. The items that disappeared from the shelves fast, and were tricky to find after 24 hours without power were : Bread, D cell batteries, 6 volt square batteries, matches, heat beads, butane gas cans, fresh meat, sandwich meats, cheeses. (not sure about bottled water – most here have rain tanks anyway). Everything else seemed fine, although fresh fruit and veg got limited after 48 hours.

8. In hardware/camping stores that managed to open: bottled LPG quickly sold out as did BBQ’s, camp stoves, camp lights and batteries to run them. Most here have a gas BBQ at home, but if you didn’t already have a full bottle of gas … it was very hard to get a replacement after 48 hours.

9. No one here knows how to use a road intersection properly when the traffic lights are out! I think this helped create major gridlock in the states capital but was even noticeable here at my much smaller regional city with just one such intersection containing lights. (public education urgently required on this)

10. The number of back-up gensets at critical locations (including hospitals and communications systems) that failed was disturbing. There needs to be a major inquiry into why the back-ups on critical services failed. This nearly caused a shutdown of mains water supply as our water is pumped out of aquifers and has to be lifted to storage tanks high up in the hills. More of a problem for sanitation than drinking, as rain tanks are common here.

11. Then there were a few people like me … I ran my big ‘workshop’ genset 7 hours a day (hour in the morning, hour at lunch time, 4-5 hours in the evening) and was burning about 7 litres of fuel a day in doing so. My home fuel reserve meant I could run at that extravagant level for a month if need be, or supply others who fell short. We ran refrigerators, lights and TV almost ‘as usual’ and offered to charge anyone’s batteries who needed it and supplied a small camping gas burner, full cylinder of gas and a good battery powered camping light to my parents-in-law who were seriously underprepared. The rest of my small home town (located 20km from a regional city) was rather dark and quiet for the three nights (in part due to the lack of pre-stored fuel to run camping gensets).

12. We have a gas stove in our kitchen, with bottled LNG that lasts 3 -5 months in normal use, so cooking was as normal for us. Since we didn’t try to use the gas to also heat washing/bathing water it would have lasted for the usual amount of time.

13. When most were having cold showers, no showers, wasting their BBQ gas to heat pots of water or crowding into friends and relations who had LNG hot water systems in their houses … our family had hot baths by candle light in huge volumes of wood heated water. (Picture of my old wood heater below.) It is very efficient, made in the 1940’s I think, but possibly much older. The inner bowl is copper and absorbs heat from a small fire lit behind the square opening in front. It can boil 70 litres in 20 minutes from a cold start, or 15 minutes for a refill of water once it’s already been going a while.

14. Apart from the fuel distribution fiasco everything remained orderly, people remained calm and helpful and life went on. Strangers were a lot chattier with other strangers than usual … which is good to see. I saw examples of shops extending ‘unsecured credit’ for small amounts of basic food items to people who had no cash on them and whose cards didn’t work. No looting, no “Law Enforcement” out making trouble and plenty of sharing and cooperation.

15. Although about a quarter of houses have solar panels or solar thermal hot water where I live … none of it worked as it’s all grid connect AND doesn’t work under the heavy cloud/rain/cold of a 3 day storm.

I’ve been thinking about getting ‘stand-alone’ solar power (ie connected to my own batteries) since they closed the big coal fired station in the north of my region, (and the price of these systems has become quite affordable). Our region is at ‘the end of the line’ of our state grid now and I expect regular outages this summer when hot, calm conditions prevail that reduce our wind generation output at the same time as spiking power use for air conditioners. Our electricity now has to travel up to 1600km (1000 miles) from the state of Victoria to reach us when the windmills aren’t working here!

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Thank you, Bart, for sharing your observations. The resilience (or lack thereof) of complex systems is difficult to assess until there are atypical strains placed on the system.

What seems effortlessly resilient on average days can break down dramatically if redundancies, proper maintenance and crisis response have been stripped from the system by incompetence, budget cuts and/or the self-serving priorities of managers and employees.

As a result, we only discover systems have become fragile and brittle in crisis, when it’s too late to restore resilience.

Of related interest: Australia Finds Out Wind Power Doesn’t Really Work (via John D’A.)

My new book is #8 on Kindle short reads -> politics and social science: Why Our Status Quo Failed and Is Beyond Reform ($3.95 Kindle ebook, $8.95 print edition)For more, please visit the book’s website.

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  • animalogic

    Very interesting, thought provoking article. One factual inaccuracy:
    “End result … entire state without electricity for a day and a half.”
    Actually, power was returned to many parts of the main city after roughly 4-5 hours.

  • Ham

    Isnt it ironic to ask people to buy a kindle book after that article?

  • Silverado

    I live in western Washington state and we’ve lost power for over a week before due to snow and falling electricity wires, though the last major outage like that was several years ago now. Of course we expect that to happen at least once every winter (though usually not that long) and so we always have the 12k watt generator ready to go with plenty of fuel. And when a new electrical panel was required in the house because of some faulty Federal brand panel that was a fire hazard, I upgraded that and had a “generator ready” panel installed with an easy gen cable hookup to the house so we can shift power around in the house where it’s needed like energizing the hot water and well circuit so we can shower. Plus we keep a full pantry and a full freezer as after this many years we’re pretty used to eating oh at least twice a day…even when the power’s out. The house has a septic system and because the toilet downstairs in the house is below the water storage tank in elevation the toilet works through gravity as usual. Anyway the point is that if the power went out more often people would be more prepared because they’d have to be. One winter storm was particularly bad and one time when the power didn’t come back on my neighbors had to pack up and leave and go into town where they stayed with relatives. And that brings me to the main reason we’re prepared and that is when it comes right down to it, if I have to be marooned somewhere because of a winter storm and the resulting power outage, I want to be…happily marooned at my house. And we’ve gone to great lengths to accomplish that…

  • Kathy C

    Enough days without electricity in large enough area and any nuclear power plants in that area go Fukushima
    We just dodged a bullet when Hurricane Matthew hit Florida and brushed past the St. Lucie Nuclear Power plant (built on a barrier island of all the insane things). Listen to this recent Nuclear Hotseat show for a few minutes starting at 2:49 in

  • X@mailinator.com

    Yeah, stand alone detached solar is the only way to go. New Zealand deals with rolling outages all the time and subsequently many move to solar. The end result is the same which is starting to happen in popular solar locations in the US, everyone trying to get off grid ends up paying anyways since they note that as a public service necessity. Solar stand alone is the only way to go and you can build up slowly. Geesh, but you did not see anything other than a blip. Should that have been a lasting event you would have been the premier target. Next time if it’s more serious, tone down your use of energy. Great wood stove never seen one, reminds me of the rocket eco stove I bought. If all else fails I can burn sticks in the rocket stove and run pathetic tiny leds from the goal zero backback model. You’ve got to start somewhere.

  • Both sides are responsible

    While I don’t dispute the conclusions of the author I would like to add an alternate viewpoint. What was a robust and reliable electric energy generation and distribution system was dismantled to combat a fiction. That fiction is man influenced global climate change. More specifically the misconception that CO2 emissions from fossil fuel electricity generation is causing catastrophic global environmental damage.

    CO2 is one carbon atom bonded to two oxygen atoms forming the CO2 molecule. All CO2 regardless of source is identical in all aspects. Forget for the moment that carbon dioxide is a necessary environmental element to create and sustain all life on the planet. Forget for the moment that all life on this planet is carbon based. Forget for the moment that all animal life on the planet emits CO2 with every exhaled breath and the symbiotic relationship that exists between the process of photosynthesis that causes plants to convert CO2 to sugar while releasing oxygen. All of this occurring as the normal functioning of our planet.

    CO2 is an industrial gas that is produced all over the world. It is a shielding gas, it is a propellant gas, it is what carbonates soda pop everywhere. This beneficial CO2 is identical in every aspect to the emissions produced through the combustion of fossil fuels. Yet there have been no limits placed on the production of CO2 for industrial and commercial purposes. Hmmmmmmm

    Man …. the species homosapien …. is the most adaptable life form to ever exist on this planet. Yet there has been no consideration by the Climate extremists of an adaption solution to address their climate hysteria. They likewise ignore the fact that the planet is coming out of an ice age …. a geological event that is marked by melting ice. When the ice is gone the ice age has ended. The planet has had 6 such geologic glaciations prior to our species coming into existence.

    For those frothing at the mouth and screaming sea level rise. Do the math. For the horror story sea level rise cataclysms to occur ice melt sufficient to cover 70% of the planet has to occur to raise anything. That’s because water finds and maintains its own level. In order to raise the oceans the 20 plus feet prophesied by Al Gore and his minions over 80% of the planetary ice mass has to melt simultaneously. That would require a solar flare of biblical proportions or the simultaneous detonation of thousands of thermo-nuclear warheads. Either event would be far more damaging than the resultant flash flood sea rise

    Dramatically increasing the cost of energy generation while significantly reducing the reliability and capacity of the electric generation and distribution networks of the industrialized nations of the world is exponentially stupid. Particularly since these stringent emission reductions are not required of the undeveloped and emerging nations. Countries that produce far more pollution and CO2 emissions do to their lack of technology far exceed the offsets achieved by hamstringing the economies of the developed world.

    Climate on this planet is erratic at best. There is no baseline that establishes what normal atmospheric concentrations of CO2 and other green houses gasses is. Remember the planet is largely a ball of molten iron with a very thin crust. Also, we must be cognizant that the sun has far more immediate impact on planetary temperature than all atmospheric gasses combined and multiplied by a million.

    But let’s ignore the fact that climate science conflicts with the laws governing all other fields of science that currently exist. If increasing temperature is the problem, cheap electricity and air conditioning is the solution. It is a far more attainable and affordable solution …. a solution that increases the quality of life planet wide.

    By the way, it is also adaption. The defining trait of the planets evolutionary process. Solar energy, and wind energy as well fits within the frame work of the adaption alternative. Oh, It also makes far more sense than man controlling the weather.

    Science is always subject to new information …. it by its very nature cannot be settled. No tu scientist would ever use the phrase. Science is based on skeptical observation that must be documented, measurable, observable and reproducible. Consensus opinion is not science …. it is belief …. faith ….. religion ….. the antithesis of science.

    The irony is we teach this in 3rd grade science classes ….. open your eyes and take a deep breath ….. can you smell the bull excrement?