Monday, February 19, 2007

It Isn't Gridcrash that Makes the Lights Go Out

There's been some interesting discussion since the revision of the Olduvai Hypothesis about gridcrash and blackouts as a likely indicator of infrastructure crisis. Personally, I don't really have a strong opinion about whether the grid as a single entity will live or die.

I do think that there are some compelling reasons to worry about the ability of the existing grid to satisfy the needs of a society that, because of oil and gas depletion and carbon reduction, is moving more and more of its energy burden to electricity. That is, many of the proposals to clean up carbon involve changing the source of energy away from oil to either nuclear energy or coal plants with scrubbers and sequestration (I will have more to say about the problems of carbon sequestration from coal plants in another post - I am less sanguine than many people that we can actually do this). In many proposals we would begin powering our transportation with electric cars, buses and trains, replacing the heat we generate in our homes, schools, offices, etc... with oil and natural gas with electric heat, etc... While I have my doubts about whether we will ever do all of these things, if we did, it would certainly place enormous pressure on the grid, and require enormous investments in infrastructure. It is no big deal to recharge a few thousand electric cars - if everyone had one, this would be something of an issue. But regardless, I think it is also possible that we could accomplish this, or that we could fail to convert our infrastructure quickly enough (this is an enormous economic undertaking) thus not overburdening the grid. I officially take no strong position here.

But what I do have a strong opinion on (you knew there had to be something ;-), is this: I think most of us ought to be preparing for a life without electricity, regardless of whether we believe that peak oil may cause disruptions in the electrical grid.

I believe this for purely practical reasons. Peak oil, for most of us, will be less about geopolitics and large scale infrastructure crisis than it will be about what I call (riffing on Freud) ordinary human poverty. That is, we're going to be poorer, many of us much, much poorer. Even economists who dismiss peak oil acknowledge that significant oil shocks of any kind - caused either by depletion or by political crisis, would cause a major economic crisis. The things that many of us (by no means all) have been able to be certain of - a certain kind of stability and comfort, are going to go away. The economic problems created by oil and gas depletion are likely to create a serious, and deep economic crisis, much more serious than anything we've seen in my lifetime. During the last depression, 29% of American schoolchildren suffered some form of malnutrition. Herbert Hoover famously said, "at least no one has starved" only to be caught out as cases of starvation appeared around the nation and mothers in cities rioted because they had nothing for their children to eat. The classic image of stockbrokers selling apples on the street and bread lines going around the block doesn't even quite convey how desperately poor many people were. It is not unlikely this view of our past is part of our future.

One of the useful things about having been crazily poor for some years during college and graduate school (living illegally in school buildings, apartments with no hot water, eviction notices, no phone, no power, etc...), which is not something I generally remember with fondness, is that it gives me some experience with what living poor is like. And one of the things it is like is never being able to pay all your bills. So you play bill roulette. You pay the one with the most urgent exclamation points and potent threats first, and then you pay the next one. And you can go on like this for some time. But it is very hard to maintain when you don't have enough money to meet your basic expenses. And eventually, you get caught out - the check bounces, the next payment doesn't arrive in time, you have an unexpected crisis, or the bill collectors threaten you into paying out of order, and something happens. This isn't just my experience - in the years I volunteered with various poverty abatement programs, I saw thousands of people in the same situation. And when you let one of the balls fall, the next step is to set you back even further. Because getting your vehicle back from the impound, or your phone turned back on, or contesting your eviction, or whatever is expensive. Those things cost money you don't have, and you end up further behind.

Peak oil will hit most of us where it hurts - in our jobs, our pocketbooks, in the homes where we won't be able to make the rent or mortgage payment, in our health because we'll no longer be able to afford routine care, in our choices - instead of "vacation fund or 401K, we'll be wondering "shoes or groceries." Add in that we can expect the price of electricity to rise - carbon sequestration is expensive, nuclear power is expensive initially and dealing with its wastes is very expensive, much of the easily accessible, cheap coal is gone, investment in renewables is not cheap either - we can expect the price of our electricity to rise steadily.

So whether or not we ever have rolling blackouts again or grid failure, lots of us will be having our power turned off. And since electricity for the most part runs luxury items (although we are not accustomed to thinking of them as luxuries) like refrigeration and lights, if it comes down to hard choices like "food or electric," "lights or medicine" we should all recognize that electricity is not essential to (most) human life, and prepare to function well and comfortably without it.

Now private renewable energy (and I do not mean pyramid scams, such as Citizens RE) is an option for some people. But the systems are expensive and somewhat complicated, and in the northern part of the country, we can expect periods where there isn't enough sun to run our solar systems. I am not trying to discourage anyone who can afford it from investing in renewable energy systems, in fact, quite the contrary. But the process of adapting our homes to operate on less is a large and expensive one. In a nation with a negative total savings rate, enormous quantites of mortgage and credit card debt, and a shaky currency, a lot of us, probably a majority, aren't going to be able to go solar, and probably shouldn't, because it really doesn't return the most bang for our bucks.

If you have $2000 to spend, you could choose between several things. For that money, you coul add significant insulation to your leaky house, make or purchase insulating curtains for all windows, and buy four solar lanterns, a couple of battery powered lanterns, a solar battery charger and some rechargeable batteries. The rechargeable batteries and the lanterns would provide you with light and music for your existing CD player, and the insulation and curtains would provide a lifetime reduction in your heating and cooling needs. Or, for that same $2000, you could get a battery backup solar system that sat on your roof, and run four lights and a CD player. I know which one I would choose.

For those who are way ahead of the game, and already have their insulation and everything else they need, great, and if you have tens of thousands of dollars to spend on your house, you don't need my advice as to how to use it. But for the rest of us, solar panels on your roof or a wind generator in your yard is probably not the best use of your money (if you have the right spot for microhydro, you might have a better deal, and I'm envious). Because if you triage your life, and think about what is most important, it will be making sure you can live as comfortably as possible and as securely as possible, while, in hard times, needing to buy as few things as possible.

In addition, solar systems generally cannot heat houses, run conventional refrigerators (the kind they can run are usually well above $1000, and the cost of the system to run them is quite significant as well), run toasters, electric stoves or, except with the largest systems, air conditioning. So if you live beyond the gas lines, or, say have some reason to believe that natural gas might rise in price and drop in availability, you will still have many needs unmet, after you've invested thousands and thousands of dollars in your private RE system. That is, you'd have to buy the solar panels, and still buy the woodstove, the insulation, etc...

If you are like us, that's just out the question economically. We can't afford to preserve electricity at all costs when there are so many more urgent needs, and both household wind and household solar are not totally reliable where I live. We'd have to have non-electric backups for the times when the skies were cloudy or the wind wasn't blowing - or we'd need a generator, which is also pricey, depends on outside gas and produces a lot of carbon. We cannot afford to do both, and I think that's true of many or most people. There's also the issue of mobility - like it or not, in economic hard times some of us will lose our houses, or having family combine housing with them. It is not very hard to pick up your solar crank radio, or to pack your hand-washing machine. It is something of a bigger project to get the solar panels unwired from your house and moved.

For those of us who need the most bang for our buck, we need to prioritize. Electricity is nice - I'm very fond of it. But most of us should have homes that function well without it, just in case. And non-electric, human powered solutions, and stand-alone renewables (that is, things like solar calculators, solar battery chargers, solar radios, etc... that are cheap, last a long time and can serve many of the functions we normally rely on wall plugs for), are overwhelmingly more reliable, cheaper and more secure than dependency on the grid or on house-sized renewable energy systems.

In the cold climates, we need water, heat, light, a source of food and some way to prepare it, and toileting and washing facilities. A means of keeping food cool is helpful too, but a bucket of water taken from the ground and a mason jar will keep your dinner overnight. Laundry facilities would be great, but if you don't get to that, you can wash your clothes in a bucket and hang them on a $2 clothesline. If you are prepared to scavenge, can build a lot of stuff and don't require new things, all these needs can probably be fufilled for less than $2000. If you buy everything new, it might cost you four, depending on your circumstances. Even if you don't own your home, many of these items are usable in rental housing, and a landlord might well let you install, say, rainwater cachement onto existing drains.

In the west, water is a bigger issue. Most of the rest of us can capture rainwater, but horribly, in part of the west it is illegal to capture the rainwash off your roof. Very deep wells cannot be pumped manually. For you, solar direct pumps are probably the best option, or perhaps we will return to windmills. Changing the water laws so that you can collect your own rainwater would probably help.

In the hot states (an expanding number), cooling is a much bigger issue than heating. And while a lot can be done with good insulation, heavy curtains and shades, and a good solar attic fan, some people may still need air conditioning. In this case, if air conditioning is a life or death issue, house-attached solar might make sense. But for poor people, swamp coolers and battery powered fans, changes in lifestyle (do work in the early morning and evening), cool baths and showers and a change in pace will probably do it.

Our plan is to make our house functional and comfortable without electric power. That means a manual pump on our well, as well as (because I'm lazy and want water in my house) a cistern tank with a hand pump at my kitchen sink). We have two solar lanterns, two solar battery chargers, and a crank/solar radio for lighting and music (we consider music an essential). I can do my laundry in a bucket, but I'm coveting a James Handwasher and wringer - I'm hoping to add one this year. Refrigeration will be natural during the winter (we have an insulated area that stays plenty cold but does not freeze) and water based during the summer. It will also mean changing the way we cook in warm weather, but that's no tragedy - the planet is full of people without fridges, and they created some of the best cuisines on earth without them. We have a wood cookstove and a regular woodstove, and plenty of warm clothes and blankets for the unheated sleeping areas. We had a homemade outdoor masonry oven, but we'll need to build a new one this year, which will be fun. I've got two homemade solar cookers, but am coveting a professionally made one, which will achieve higher temperatures. But I could get along with my homemade ones. Our baling-wire and glue composting toilet set up is about to be replaced with something new and pretty, but the original worked fine, the bucket was free and the commode bought at a yard sale for $5. We buy sawdust now and again, but could use old leaves. We're reinsulating, which is not cheap, but we could, if necessary, just get used to the cold. It would not kill us. Homemade insulated curtains, tapestries or blankets hung over underinsulated walls, reusable bubble wrap on windows, even styrofoam insulation covered with bookshelves, and handmade draft dodgers would do the same job for much, much less money, as would moving more and faster and putting on more clothes. We should not confuse issues of comfort with issues of necessity.

My writing requires I have a computer. I could, if worst came to worst, write things out longhand or put them on the ancient typewriter I inherited, but I suspect we will purchase a stand-alone solar panel and a laptop for me eventually, assuming I ever get paid for doing this. But that, again, is a matter of convenience and having the money, not necessity.

Ultimately, we may turn the power off for other reasons than necessity. If our nation fails to cut its emissions, and our electricity is increasingly created by dirty coal, or by nuclear plants that endanger our communities, turning it all off may be the only possible way to avoid participating in the harm we're doing. It is important to me that I keep in mind that electricity for private homes (I am not speaking here about electricity for hospitals), is something that was not necessary through most of human history, and is not truly essential today.

Sharon

16 comments:

Alantex said...

Please tell us where it is actually illegal to collect one's roof drainage. I have heard of this and can sort of understand the rationale for such regulation, but I have never heard the name of a place where such a law exists.

In Texas, for example, I know the state government is actually encouraging people to collect rainwater from their roofs.

moll from oz said...

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Anonymous said...

Here's one: It's illegal in Colorado where Colorado Water Law requires that precipitation fall to the ground, run off and into the river of the watershed where it fell. Because rights to water are legally allocated in this state, an individual may not capture and use water to which he/she does not have a right.

See: http://www.denverwater.org/cons_xeriscape/conservation/FAQ_WestWaterLaws.html


Stephen Beltramini
Walpole, MA

Anonymous said...

Sorry, that URL I just posted was too long. Here is a Tiny URL for it:

http://tinyurl.com/24qn6b

Stephen Beltramini

Alantex said...

Well, Stephen,
That answers my question. It seems by the logic of this law, that any plant life you might have on your property that absorbs rainfall and prevents it from running off into a river would also violate Colorado water law.

It seems pretty clear that the law is intended to prevent landowners from creating impoundments on their property which would hold large amounts (dozens or hundreds of acre-feet) of rainfall runoff and then using that water for irrigation or for watering livestock. But, just as clearly, a homeowner with a rainbarrel is also in violation. Not exactly easy to police, though.

I wonder how it is determined exactly how much water is "supposed" to run off a given plot of land? If I buy a barren lot where the rain has been falling and running off without hindrance for millennia, and build a home with landscaping (lawns, shrubs, trees, perhaps a garden), then a lot of the water which formerly ran off will be absorbed by my landscaping. Maybe runoff will be reduced by 50%. Am I then in violation of Colorado water law? How about the other two or three million Colorado homeowners with lawns and shrubbery?

Are there books full of case law on this subject in Colorado? Does a subdivision developer have to purchase water rights for the water which will not make it into a river because of the 50 or 60 new landscaped homes he will build?

Can a homeowner purchase the right to collect and use the rain which falls on his property? Like a farmer who buys the right to withdraw x number of acre-feet from a river for irrigation?

All very curious and, I'm sure, extremely strange to people from parts of the country where water is not so scarce.

Steve said...

"We should not confuse issues of comfort with issues of necessity."

That's the story of our culture, isn't it.

I remember well the original oil embargo in the early 70's. The thermostat setting in our household went way down. If anyone complained, my mother would simply say, "put on another sweater".

I now live quite rustically in rural NH. We are the last house on the electric line up here. I have a horse to work the woodlot (we heat with wood, oil backup), grow a lot of our own vegetables, etc.

We have a fair sense of what living without electricity means, since our power fails often out here (why, just yesterday, for example). If power becomes intermittent, we could roll with that. If it simply stopped...

The thing that would be a real yank for us would be water, though we have a probably-drinkable stream quite nearby. I should probably put a manual pump on the well...

But come "gridcrash", winters would be trying here. Must get that wood-fired cooking range that I've been meaning to for years now...

Anonymous said...

One thing that people tend not to think of when considering future paring down - during times of expense and scarcity it will also become necessary to rethink our hyper-clean high-volume laundry-doing habits...our current habits of tossing things in the laundry after one use or one wearing will likely change quite a bit...imagine trying to do the same amount of laundry by hand, or with very simplistic machinery, along with how much water would be involved - and it becomes obvious that a change will have to occur.

We may spot clean a great deal instead of washing the whole item, for instance - and wear something substantially more often before a complete wash of it is done. We will probably use a bath towel for more than one person; rather than tossing it to be cleaned after one bath, several persons will use it.
We amy air dry ourselves, foregoing towels entirely.

We will spot clean our bodies, as well...perhaps returning to the bath once a week mode. (sounds unpleasant, but one would get used to it)

We will likely greatly reduce the number of items that we regularly wear, saving some for future needs while using other items for non-clothing purposes. In that future, if something isn't 'worth' the water and effort it takes to wash it, we won't be wearing it. The cheaply made common clothing of today won't last, so investing now in a basic wardrobe of natural fiber items that will last for a long time, and aren't complicated to clean would be a good idea. Ditto some good quality bedding and towels, and high-quality basic footwear.

Cynthia

Anonymous said...

Solar must not be expensive if you do it smart. I have friends in spain who live on a mountain off the grid. They have 1(!) solar panel on the roof, a few old car batteries and 12V wiring in the house. Light is either fluorescent or halogen floodlights right where you need it. It also powers a small TV, and the music. Water comes running down in a pipe from higher up the mountain, so they got gravity powered running water, the fridge runs on propane and for power tools or running the washing machine they fire up a generator. And its a beautiful life they live there! I'd change with them any day :-)
Also i spent last winter living in a hut with no electricity and water from a well. I used candles for light and a woodstove for heating. Not having all these distracting electric gadgets can also be quite a liberation! After a while i installed a cable to a generator on a lot nearby, but i never used it for anything but recharging my laptop - i simply wasnt feeling like I lack anything.
Keeping food required some changes: some things were stored inside, others were kept frozen outside, eggs had to be eaten rightaway :)
Lack of electricity is really mostly a frightening problem in cities - just about anything there needs elictricity (or gas...).
matthias

yooper said...

I'm sorry to differ with you Sharon, but I think you're taking life without power not seriously enough. If the lights went out across the country, I'm strongly suggesting, that this will actually signal the beginning of the die-off, in this country. How else could it be? Clearly, you have not thought this out.

A big problem for me and many others here in the North Country during winter months, we're assuming that there is a continous, uninteruptive supply of electrical power. Without it, my water line leading to the house is frozen in a manner of hours. Worse yet, I heat with propane, without the electrical blower, this unit is useless. How do you propose that millions of people should deal with this?

I'm here to inform you that not only is our infrastructure reliant on continous power, but all across our nation. Everything, everywhere. How do you propose the people of Tuscon, Az. or Vegas, Nv. would get a drink of water without power for a week? Could they even walk to water in time?

If this country had a very hard time delievering water to those in New Orleans, what makes you think. it'll be just an inconvience? Do you think that these back-up powerplants,(disel) were designed to carry the load, generated by the elctrical plant? For how long? How do you propose these plants would get fuel after the storage tanks are near empty? Do you think the goverment can somehow organize an effort to accomplish this feat to literally thousands and thousands of such powerplants?

At what point, would people begin to riot, or for total chaos to break out after such an event as the power going out?

Is it even possible, that the entire electrical grids could go down in this country? What would that even matter, if say the whole northeastern section of North America went down? Could enough help be delieverd in TIME? What would it take to get power back on line?

No, I'm sorry, but you're definitely not seeing the same picture, as I am.

yooper said...

Sharon, I just have to ask you, how would millions and millions work without power? What would they do without money? How would banks survive? Wall Street? How long do you think the local supermarket would be open? How long do you think the "meals on wheels program" would last here in America? How long do you think it would take for literally millions and millions of people to expire from dehydration? How about starvation?

Sharon, have you ever even thought to asked yourself these type of questions? Ask youself this question, "how do you propose, 300 million people would survive in this country, without power?"

Electricity, is not only the best means to deliever the power it takes to run our economy, it's our "lifeline".

Thanks, yooper

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