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Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Dark Side of the Street

We were awakened Thursday night by what sounded like gunfire, and turned out to be tree limbs, and entire trees, coming down in an ice storm. Friday morning we had no electricity, Massachusetts was under a state of emergency, and the governor had called out the National Guard to help clear the streets and give utility workers access to downed power lines.

Driving into Cambridge for meetings that day was like going from Kansas to Oz. It was overcast but fairly balmy; no ice in sight; and the general response was, “Emergency? What emergency?”

Three days later and the Sunday New York Times has nothing to say about Massachusetts, though the NYT Company also owns the Boston Globe (and execrable local paper, the Worcester Telegram and Gazette).

Across the street, the lights are on, as they have been the whole time. My side of the block, however, and the side of the adjacent street that abuts my backyard, remains dark. It’s like one of those Twilight Zone episodes in which the aliens perform psych experiments to see how fast community will break down.

No one on the light side of the street has been across to ask how we’re doing, or perhaps offer us some ice. Instead, I’ve been shoveling ice-encrusted twigs off our driveway, to try to stave off the warming and rotting of the food in our refrigerator.

The next door neighbors we talk to have left for a hotel, as, it seems, have a good number of our other power-starved brethren. We’re sticking it out because of a technological quirk that has kept us warm and supplied with hot water. We have an old steam boiler, retrofitted for natural gas: the only electricity our system needs to run is the DC circuit for the thermostat; there’s no pump or blower to circulate hot air or water, no compressor to inject fuel oil. As long as the gas stays on, we’re okay. Without it, we would have had to drain the pipes and leave.

We broke into one of the emergency supply boxes in the basement: the LED headlamps are goofy but functional; the hand crank radio doesn’t have much range; candles work. My daughter is in something of a panicked and cranky state of tech withdrawal, “I NEED to check my email!!”

So out we went to the local library on Saturday, foraging for wireless, adding a list of local WiFi hotspots to our emergency information list while we were at it.

On the way home I passed a convoy of Humvees, a couple of them jungle-camo green, the rest desert sand. Good to see and yet a little chilling as well.

Not much worth crabbing about global climate change here: it’s December in New England; there’s ice; let’s move on.

But the impact of the storm does point to a couple of matters of energy and economics that bear a little scrutiny.

Our power grids, both local and national are in terrible shape and getting worse.

Part of this is a matter of deregulation: when electricity was a regulated monopoly, the same company that produced your electricity also “transported” it. That company had a vested interest in maintaining the grid. Tighter regulation, moreover, meant that it was compelled to do so by more meaningful oversight. Not so, on either count, anymore.

The grid maintainers now do as little as they can get away with doing. It’s inefficient to keep an overly large supply of repair and maintenance crews on staff when they will “hardly ever” be put to work. That logic works fine right up until the point when rare weather events cause the “statistically insignificant” deaths of the frail and more isolated people whose utilities suddenly stop working for a few days—instead of a few hours—at a time.

The matter of corporate resilience and redundancy begs the question of more local and personal back up systems. I have not yet descended to the 1970s level of survivalist paranoia (a basement bomb shelter stocked with krugerrands, ammunition, and a year’s worth of military rations) but I’ve been trying to be prepared for the advent of less reliable utility systems.

A more decentralized power grid would do a lot in that regard. Never mind my fantasy of a zero energy home; if I had enough of my own electricity to just run my refrigerator, I’d be in much better shape.

To do that via small scale wind or solar, it would be useful to have some kind of storage system, a battery bank or perhaps a tank to store hydrogen. A backup system could also use natural gas to power a fuel cell; the dirty way to do this would be to just have a backup generator, burning gasoline, diesel, or natural gas.

Having alternative power for just a few hours a day would be tremendously useful in an emergency—you can run the fridge for just on hour or two a day and keep things cold; you can recharge batteries.

Building grid resilience and local backups like this might be a good way to jump start a small scale alternative energy infrastructure. Since most states now mandate net-metering, for the 99% of the time when there is no emergency, these small scale projects would be feeding energy back into the grid, reducing the need on the part of the utilities to build more generating facilities, paying consumers a monthly dividend that buffered us against higher energy costs.

Of course, it could be argued that we are heading into a period when energy and/or weather related emergencies will be far more prevalent. Which would make alternative sources of energy and better grid resilience that much more crucial. . .