Monday, October 21, 2013

When the Lights Go Out

broken light bulb photo: Broken light bulb 29082008bulb.jpg


While there are few things certain in life, especially in the hypothetical life after doomsday, one thing is almost a sure thing: the lights will go out. The way the U.S. electrical grid is set up, a catastrophic event in one area can have dire consequences in another area. Take the 2003 blackout of the northeastern United States and parts of Ontario, Canada; 50 million people, including major cities like New York, Baltimore, Buffalo, Toronto, Detroit, Cleveland, and Albany lost electricity because of an undetected software bug in a electrical control room in Ohio. Surely there have been measures taken to prevent this from happening again, right? Well, yes, a few, but not nearly enough.

According research done by a team of physicists lead by Shlomo Havlin, not enough has been done to the U.S. electrical grid to prevent another major blackout. The electric grid is a spatial network (defined by geographical location) which is dependent on a few key locations where the networks intersect. For the electrical grid to function, these key locations must be operating. As we saw in 2003, when a location fails the impact can be massive. Havlin stated in Nature Physics “Whenever you have such dependencies in the system, failure in one place leads to failure in another place, which cascades into collapse.” So, hypothetically speaking, let’s say another computer bug gets into a power plant, bringing the system down. That system brings another down, and another, and another before you know it the entire continent is in the dark. We’ve already seen it happen on a much smaller scale, so it’s no longer a question of “can it happen?” It can, and has.

So now what? Do we completely redo the United States’ electrical infrastructure? I think we all know that with the current state of the government that isn’t a priority for them. Now, the responsibility is placed on citizens to take the precautionary steps to prevent their homes from being plunged into darkness when the system fails again. Luckily, off-the-grid living has become a booming topic in recent years as the flaws of the electrical grid are being brought to the public’s attention.  It may require heavy costs, lots of planning, and  up front, but using these systems to create a zero-net home (one which creates and uses it’s own electricity) will pay for themselves and give you something money can’t buy: peace of mind, because when the next blackout comes, you’ll be prepared. Heck, if you pair it with a self-sufficient garden, you might never need to leave your property again (although socializing is generally encouraged).

So what exactly are the steps involved in going off the grid? Well, the first and most logical one for most people is to establish an alternate source of energy. You need to assess which source is going to work best for you (i.e. solar panels if you live in the desert, wind generator if you live in the plains), and figure out what your electrical needs are and how you will generate that much. There are ways to cheat the system and use less energy by purchasing things like tankless water heaters or wood-burning stoves, or heating your house with natural gas (plenty of other energy saving tips are everywhere online if you look around). After you have established your own electrical system, you’re going to need to drill your own ground well for water or install a cistern to collection rainwater or snow (depending on where you live, of course). Establishing a septic system for your sewage is usually the last step people take in getting themselves off the grid. Drilling for a well and installing a septic system are the most costly parts of going off the grid and prevents many people from taking the full leap to off the grid living.

So why, aside from saving your own hide in the event of sweeping blackouts and a destined-to-fail national electrical infrastructure, should you go off the grid? Well, for starters you’re going to save a lot of money in the long run. Despite heavy up front costs, electrical systems powered by renewable energy and sources for collecting your own water pay for themselves and then some within a matter of years. Think about never having to pay an electrical or water bill ever, for the rest of your life. I don’t know about you, but I will gladly forgo paying any bill, no matter how much it is.

Another benefit that is drawing more and more people to off the grid living is the fact that it’s incredibly environmentally friendly. By using renewable energy from the wind or sun, your carbon footprint becomes almost non-existent. So, not only are you saving yourself money now while making sure you’re completely prepared so survive a total collapse of the electrical grid if the worst were to happen, but you’re also doing your part to save the planet for future generations. It’s a win-win as far as I’m concerned.

Elizabeth Eckhart is a freelance writer with an interest in energy conservation, living off the grid and the outdoors. You can link to her on Twitter at @elizeckhart

5 comments:

  1. "So now what? Do we completely redo the United States’ electrical infrastructure? I think we all know that with the current state of the government that isn’t a priority for them. "


    I believe the U.S. electrical grid is privately owned, so the current state of the government only has tangential importance here.


    The answer is, yes, we do completely "redo" the electrical infrastructure. It is outdated and it needs replacement. The utility companies will have to be incentivized to do this, but it is eminently possible. You and I will have to pay for it in our electrical bills, but here again is a case of you get what you pay for: you can keep paying the same rates for progressively worse and worse reliability, or you can pay a small premium and have reliability restored to where it was 30 and 40 years ago. (We NEVER had major power outages when I was a kid. Wonder why? Because the investment in the infrastructure was still ongoing then.)
    Suggesting that people have an emergency backup power source is responsible. Suggesting that they develop self-reliance so they can live off-grid? Not only irresponsible, but also counter-productive. Fear mongering such as this creates economic demands on people they can ill-afford to meet. Our society is based on the division of labor, and on the confidence that it will continue as such. You cannot lead a meaningful, productive life and expect to have advancements like the ones the 20th Century witnessed in medicine, science, and information technology if everyone is chopping wood to keep warm. Also, if the number of people who disinvested from the electrical grid approached a critical mass, the electrical grid would become financially unsustainable and collapse. Is that really the goal here, or is securing electrical power for our future the goal? I think more the latter than the former. Being part of the solution and not a contributor to the problem is a more efficient approach.

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  2. I would agree with most of your points, If people are concerned about the power grid and the utility companies or the government is not doing anything about it, People should change how they get their power. Currently, the government is actively pushing people towards alternative energies with rebates and credits so I can only see our power grid getting worse as more people explore these options. You are correct that as people start using more of these kinds of energy, the people who stay on the grid will carry more of the burden as far as prices go.


    I don't know what will happen with the power grid, but I wouldn't be surprised if it ended up being similar to the communications industry did with people moving to only having cell phones, or more recently the cable and satellite companies being replaced by the "cable cutters" who like Netflix and Hulu and the like.


    Great comments. Have a great day!

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  3. Saving energy is one of the most logical thing to do. Energy saving changes that will lower your electricity bills and support you green living which proves that you can live without sacrificing any comfort in your life. Living green life directly relates you to eco-friendly culture which goes around recycling and using energy-efficient appliances in your home. The first step towards making an Eco friendly house is to insulate its walls and promotes the usgae of smart electrical devices like prepay meters and energy saving electronics.

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  4. In a post-apocalyptic scenario, just as being the nicest house on the block isn't a good thing, neither is being the only one with lights on for miles. Urban-dwellers have a whole different set of issues to deal with - not standing out being pretty high on the list - people will want what you have and will take what you don't voluntarily hand over...us urbanites need a different alternative...just my thoughts.

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  5. There are definitely pros and cons to having lights on at your house. Outside lighting can help you to see troublemakers and also can draw them to your home as well.


    I would think that motion sensing lights would be a good choice for outside so they will only go on when someone is close to your home. This could potentially startle them since they no longer have the element of surprise.



    Interior lighting should be kept to a minimum. Many people will have candles and oil lamps so I don't think a light from a window will be too unusual but don't overdo it.

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