Struggling Without Electricity

There’s a blog title I never thought I’d write: struggling without electricity.  My family lives in north-central California, in a military/middle-class neighborhood; the last thing we’d expect to struggle with is reliable electricity.  And yet, in the five-ish months we’ve lived there, we’ve already dealt with four power outages, the longest stretching out for 7 hours.

The big reason electricity is so unreliable in California is because of the risk of overhead powerlines sparking massive, destructive wildfires.  The local issue first reached international news in 2018, when the city of Paradise, California burned to the ground thanks to a spark from a power line igniting nearby brush.  Now in 2019, California’s electric companies are cautious during strong winds, and frequently implement blackouts for up to 72 hours at a time to prevent a simple problem: tree branches and other windswept debris hitting overhead powerlines and causing fires.

There are three issues with that method.  One, think of all the appliances in your house that constantly require electricity.  I’m thankful we don’t rely on medical equipment, and we’re pretty conservative when we buy groceries!  I can’t imagine owning another fridge full of products that require constant chilling or relying on a sleep apnea machine…

The second issue is that there’s no “wildfire season” in California.  Power-sparked wildfires could start at any time during the year, simply from strong winds and a dry week.  In fact, the fire that burned Paradise, CA happened in early November, when the rest of the U.S. had experienced freezing rain or even snow.

And the third issue is that strong winds aren’t the only reason we lose electricity.  We still lose electricity for one or two hours due to a broken line or a faulty connection.  I haven’t experienced an earthquake in California yet (and hope not to, but that’s not in my control!), but if it’s anything like the earthquake I experience in Hawaii, power will be lost.

Our longest blackout actually had to do with an accident.  In a bid to protect electrical lines, a tree trimming company was hired to clear out some high branches over a power line.  The crane used for trimming accidentally knocked into and almost felled an electrical pole, causing an instant blackout to the neighborhood.  Of course, this happened at 6pm on a weekday evening, when the sun was setting and families were preparing for dinner.  It took hours to replace and re-connect the new electrical pole.

So what’s the real struggle here?  We lose a fridge full of food, say, once every few months?  We have to bathe in cold water for a bit?  We have to rely on spotty cell connectivity for a few hours?  Go without running laundry machines or a dishwasher or a vacuum or a TV?  Or even *gasp* break out some scented candles and a board game?  In CA, the temperatures rarely go below freezing, and our town rarely sees days over 85 degrees Fahrenheit, so heating and cooling are superfluous, even luxurious.  When stepping back, it’s clearly a “first world problem.”

But in a first world country with plenty of technological potentials, why haven’t we adapted?  California can produce reliable solar power; heck our house even has solar panels on it!  But for some reason, the system requires a grid-tie (feeding for miles all the way back into the main system instead of a few feet to the house) because that’s a more “reliable” power system.  Our stove and oven run on gas, yet we rely far more heavily on our microwave.  Sure, we could go out and buy gas-powered generators and other similar machinery, but we’re only going to live in sunny CA for two, maybe three, years at most.  Buying an at-least $2,000 fixed generator isn’t worth it.

So while my American self is angry at the lack of reliability in a very rich country, and my engineering-trained brain is frustrated by the lack of technology use, it might be a good thing to live through short power outages of 8 hours or less.  It might teach us Americans to alter our habits so that we see electricity as a privilege instead of a for-granted resource.  It might force us to actually take the time and money to upgrade our system with solar technology and underground power lines.  We may learn to break out a book or a board game every once in a while or think twice before we buy another or rely on another powered appliance.

And if we pay more attention to the way(s) we use electricity, we may actually save a lot more money in the long run.



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