What Happens When the Electricity Is Off for Three Days?

what happens when an electricity dependent society and economy has an extended loss of electrical grid and communications?

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 Transportationexplores 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.

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