On and off the grid

There are important lessons to learn from this year’s infamous blackouts

Those astute folks living off the grid must have been nodding to themselves when they heard tell of all the Newfoundland residents who experienced power outages last month. It seems we have chosen the benefit of services over being self-sufficient and exploring alternative energy sources. Many see the impracticality that comes with trying to generate our own energy, but it may eventually have to be considered more seriously.

Things feel good when everything is ticking along, but then comes an onslaught of cold weather, a malfunctioning power plant, a burning transformer, and rolling blackouts. A tad inconvenient for those of us who are largely dependent on electrical power to keep us warm and our homes functioning.

After January’s power outages, I’m intrigued to know how many people took action and bent their budgets to ensure their homes were ready for future power shortages. It’s no wonder Newfoundlanders felt somewhat apprehensive, considering our isolation from the North American power grid. This is why it’s so important for families to use energy that is sustainable and available. The way we take utilities for granted became quite apparent once we were forced to observe our lives by candlelight.

A hard bunch

There was plenty of banter on the mainland about why people were making such a fuss down here on the island. Surely there were much more catastrophic things happening all over the world compared to the 100,000 of us experiencing power outages for a couple of days, some school closures, and a winter storm. Certainly, what warrants real complaint or fear depends on the individual experience. What made it a big deal was the fact that many people were ill-prepared – government included – and most not only lacked alternative sources of power but some families ended up with damaged property. This may seem like a fairly minor catastrophe but it ought not be disregarded when someone’s home and health are at risk, and when that’s all they’ve got. There is a justified reason to be upset when an elderly man requires an equally elderly neighbour to crawl on his belly under the house in subzero temperatures to thaw the pipes that are at risk of bursting, with his bare hands and mediocre equipment.

In the thick of it

A power outage, regardless of its cause, makes people feel worried and may lead to panic or rash decision making. Some sit around and grumble while others take drastic measures by bringing propane into their homes to cook and stay warm, sometimes unaware of the associated dangers and risks. Others congregate in community halls or arenas and come up with ways to ensure people are taken care of.

The logistics of electrical supply, unfortunately, are not usually a concern for residents until they are without it. Even with education around global warming there is still a dangerous assumption that we will never be without energy.

Our dependence on public services creates unrealistic expectations and forces us to raise issues that can’t be ignored, like why there is an energy strain in our province in the first place. The imbalance in the grid is contingent on how much energy is being used by customers, we understand. So do we blame ourselves? To a degree? That being said, the distribution of the province’s resources has been foolhardy at best and our confidence in those managing the energy supply has been compromised.

Hardened to hardship

On our side of Trinity Bay, the power loss was less than a day, but since we are on a well we also lost our water supply for that time. This was not an unfamiliar ordeal for my family since we were used to running out of water in the North. Fortunately, we were stocked up on baby wipes and knew the drill.

We awoke with our crew for the last Saturday of our Christmas holidays, and just as we went to turn on the kettle and have a shower we heard everything power down. Nosily, I grabbed the cordless phone to find out who else was without power and quickly realized the phone was dead, as was my cell phone. Although we felt equipped for potential pandemonium, it was the no flushing, no hand washing, no tea, no coffee, no cold water, and low temperatures in the house that made us feel a tad antsy. To avoid freaking out the children, we jumped into our warm robes and threw toques on everyone. Might as well dress like mummers and make the occasion memorable.

Our effort to cope involved turning a giant cardboard box into a rocket ship. Our bed became a giant library, and our car a warm sanctuary from the electric-heated house which had grown quite chilly by evening. Suddenly, our eight-week-old son sleeping in a cold house became an import factor in our decision to stay or go elsewhere. At the same time, the experience put into perspective the reality of babies being born in igloos or families waking up in cold homes. Being spoiled has become our biggest problem, it seems.

Following a full day in our power-free house, we opted to drive to my mother’s place in Torbay. In spite of dodgy road conditions we decided to crawl in over the highway as we now had a timeline and a more concrete idea of when the power would be returning. Naturally, we spent the larger part of that night bundled up, close to one another, chatting by candlelight. Forced to slow down, we found ourselves enjoying some quality time during the holiday rush.

Time was not wasted, it was merely made more valuable. Lucky for us, my husband was delayed returning to work due to flight cancellations, so we were able to spend two extra days rolling down hills, creating snow angels and making the most of our situation together.

In many ways we were blessed with this ‘burden’, but also humbled by how much our lives have become controlled by our dependency on electricity.

The next generation

Once the blackouts ended, preparation suddenly became people’s main concern. Discussion about how to efficiently fuel our own home was top of the list: whether or not we would get a wood stove, and how we suddenly needed to invest in a generator. Talk spread of how some people were already wiring their new homes with generator switches in place. The lineups out the highway from the gas stations, people at the Costco pumps filling up their trucks and multiple jerry cans, all became ubiquitous sights. I can only imagine how much sales went up for generators, wood stoves, and gas. What a state people were in.

If we can’t remember to turn out the lights, unplug appliances, and hang clothes to dry, then we better figure out how to cut trees, make a fire, and get old-school. Everyone has a responsibility to be prepared for power shortages. Power is limited, so let’s not be wasting our time or our energy.

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