Solutions for Self-Reliance

When the Power Goes Out, People Go Out


Yesterday at about 15:40 local time, San Diego lost power—along with many other parts of Southern California, Arizona, and Mexico. Our power was out for 11 hours.

The experience was fascinating for me, because it changes the rules of the game suddenly, and exposes certain fragilities in our system. This is a brief account of what I learned from the experience.

(Ed. note: This post was originally published on September 9, 2011 and refers to the 2011 Southwest blackout, a.k.a. the Great Blackout of 2011.)

I continued working at UCSD for a bit, on laptop battery power. The wireless routers were operating on backup power. But soon these failed too, and there was no reason to stick around.

I headed for the bus, but saw right away that “normal” operations did not apply, and that waiting for my bus may have me sitting idle on campus for some time. So I took the first bus that came along to get part of the way home, and rode it for 1.3 mi (2.1 km)—taking 20 minutes, after which I walked the remaining 5.7 mi (9.1 km) home in 1.5 hours: same speed as the bus had been. It took a neighbor a full hour to drive the same route I walked. Only one bus passed me the entire time—normally running on a 15 minute schedule.

Traffic lights were out, forcing traffic to a crawl. Gas stations could not pump gas, so I passed several cars pulled over to the side of the road out of gas during my walk. If I wanted to stop somewhere for food or drink, I was out of luck: the places I passed were closed. Even if I had found a place willing to operate on “manual math” and taking cash, I would not be able to find an ATM to give me cash (though admittedly, I did have some).

People who needed ice to preserve their cold food would have a hard time finding a place to sell it. Those who felt the need to stock up on groceries in reaction to the outage could not do so when laser scanners and registers would not function. Flights from San Diego were stopped for hours, people were stuck in elevators and on rides at Sea World and LegoLand. The Do the Math site held on for a few hours, but it, too, went under! Society froze, largely—while ice cream melted.

I was personally less worried than many, because my refrigerator runs on my home-made photovoltaic (PV) off-grid system with enough battery storage to get my refrigerator, internet services, TV/entertainment, and laptop use through the night. All the same, not knowing how long we would need to endure the outage, and preparing to share our refrigerator with neighbors, we disconnected non-essential items from the PV system. I was disappointed to find that our internet service was out due to external problems: having this on battery operation is not sufficient to guarantee connectivity to the world.

When I arrived home, the neighbor across the street was setting up chairs in the front yard, and a spontaneous block party erupted. People broke out ice cream to share. The grill fired up. We met neighbors we had not known before. The sky was clear and dark, so I hauled out my 10-inch telescope for the first time in a very long while and entertained kids and adults with mind-blowing vistas (lots of satisfying oohs and ahhs). The green laser I used to point out stars and constellations was especially popular with the little folk. Kids played hide-and-shoot, often using my recycling bin as a popular hiding spot. A musical jam session fired up, with guitar, bongos, and a didgeridoo.

So while many fractures were exposed, and our society ceased to function in many ways, some things functioned better than they had in decades.

Community has largely been lost in modern America. Our houses are little castles provisioned with all the entertainment, appliances, tools, and food that we need. We don’t need each other, so we don’t bother interacting.

Last night, I was delighted to see just how quickly a community spirit re-emerges. Many adults said they had not had so much fun in a long time. The kids will remember seeing craters on the moon, swarms of stars in globular clusters, and other unworldly sites on that unusual night. (They will also remember not having to go to school on Friday, making this a three-day week!)

So I think we all want to know: When’s the next one going to be?

Originally posted here.

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