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A World Without Power (2013) (jacquesmattheij.com)
220 points by acdanger 61 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 214 comments



> Infrastructure is invisible, as long as it works. And only when it fails do you realize just how much we are all dependent on it and how badly we are able to cope with such infrastructure being unavailable for any length of time.

I grew up in hurricane country. We are born and mostly live our entire lives suspended in a giant web of infrastructure and support systems. When you're born into it, it's natural take it for granted and treat that as the baseline. But every now and then you have an experience that makes you realize just how far down below the ground really is, how far it is to fall, and how few cables need to fray before people start dropping.

I'm not one of those doomsday preppers who seems to relish preparing for the zombie apocalypse. I think the much more rational approach is to strengthen the web itself so that we don't fall in the first place. But I'm definitely aware how quickly and how badly things can go.

Hurricane Katrina is the canonical example. Over a thousand people died in the middle of a well-developed urban area, in the richest country on Earth, from a disaster that everyone knew was coming some day. The hurricane didn't kill those people. The city and state's complete failure to engineer robust infrastructure did. If that same hurricane had hit an equally populated city elsewhere, the outcome could have been entirely different.


Not a prepper either, but recently our water turned brown and I realized how water-dependent we are.

Went out and bought two “life straws.” We have enough food to last a month without infrastructure just by virtue of large pantries, but when the water goes out, it’s gone.

My wife laughed at me, but from my perspective, if infrastructure is down for more than a month, I’m probably toast anyway. ;)


Life straws suck to use as a primary means of getting water...

The USGov has failed in the past at an individual response level, but they're really good at compiling resources to help you and your family be independent. In fact, in San Francisco, the Emergency Response mindset for The Big One has shifted (since loma prieta) from "the government will come help you when it happens" to "do everything you can to survive for weeks without government help, when it happens."

So in your case, do more than buy life straws - store many gallons of water somewhere in your house. This can be done really easily and cheaply - save your used water bottles if need be, or just go buy a big giant plastic drum and drop some purifying tablets in it.

Keep bleach and eyedroppers in your house for when that water runs out and you need to refill with questionable water.

https://www.ready.gov/ has shitloads of easily digestible resources to prepare.


Have a look at Berkey water filters. These are meant for prolonged home use in tough circumstances.


Are they really, though, or are they meant to appeal to folks who want to change the taste of their municipal tap water? This is a good-faith question--I don't get a strong sense of science or testing from their website.


Berkey filters have some degree of water purification from dirty sources, but something like the Katadyn [0] filters seem to be more suited for higher use.

[0]: https://www.katadyn.com/us/us/products/water-filters#/1/filt...


You should get ones that are hand or foot operated. Life straws barely surpass the effort it takes to use them, especially after it has been used already in shit water.


I own a small electric water distiller for such circumstances, although drinking pure water is not supposed to be good, either (needs some minerals or it will leach them out of your system I was told, could be false).


Distilling water takes tremendous amounts of energy.

Filtering with bacterial (or if necessary, viral) grade filters, and additional chemical treatment (chlorine or iodine) is vastly more efficient.

A backpack filter does double-duty (have a few spare filters and can treat a litre or so of water in a couple of minutes without too much effort. Larger filters can be used (foot-pumped) for larger quantities.

Keep in mind that if the water's out, power may well be too.


You can die from drinking distilled water


Hurricane country here too (Houston). If you take Harvey as an example no city in the US could withstand that kind of rainfall. The difference is no one expects Phoenix to get 51 inches of rain from one storm. It was roughly 14 to 15 trillion gallons.

Not a prepper but living here several decades I have come to value preparedness. My family has 3 months of food supply and food safe storage for over 200 gal of water, water filters that can filter raw stagnant water to something safe and drinkable, a safe full of guns and ammo, and two years of vegetable seeds in the freezer.

I'm not expecting an EMP or "the big one" or whatever, I'm not really even worried about it. I've just seen how ugly it gets when folks aren't prepared.


>>No city in the US could withstand that kind of rainfall.

Florida gets that kind of rainfall all the time from all the hurricanes! There are water retention ponds built everywhere that are empty all-year-round right up until a hurricane comes. They’re built mainly for hurricanes and heavy storms. This is especially true in the Florida counties with Universities due to the higher population of cough smart people cough. I know that’s inappropriate to say but some city planners design cities on a whim or because “it seemed right”, while others appoint some rather smart local engineers to design it.


>* The city and state's complete failure to engineer robust infrastructure did*

As New Orleans was designated an asset strategic to the national military and energy interests, ACOE is in charge of engineering the infrastructure in and around the city. The issue was that at landfall 2005 the project was only 60-90% complete. (Depending on the section.)

Critical to identify the problem correctly when you're searching for mitigations.


> the project was only 60-90% complete.

Despite starting that project in 1965.


The MRGO project concentrating storm surge also didn’t help matters


As levees.org expounds on at length, the failure was federal. Orleans Parish had responsibility for maintenance, not checking the design. The full inquiry report with all drafts and appendices is still available at an LSU webpage (the Corps has only the final version up)


> The city and state's complete failure to engineer robust infrastructure did.

Don't leave out the Army Corps of Engineers (the Federal government). They bore more responsibility than the city for making that infrastructure safe.


The Army Corps of Engineers and New Orleans politicians have been pointing fingers at each other since before I was born and will continue to do so until after I'm dead and gone.

The USACoE is a federal organization, but keep in mind that there is no "federal territory" full of "federal people" that floats separate from the states that make up the US. Ultimately, these were human failures and most of the humans who made these errors in judgement likely lived in southern Louisiana.

Also, keep in mind that the USACoE and state and local governments are not as isolated as you might imagine. Funding for projects comes from a mixture of them. Local government is on the hook to maintain engineering projects after they're built. The UASCoE can only build to to the degree that they have funding. Case in point: the levee main project approved in 1965 after Hurricane Betsy was supposed to take 13 years. Katrina struck 40 years later, and the project was still only 60–90% complete. Of course, there were design failures too, but you can imagine that this puts pressure on the engineers to accept a cheaper, inadequate design because some levee is better that no levee at all.

Note also that USACoE and local politicians and employees are real people who know each other and work together. I wouldn't underestimate the impact of social pressure (and outright corruption) for the USACoE to agree to certain things they might not otherwise because powerful people on the local side are pushing them too.


> The city and state's complete failure to engineer robust infrastructure did.

No, people not leaving the city when they had ample time to do so killed them. Individuals need to take responsibility for themselves.


Many people lacked transportation -- either not having cars, or not having sufficiently reliable ones.

A full city evacuation still takes days, and given the uncertainty and wide possible zone of destruction of a major storm means that both a wide area has to be evacuated, and it's not clear precisely where landfall will be until a day or so immediately prior.

Mass evacuation via buses or rail is far more efficient, but can only be organised effectively by, or at least strongly coordinated with, government.


Any localized event that kills over a thousand inviduals points to a systemic problem, not an individual problem.

Transportation, communication, education, and to some degree even culture are also infrastructure.


Hurricane Katrina was exacerbated by bonkers priorities on the part of the US Government. Having the national guard protecting property in the middle of a disaster where people were dying from the elements was the peak of capitalist insanity. They were threatening to shoot looters. Madness. As if a life is worth less than some business owner's television set.

Not to mention locking everyone in a stadium and threatening to shoot anybody that tried to walk across the bridge. I tried to find a video I saw once of a newscaster live at the superdome begging for the government to let people evacuate, about how conditions at the superdome were fucked.

People generally help eachother during disasters - then the national guard comes in, treats everyone like they're animals, and make everything horrible. A great book that's documented this happening again and again throughout history is "A Paradise Built in Hell" by Rebecca Solnit.


The national guard is not the US gov't. That's the state of Louisiana. Those troops report to the governor.


Whoever flagged me should know those were all real quotes from Blanco. (Just watch that campaign ad or footage of her immediately after the storm)


The people blocking the bridge were the (ur-fascist) Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office and the (fascist) Gretna Police Department. It should be mentioned that the nearby Oakwood Mall was in the process of burning down due to fires set by looters (that still being no excuse)


> Having the national guard protecting property in the middle of a disaster where people were dying from the elements was the peak of capitalist insanity.

Calling it like it is: this was mostly about white people protecting their personal interests at the expense of black people. Many of the people making those decisions cared more about their property than they did poor black folks. After all, only a couple of generations ago, many of those people owned black people as property.

Note:

> Fifty-three percent of deaths 51% were black; and 42% were white. In Orleans Parish, the mortality rate among blacks was 1.7 to 4 times higher than that among whites for all people 18 years old and older.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18756175


> The city and state's complete failure to engineer robust infrastructure did

Specifically, the system of levée districts, wherein the rich area finances proper maintenance of its section of the levee, and the poor vote not to, on their section. As if water and gravity care (though poorer areas tend to be lower and thus floor more)

> in hurricane country

For non native English speakers, the lack of an article between 'in' and 'hurricane' here refers to a part of a country prone to hurricanes


While the Orleans Parish Levee District had its share of extracurricular casino shares and real estate deals, there’s not really a smoking gun here


Years ago when I was growing up in the woods of West Virginia we had a particularly bad blizzard. During this time the power went out.

We were use to this happening and most of the time it was for half a day or so. So we pulled out the kerosene heaters and the oil lamps for light. Bundled up and waiting.

We ended up being snowed in without power for two weeks. My mom and dad would take turns bundling up and walking a mile or so every few days to get to the roads to get more fuel.

One thing I remember clearly was cooking on out outside wood fire grill, which was essentially cinder blocks and a grate. No worry about running out of wood since there was always plenty around.

I remember the whole ordeal pretty fondly. As a kid it was a good change of pace and like camping.


I did something similar as a kid, but not on accident. Parents would take us for 1-2 weeks to a cabin with kerosene lamps no electricity, no running water. It was usually ok, but there was one trip where it rained nonstop for the week. I cannot forget that boredom, you can only play cards and read for so long before you start to lose it.

I suppose our pre-electricity ancestors had deeper social lives with the people around them, and a stronger connection with the outdoors, but for those who lived in climates that required frequent shelter holy cow they must have been bored out of their skulls.


Did your parents do everything for you?

Foraging and collecting water, making fires (chopping the wood with hand tools), cleaning, preparing and cooking food, ... you've used most of the day; couple of hours of reading. Rinse and repeat.

Even camping when you have gas and water on tap, it's surprising how much of the day is meal-prep, and cleaning (pots, tools, self).

When you needed to hunt, make clothing, maintain tools just with basic tech then I Can't see there being so much time to be bored.


They were knitting, carving and painting.


I find it really amazing how complicated a modern piano is, and how they were mass produced in such high volume in the early 1900s. Apparently that's one of the things a large percentage of the population did before they had TV or reddit.


Or they went outside in the rain.


They also probably farmed and were able to busy themselves with heavy farm work.


What did you eat while stuck in the cabin? My arm chair theory is that pre-electricity societies didn’t have food as dense/rich as we have it today, so they didn’t have the energy to feel bored.


Not so much the West Virginia woods (just Charleston), but we had a similar experience with a WV blizzard. At the time we still had a stone fire pit in the back yard to cook in. It was an experience digging that out from under two (or three) feet of snow, but it worked for what we needed.

That's all fine provided you can keep the house warm to begin with. Our house was built in the 30s, and had always used natural gas heat. Big floor model in the central-most part of the house with a couple radiators at the peripheries. Gas only, needs no electric. Physical levers on the thing to turn the heat up or down. Pretty standard. That would've been great for this storm had we not put in central air/heat in the mid-late 80s, which needed electric. Oops.

We ended up evacuating to one of our relative's houses after a couple days, along with a few others in our family. Made for an interesting hike in that much snow. We stayed there until things thawed and life returned back to normal-ish (a week or two later). We had to replace most of the hot water pipes in our house, which had burst before we could bleed them out. Otherwise the only damage was to our ego.

(Incidentally, kerosene heaters were verboten in our family, many of whom were firefighters who had seen one too many families burned up by them.)

That experience shaped how I prepare for disasters. And it's helped me through a couple particularly nasty hurricanes. (Ike, where we were without electric for a couple months, and Harvey, which was a whole different kind of fun.)


When we upgrade the house to use a heat pump, we left the old heating system for just that reason.


That reminds me of an ice storm around Christmas 2005 (maybe 06?). I don't think power at the house went out, but people outside of the small town where I lived didn't get power back on for a week or so. The temperature went well below zero (F) at night. I was a teen working at a fast food restaurant at the time, and I kept wondering why people would only order milkshakes after about 8 PM every night for about a week during that time. (theory: people went into town because lights are out at home, blast the heater and don't take off their jackets in the car, get warm and drink milkshakes to cool down)


I had a very similar experience. Snowed in for six days and no power for two weeks. A constant grind of trying to get a vehicle out for supplies by clearing downed trees all day, then huddling by the fire as a family at night for warmth. It was remarkable how differently and calmly we all acted, it felt more normal than day to day life does.


It's curious how that extra few percent improvement (if that) in reliability of electricity has made us so much more dependent on it.

When I grew up blackouts were quite common due to tropical storms in summer, at the worst times you could lose power multiple nights a week and like you I loved them because they became wood fired BBQ nights. But because they happened frequently enough everyone was prepared, candles and torches were kept handy and put out out the first flicker of the lights, BBQ meats were kept in the freezer, there was always a wood stockpile, etc. Now that the electricity supply is more reliable we're far less prepared.


> up in the woods of West Virginia

interesting that survival in the woods without infrastructure is much easy than in the city when the infrastructure, like the power, is off. In the woods you still have water, fuel (woods) for heating and cooking and lighting, sewer (the woods as the worst case scenario). In the dense city all those basics become pretty much unavailable either immediately or very soon once the outage is started. If you ever had sewer blockage in your apartment/house imagine that across whole the city with plumber not coming nor today, nor tomorrow ... that's Katrina for example mentioned by the other poster.


If this happens, btw, you can always line your toilet bowl with a trash bag, shit in it, tie up the trash bag and try to put it somewhere out of the way until services are restored.


We had power failures pretty often when I was a kid, but not usually for more than a day or two. That was one of the reasons we got a wood stove.

In our case, we were on a well so a power outage meant having to haul buckets of water into the house to flush the toilet.


What did you do for fun?


I remember reading books a lot. I have two brothers, so playing with them and with toys. We also went out to play in the snow a lot.


Years back I was introduced to a terrific BBC show called Connections with James Burke (1978). The first episode, available on YouTube [0], is all about the world's reliance on power and that within a short period of time we'd be catapulted back to the plow.

[0] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XetplHcM7aQ


There's a great book, The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Our World from Scratch, talking about how to recover from an apocalypse where most people die. They recommend as a first step going out to the nearest golf course to grab the batteries in the golf carts because those are things you'll really need and won't be able to re-make for a while.

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/18114087-the-knowledge


I've been doing some thinking along these lines and I always end up with the realization that if most infrastructure around you is down, there isn't that much you can do with electrical power in the amounts that could be available.

I mean, you can get light when it's dark, and possibly run a refrigerator from a solar installation, but otherwise what would you use the electricity for? Not for heating, not for transportation (not enough of it), your cell phones and other computer devices won't be of much use without the network anyway. Perhaps if you have portable radios you could charge them, but otherwise — what?

My conclusion was that we've become alarmingly dependent on infrastructure. I decided to get some maps, old-style paper books, and started considering getting radios and tiny solar panels to re-charge them.


Light and refrigeration were the earliest uses of electricity. Add simple communication (radio transmission/reception), and that's enough to keep you going for quite awhile.


Same things we do now. Lighting, yes. Communication. Power tools. Pumps. Winches. Automation. GPS should last a good while too.


A lot of those heavier duty things you mention require three phase power, which is very difficult and expensive to handle independently without the grid to support you.


Do they really require it? Or do they just currently use it because it's convenient with the grid? In an off-grid scenario, you probably wouldn't use AC power for anything. DC motors will serve perfectly well for the "heavy duty" applications.


I don't use computers to communicate as much as others. Mostly to pay movies and anime I have stored away. Basically, after people work all day to live I will be the entertainment center.


Hammering the extremely malleable lead into thin plates and mixing with some sulfuric acid seems the most easily solved of my technological problems. Now, the author isn't wrong, grabbing golf cart batteries would be a hell of a lot easier, and would make for better batteries. But making the tools needed to fill those batteries seems to be a much taller order, IMO. Solar panels and generators are the things I "won't be able to re-make for a while".


There is a ready supply of bicycles with dynamos around here. If you lift the back wheel off the ground and pedal hard you can get at least some energy. The old ones are very basic too. With more time and need one can probably rig a small stream to do it instead.


Reminds me of "The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind". Amazing true story. Book is recommended.


There's alternators all over the place though. "Just" need to figure out how to get one turning.


In the same way that speakers are microphones, all motors are generators, albeit probably with very low efficiency.


Yeah, that's where I started, but if you are foraging for batteries, you probably aren't aiming so low.

I guess reasoning along those lines, you're looking for literal generators that can be adapted to whatever fuel you have available.


Where are you gonna get sulphuric acid from?


Indeed, the book has a chapter on that but it's towards the end. Solar panels are, sadly, outside its scope.


I also highly recommend this book. It uses post-apocalyptic scenario as a lens to examine fundamental society processes, and essential knowledge needed to reconstruct those processes in some crude form. Each chapter deals with different technology ( filtering water, growing crops, preserving food, making fabrics and clothes, forging metal tools, blowing glass). Explanations are wonderfuly clear and to the point, with some insightful comments about current and past state of technology. Great material for filling knowledge gaps.


Connections, Connections2, and Connections3 is an INCREDIBLE source of science, history, luck, and opportunity stories. It does an awesome job of showcasing how much of the advancement that we take for granted was practically accidental. IMHO it should be 'required watching' for everybody around 'middle school-age' to help inspire, shape, guide, and put history into perspective.


I, too, remember this show! Burke was great.


I've done some research into the serval mesh project and Briar and similar; I do wish most cell phones had some mesh networking installed by default. Something to enable granny to send a text message to me via piggybacking off other people who happen to be near enough to have P2P communication.

This would have to be a protocol designed for offline-tolerance I suppose, so something like auto-exchanging private keys while the network is good and/or in person if network is down for message security, then when in no signal mode, regularly transmit and receive small messages encrypted with the same key-pairs as the real ones, then if they can decrypt the short test message (short enough to be easy to try / won't eat too much battery life), establish a dedicated connection long enough to transmit full messages back and forth before disconnecting.

IDK. Probably serval mesh, briar, gnutella or similar already have this figured out. I'd like it to be end-user easy for us to prep for that though so if we are in a venue like a theme park or stadium our phones can transparently be P2P over Blue-Fi-Drop


Have you heard about the GoTenna mesh project, https://gotennamesh.com/ ? I haven't got one yet, but it looks like the sort of thing you're describing (though its a device that works with existing smartphones, rather than being a protocol our phones could run. An advantage here is that with sufficient GoTenna mesh users in an area, one's anonymity could be increased, as typically (at least in the USA and most of western Europe) one can't buy SIM cards to access telephone networks without one's ID.


This was part of the 2003 North East Blackout

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Northeast_blackout_of_2003

>The blackout's primary cause was a software bug in the alarm system at the control room of FirstEnergy, an Akron, Ohio–based company, which rendered operators unaware of the need to redistribute load after overloaded transmission lines drooped into foliage. What should have been a manageable local blackout cascaded into collapse of the entire Northeast region.


Bit of an oversimplification, but I think it was a human error assisted by bad design.

An engineer set the "state estimator" to manual mode at 12:40 pm, then at 1:30 pm went to lunch forgetting to put it back on auto. Half an hour later, a grounded wire set off the first outage and due to the system reporting bad information, a cascade occurred.

They had launched the new power model just a couple of months prior, but I don't think it was a software glitch. For a few more details, see https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=12476001 and for the full report (238-page PDF) see https://www.energy.gov/sites/prod/files/oeprod/DocumentsandM...


My boss claims he is responsible for this blackout due to an errant tibco message. I can never tell if he is kidding or not, but he has a lot of experience in the power industry so I have no reason to doubt this.


If you dare reveal your HN activity and ask him to comment, I'd love to read his first-hand account.


I asked and either because of fear of prosecution or modesty or hyperbole he said its just a bar story...


The problem facing service station operators is that they can't charge a premium for gas when the power fails, to offset the cost of installing generators. It's seen as "gouging". So there is no incentive to prepare.

The meager profit margins on gas sales are not enough.


> they can't charge a premium for gas when the power fails

We had gasoline shortages a few years ago in New York. I can't find the article now, but a newspaper–The Economist, I believe–noted how supply disruptions for illicit drugs were virtually nonexistent because a small price bump compensated for maintaining inventory. Meanwhile, "price gouging" laws virtually ensured lines at the petrol stations.


Good point, I wonder how many times states have suspended taxes on gasoline during such times.

Would be surprised if it was any.


>Meanwhile, "price gouging" laws virtually ensured lines at the petrol stations.

Or maybe it was limited supply... Demand for gas seems fairly inelastic.


I believe this to be false. If the price for gas went to $30/gal in a city in the US there would be tanker trucks, boats, and hotshots with tanks in the bed lining up to get into town. Alternative means of transporting the gas into a disaster area would become economical if the price increases enough. The shortage is created by restricting the free market price.


In numerous parts of the country, there is limited cross-transfer capacity (pipelines, etc.), and worse, formulation requirements and regulations which make fuel for one region unacceptable in others.

Because of flammability, petrol itself is generally not hauled long distances, but is instead refined locally and trucked to service stations. There are some petrol pipelines and marine transports, but those tend to be more problematic than unrefined crude.


The OP did a month's worth of business in 2 days, and the subsequent goodwill generated and publicity gave him a permanent business boost.

His preparation was very well rewarded.


permanent business boost / well rewarded

That was not claimed by the author.

For better or worse, gasoline tends to be break-even for stations - from the operators I've talked to, maybe they make 5 to 10 cents per gallon. They make most of their profit from the shop. A month's worth of gasoline sales might not cover the upkeep and depreciation of the generator.

I'm more curious to know if any other stations installed generators after this experience. I wouldn't be surprised if the answer was "no".


And how frequently do power outages of this length happen in a given city? Considering none of the other gas stations had infrastructure in place to handle this event, I would assume it's the first time in decades, or ever.


To be fair, being able to increase your prices would have those same downsides too. It sounds like this kind of emergency preparation would have to be publicly subsidized for it to be a common thing.


This is a cool real-life example of Taleb's antifragility.

In Puerto Rico, gas stations have had backup power generators for years (way before Hurricane María 2017). The power grid is so crappy that the generator turned out to be essential for normal business. And the owners couldn't increase the price over pre-set parameters (Puerto Rico's DACO sets those).

Meager profit margins on gas sales have been irrelevant in this situation. Once Joe down the avenue installs a generator on his gas station, you have to keep up with the Joneses.

So antifragility made it happen: the impact of lost-sales wasn't enough to bring down the gas station... yet enough of a stressor to push the installation of backup power generators.

As an aside: From the people of Puerto Rico, thanks again to all the beautiful people from the States that came over to help. Thank you.


Why do people say antifragile instead of robust?


DuskStar is pretty close.

Anti-fragile describes systems that improve from disorder. Robust describes ones that resist disorder.

The ceramic plate is robust: it’s very strong, and unlikely to break when things go wrong (e.g. it gets dropped). But it’s not anti-fragile, it will never be made better by dropping, at best it won’t get worse.

The petrol market in Puerto Rico is anti-fragile because the disorder of small power failures made it better, they added backup power so that the system would be more robust next time the power went out.


Because they mean different things. A robust system is one that can tolerate stress without suffering much harm. An antifragile system is one that actually benefits from stress.


IMO it's the difference between a really strong piece of ceramic that happens to not break when you whack it with a hammer, and something like safety glass that shatters yet stays intact. The ceramic is robust, but with a big enough whack it'll shatter into a million pieces - but the fragility of the safety glass is known and prepared for to the point where it breaking doesn't lead to a complete failure.


I discovered that this is the titular concept behind a popular self-help/philosophy book.


Sounds smarter.


Gas sales are (almost) a loss leader to get people in the door to buy snacks, drinks, smokes, and lottery tickets. Mattheij's generator had enough juice to run the pumps, registers, and half the freezers. How does the cost of installing and provisioning a generator compare to the cost of a few days of zero sales?


And not just a few days of zero sales they went through a whole month's worth of gas in that period and presumably sold through a fair amount of their non gas inventory as well.


And they didn't lose whatever was in the freezers.


The article said they sold several weeks worth of gas in two days. That's gotta be worth something, now? Regardless of margins, that's just more money straight into the pocket.


And IMO that's a good scenario where the State should intervene.


The main effect of government intervention in this case is to ensure dangerous shortages of basic goods in an emergency. That seems like an odd policy to cheer for.


It's an awfully big reach to assume that failure to purchase generators was directly caused by price-gouging controls.

The fact that margins on gas are slim does not mean gas stations struggle to get by. The gas is there to get people in the door to buy snacks, drinks, smokes, and lotto. Tobacco and lottery tickets alone make an absolute killing, and the station couldn't sell any of them while the power was out. The author of the article actually owns a gas station, and he figures the other owners were just short-sighted. I don't see any reason to doubt him.


What? The base level intervention here would be to require stations to have a generator capable of powering the pumps (and maybe the computer systems to accept payments). That's not that big of an ask actually a generator able to do just that won't be very large and it could be fueled directly from their existing storage tanks.


- Gov't enforces price controls on basic goods (eg. gasoline)

  = Nobody delivers gasoline into high-risk areas. Shortages persist.
- Prices allowed to float higher on shortages

  = Lines of trucks can be observed from *orbit*, attempting to enter the area to supply the demand; prices drop almost immediately.
Which would you prefer?


The issue in the article wasn't an actual shortage of gas, the gas was there it just couldn't be accessed because of the power outage. The pumps and payment processing equipment isn't that power hungry and could be powered by a small generator.


I'm not sure I see much distinction between (a) a shortage of usable gas because nobody is bringing in gas, versus (b) a shortage of usable gas because nobody is bringing in generators to run the pumps. In both cases people could get access to a lot more gasoline if there was enough money to be made by, say, loading up a pickup truck and driving quickly to the affected area.

... But it sounds like you're not arguing for price controls, specifically, but for some kind of government intervention. I agree that requiring backup generators sounds like a much better policy than anti-price-gouging laws, since it's at least not obviously counterproductive.


It's strange when one feel-good state intervention makes a problem worse, and to combat that, we recommend another feel-good state intervention that will likely make things worse still.


Having lived and experienced the aforementioned blackout (> 55 million people, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Northeast_blackout_of_2003 )

It was a transformative experience to me and it felt everyone else who experienced it regarding the hidden importance of these infrastructure pieces.

What I loved about this piece is it reads much like so many people's experiences of the incident. Even though it happened over 15 years ago, I and most others remember distinctly and with clarity the sequence of events that occurred on that day. Seems like most people's stories went somewhere along the lines of:

- Interruption of an intended activity due to no electricity

- Attempt at understanding scope, and an effort to substitute the interrupted activity (in my experience, we were entering a restaurant for food and was told "given we don't have power, we can't microwave most of our items - but the oil in our friers are still a bit hot though so you can have fries... We wanted to try elsewhere).

- The realization that this was not a localized one block situation, but something larger and more serious. (We drove around and the traffic lights were out, put on the radio (most most stations were "silent"). The few that were didn't even know what was going on "it appears there is a blackout, getting reports from as far as <X>" with <X> being of an increasing scope as the hour went on.

- Then an abandonment of the days plans for a trip "back to shelter/home" where one nestled and tried to wait it out until services were re-restored.

The natural gas in our home didn't work either, so the only way we could heat food was on a fire. It's one thing to realize that all these these are connected, but its another to feel its connectedness through these services' absence.


I was in high school at the time (in Toronto), working at a technology camp for kids— the blackout hit late afternoon when our day was mostly wrapped up, so I took the bus home as usual.

My experience into the evening was totally different from yours though. People in my parents' neighbourhood sat out on each other's front porches, barbecuing, eating ice cream before it all melted, hanging out. It was a pretty unique moment of community, almost like an impromptu street party that went on for blocks and blocks. It was kind of liberating, I think, in a reverse paradox of choice kind of way, to suddenly not be able to do a whole bunch of things, and to be forced to just kill time away from the TV (and probably outside, as the reality of not having A/C descended).

Anyway, I don't think I'm unique in this recollection: https://www.google.com/search?q=2003+blackout+party


In a disaster, public transit is one of the first utilities to go. A fun exercise is “could I walk home from here?” If not, and you spend a lot of time there, you need to stage an emergency kit there at least as much as you need one at home.

I wouldn’t count on BART service anytime soon after The Big One. (Not that I’d count on freeways either. A bike seems like your best bet).

You find dependencies on electricity in surprising places. Good luck getting water out of an automatic faucet or push button water fountain. Good luck getting your car out of a stacker system - even if it’s already at ground level, those doors don’t have manual releases. Good luck getting through any badge reader doors in your office or apartment complex. (This may rule out the bike, even if you brought one).


> public transit is one of the first utilities to go

This is mostly depending on how much backup the said agencies have.

> I wouldn’t count on BART service anytime soon after The Big One

And yet it's the only thing that survived the 1989 earthquake !


>Good luck getting through any badge reader doors in your office or apartment complex.

Depends on the type of lock. Doors that use a big electromagnet to hold a plate fail-open, locks that actuate a latch fail-secure.


>Good luck getting water out of an automatic faucet or push button water fountain.

Yikes! I hadn't realized that. I always praised plumbing as a good example of a well-designed, robust system that works even when the power is out, and how only the naive, self-styled 10xers would break that to be trendy ... and yet, they did it already.

Hopefully the auto-flushing toilets don't have this problem?


Plumbing doesn't work when the power is out if you're on a well with an electric pump.

Which is why my well-water friends have generators.


Where I live our water supply is pumped by electricity, so losing electricity means losing fresh water. But hey, at least it's not like the UK government is about to do anything reckless.


In Kempton steam museum they have the old backup generator which was actually powered by a water turbine from the mains supply (so indirectly powered by the steam engines). I'm hopeful that the modern system has at least as good redundancy but I wouldn't bet on it either.


They do, automatic = electric. If you're not applying force from your muscles to move something, that force is being applied by electricity.


To be fair, if you pour a bucket of water down a toilet fast enough it will "flush" regardless.


Or just put water into the tank.


In a disaster most people in a city will run out of food within 48 hours. Then you have riots as people with guns are taking food from people who have larger supplies.

Water fountains won't be your problem then.


I have to say, the US is not really the place I'd want to be during a natural disaster. Japan seems to handle these things so much better, for example.


This was well written. Sounds like he had less than 24 hours without power but turned the story into a doomsday journal entry.

His note about cell phone towers losing power was scary. Never really thought about that. I usually assume the phones will keep working as long as we can charge them, but I suppose the towers need some juice too.

In our small city, one power line blew down last week and 1/4 of the city was without power for about 6 hours.

I'm baffled at the lack of redundancy.

I have more redundancy behind my customers' blogs about their dogs than it appears our city has for keeping electricity flowing to 10K people.

Life without power will be hard to survive. And I fear my neighbors much more than my food spoiling.


> I fear my neighbors much more than my food spoiling

Find better neighbors? Large parts of Puerto Rico lost power for weeks and it didn't descend into The Purge. It wasn't great, but people survived because of their neighbors, not in spite of them.

> I'm baffled at the lack of redundancy.

10K is not a huge tax base, how much property tax are you willing to spend to increase uptime beyond 99.999%?


> Large parts of Puerto Rico lost power for weeks and it didn't descend into The Purge

Not that many people affected, and there was massive help from the mainland.

Now imagine NYC without power for weeks.


NYC was without power for 2 days in the Northeast Blackout of 2003 (the event the article was describing), and it generally brought people closer together. Folks went outside and chatted with their neighbors rather than hole up inside with nonexistent A/C to watch blank TV screens. A number of blocks organized impromptu barbecues to use up all the meat that was about to spoil, since grilling was the only cooking method available to many people.

It's a crapshoot which way society goes when the infrastructure disintegrates, but Lord of the Flies is definitely not a given. Historically people seem just as likely to come together as beat each other apart.


Two days is not in the same league as several weeks.

Plus New York City also had a blackout in 1977 that was very different.

>Looting and vandalism were widespread, hitting 31 neighborhoods. Possibly the hardest hit were Crown Heights, where 75 stores on a five-block stretch were looted, and Bushwick, where arson was rampant with some 25 fires still burning the next morning. At one point, two blocks of Broadway, which separates Bushwick from Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, were on fire. Thirty-five blocks of Broadway were destroyed: 134 stores looted, 45 of them set ablaze. Thieves stole 50 new Pontiacs from a Bronx car dealership.[1] In Brooklyn, youths were seen backing up cars to targeted stores, tying ropes around the stores' grates, and using their cars to pull the grates away before looting the store.[1] While 550 police officers were injured in the mayhem, 4,500 looters were arrested.[1]... In all, 1,616 stores were damaged in looting and rioting. A total of 1,037 fires were responded to, including 14 multiple-alarm fires. In the largest mass arrest in city history, 3,776 people were arrested. Many had to be stuffed into overcrowded cells, precinct basements and other makeshift holding pens. A congressional study estimated that the cost of damages amounted to a little over $300 million (equivalent to $1.2 billion in 2017).

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_York_City_blackout_of_1977

Everyone on the radio in the 2003 blackout was going crazy predicting the mass looting that New York City was in for (based on the 1977 blackout).


Only one homicide, which is pretty good for an average NYC day circa 1977, let alone a blackout.


Yep, 1557 homicides in New York City in 1977.


2 days and weeks are not in the same class.

Just like not eating for one day (fasting) is not the same as not eating for weeks.


Weeks is a long time. As long as food and water can be minimally supplied, people can get along pretty well even in awful situations. Stuff only deteriorates once people can't feed themselves.

NYC is already reliant on others for food and water. Supplying it without electricity would be a severe logistics challenge but easier in some ways than in Puerto Rico.


NYC's aqueduct system is gravity driven. And food comes in over the interstates.

Sandy knocked out neighborhoods for way more than two days too.


I usually assume the phones will keep working as long as we can charge them, but I suppose the towers need some juice too.

It was interesting to observe when the power went out in Redmond, WA for two weeks about ten years ago. Towers stayed online for a while, until some (I'm guessing) lost their batteries. Still had a little signal, though, because (again, guessing) some towers had generators. Then the diesel ran out (again, guessing), and we had no cell signal after a few days.

That's why I keep the amateur radio skills practiced.


I would guess most of this crowd could pass the tech test without too much trouble. If anyone has ever wondered if they could, try https://hamstudy.org/tech2018. No relation, just a happy user.


I consider the communications infrastructure to be extremely fragile and prone to collapse. It already collapses under load easily, and while it can make through a short blackout, a solar storm/flare would take it out for a long time.

Yes, amateur radio makes a lot of sense.


Starlink could solve the loss of power problem, but a really big solar flare could take that out too.


> His note about cell phone towers losing power was scary. Never really thought about that.

I was working for a cellular provider in Michigan when the northeast US lost power in August of 2003, and we got a taste of this.

Most sites have a few hours of battery (maybe more than a few), but only some sites have generators. Fuel storage permits are a hassle, after all. Most cell companies have some trailer-mounted generators they can tow to a few sites that're out due to sporadic storm damage, but this isn't enough when the whole region goes out at once.

After the '03 outage, I started seeing generators at a lot more sites! Then it just becomes a question of whether your fuel contractor can visit them all regularly enough to keep them topped up. A local tower tech will probably end up just riding along with the fuel tanker, to unlock each gate, etc.


And keep the fuel from going bad.


"And I fear my neighbors much more than my food spoiling."

In my personal experience, catastrophes tend to bring out the best in people.


Having lived through many hurricanes this is true. However, I can't recall a truly dire situation where everyone ran out of food and water and had no hope of being saved by the government. Don't underestimate the lengths an ordinary person would go to feed their starving child. At a certain point resources become so scarce it is truly a zero sum game.


In 'most' people. That's the issue


A redundant power grid would be very expensive to implement and maintain. In the vast majority of cases it is less expensive to simply deal with the few power failure events that the typical household gets in a year.


I moved to an island outside Seattle in 2018, and went through a couple big outages so far; our cell towers start turning off in 3 to 5 hours. Of course, my dsl goes down instantly, so it's important to have offline things to do.


I have a UPS for my router and modem; what I've learned is that while a UPS can last for hours powering those things, the upstream battery at the cable company only lasts an hour.


That's one advantage of DSL over cable: the telephone is considered critical infrastructure and does stay up much longer than an hour.

I didn't realize that cable stayed up at all. That was one condition of switching to VoIP: my wife insisted that 911 from wired phones must continue to work through a power outage.


I live in a rural area that is getting creeping suburbia (hence the cable). The phone lines/DSL, sadly, are out about as often as the power, and slower to get fixed. Power at the CO doesn't matter if the line maintenance isn't up to snuff.


"my dsl goes down instantly"

Put your dsl modem & router on a UPS. Telephone lines have independent power and generally stay up during power outages.


Thank you, my dsl modem is on a UPS, I have a generator. The DSL line goes down instantly when the power goes out.

I'm on centurylink's ADSL2 service.


My DSL survived a tornado. I'm on Ontario Bell (through teksavvy).


The town where my parents live had a three week (!) telecommunications outage after an exchange caught fire, including a couple of days where the banks didn't have connectivity and had to go back to ledgers and implement a withdrawal cap.

Apparently the company running the backbone, Telstra, would usually bring in backup exchanges with a satellite connection on the back of a truck, but didn't have any available at the time.


> The outage lasted 2 days and a bit.


Would you rather pay 2x your rate for electricity (~$1K/yr) for redundant power, or would you rather drive to the next town over (~$1K/5yrs) during an extended power outage?


After hurricane Maria in September 2017 the entire island of Puerto Rico was without power. There was nowhere you could drive out of the blackout area since it was everywhere.

A few luckier people got power back in one to two weeks, a small minority. My family in the greater metro area of San Juan got power back after two months. Friends in smaller cities only got power after three to five months. There are communities in the mountains which still don't have power today, almost two years later.

If you haven't lived through anything like this, it is a useful mental exercise to think how you'd prepare for it.


I can't imagine. I lived through Hurricane Andrew. I think it was a few weeks before power was restored, but we found ourselves a generator within 48 hours. We used it to run our refrigerator at home in the evenings, and my dad's business (a 1-hour photo lab) during the day. It was august, so it must've been miserably hot, but I don't remember that much.

What I do remember is how traffic functioned in Miami without traffic lights. There obviously weren't enough police to direct traffic at every intersection, so what happened was that a random driver who had a passenger would have the passenger jump out and direct traffic till his car got through and someone else volunteered to take over. This happened organically at many intersections, and it was really amazing to see.


Do you know any write-ups of personal stories from this on the web? Something like the blog post in this hacker news post.


There is so much, but difficult to find any one link to summarize..

After a bit of searching found this page which is a similar blog-style page except has snippets from many different people. In Spanish.

https://www.refinery29.com/en-us/2018/09/209947/huracan-mari...

For English language coverage, search for videos by David Begnaud of CBS News who was on site and provided excellent reporting.


Having solar panels, batteries, heat pumps and electric cars could make society quite a lot more resilient to these kind of things.


I just built a house with that. The one problem is that my heat pump uses so much electricity that it's impractical to put on the battery. The battery basically powers everything but HVAC and the level 2 charger.


is it a ground or air heat pump?


Air.

Ground heat pumps are very uncommon; "heat pump" is assumed to be air based.


Ground heat pumps are common here where there is large temperature variation. They are a more expensive investment but much more efficient.


%s/electric cars/personal electric vehicles/g. Cars are too inefficient. Right now our "power goes out for two weeks" contingency is the solar-paneled RV and a Honda generator. Neither the panels nor the generator can charge the car in a reasonable amount of time. The RV solar panels can charge the scooter (or electric bicycles) in the same amount of time as house AC (big inverter in the RV). It won't get you to the mountains to your remote cabin (that's what the RV is for <g>), but it's enough to get around town if need be, and can do so indefinitely.

On a related note, as I've researched solar panels for the house, it came as a surprise to me that by default grid-tied solar won't keep the lights on when the power goes out (nothing to sync to). So if one goes that route, don't forget the batteries and inverter.


The electric car is useful because in the event of a power outage, a decent one will have a 60KWH+ battery. Assuming it's even partially charged, that's enough energy to power personal electronics for weeks. You could probably even power a fridge, TV, and some basic household equipment for a week if you had a decent inverter.

On the other note, if you get grid tied solar you can use them if the power is down, but you need to buy an SMA inverter with secure power supply. The inverter will give you an outlet that will work if the grid is down, even without a battery system.


You're just doing a global search-and-replace and replacing with "big ass battery". :-) I take your point, but I was referring to transportation. As you point out, ride the scooter and use that big ass battery in the car for something else.


by default grid-tied solar won't keep the lights on when the power goes out (nothing to sync to).

Indeed, but some inverters have emergency outlets where they can supply power on a dedicated circuit as long as the panel output is enough. The amount of power is limited and it can't sustain any surges so it can't run e.g. motors, but having 1500W is tons better than having 0...

I've verified that my big-ass UPS that I use for the computer can run the refrigerator and be charged from this outlet.


That's an interesting thought. I wonder how many cars a charging station could handle in the event of a grid outage?


Think the OP meant in conjunction with each other, I.e going off grid. Solar panels on the roof, a full power wall and an electric car. That’s enough to keep you going as long as you can manage food and water.


Wise people would use the power stored within the cars batteries?


Or if you're rural, an external combustion engine of some sort, so you can keep the lights on with firewood.


If you actually are rural, there are substantially better ways to do this. Most people who live in a rural area have 500+ gallon fuel tanks, either heating oil or propane. Even my mom has one and she's not a "prepper" or technically sophisticated or anything. With a properly set up standby generator (The diesel ones are super quiet) you could be rocking a month long power outage and not even know that the power was out.


Extract gas out of firewood to fuel the combustion engine? Doable but nothing without consideravle knowledge and welding tools. Unless you are prepared. A nice stock of heating oil (doesn't contain degradeavle components as regular diesel now at least in Europe) will also get you through for some time.


You must mean steam engine.


Sterling engine, peltier chip...

You can find peltier chip phone chargers that work by being placed in or near a campfire.


One thing that I was very impressed with was how well the cellphone network dealt with the outage, for at least 24 hours all the base stations worked, after that point they slowly dropped out one by one as their batteries ran dry.

As decedents of an industry that was paranoid enough to generate power for their own equipment, its nice to see some of the cell phone companies take power seriously. It would be nicer if they could last a bit longer.


They do have emergency base stations mounted on vans with diesel generators, these can run indefinitely.


As long as they have diesel.


Diesel is pretty easy to get. Even in a power outage you can open the stations reservoirs and pump it out manually the main issue is getting the station to agree to it, makes sense for a single big customer but not to do it for everyone looking to gas up their car.


Only if the depots have gravity drops, if their pumps are electric and the reservoirs underground then you're not going to be able to pump it out to the surface.

Fortunately most depots are aboveground and only need a tap to be opened to drop their fuel into a truck.

A person looking up their car would not even be allowed on the grounds. Besides that the volume dispensed is way too high to deal with in a normal vehicle, you're looking at 1000's of liters / minute.


No I'm talking about at the individual stations. There are hand or battery operated pumps that could easily fuel trucks for refueling places like cell towers or other critical places with generators.


Ah I see what you are getting at, you'd use the drop ports to pump fuel out. That works as long as they are not buried too deep, and no gas station owner would let you submerge a pump to push up.

A typical station has anywhere from 50K to 1M liters of underground capacity so that should be enough for a bit, if their own pumps aren't running then they will likely be happy to be able to sell some of it.


Having an RV set up for remote work where we can leave home for days, weeks, or months has actually prepared me for outages better than most. The entirety of the RV can run on propane and battery, and I have both solar and generators to recharge the battery bank. Depending on the season, the propane I have on hand can last from 14 days to upwards of months while the generator gas I have on hand can handle about a week of full-time running. Because of where I like to visit, I also carry two cellular hotspots and a satellite internet option and can typically get internet access where others can't.

A few years back, prior to owning the RV, we had a windstorm come through about ten days before Thanksgiving. Power to most of the area was knocked out as the weaker trees fell and wiped out much of the powerline infrastructure (I recorded gusts around 75 mph before my weather station actually broke). As is normal that time of year, temperatures were in the 20ºF range, which meant finding alternate heating methods at the very least. We were very underprepared for it, losing much of the food in the fridge/freezer, and the house got very cold.

All local generators and gas cans sold out very, very quickly, but I found one on Amazon that could be shipped to my door overnight for $50 extra. It arrived on the second day (of seven) of the outage, and I wired the furnace, fridge, and one multipurpose outlet into it. We struggled with just the one 5 gallon gas can, though, needing a daily trip to the gas station to refill. Had they not had power, it would've been worse.

In the end, it was much like camping without adequate preparation. The first couple days were novel and amusing, but by the end, it was just a daily routine of ensuring we stayed warm enough and no damage was done (e.g., pipes freezing).


Nice to read an article from somebody local, or nearly so, to me.

I remember the outage well, I worked at a major telecommunications company with reserve generators. I really didn't appreciate the depth of the issue until I drove home that night. People were telling other people, total strangers, that nukes were dropping all over the US. You can imagine the panic.

Word eventually spread and the northern mindset of looking after your neighbours took hold, as mentioned in the artice.

I went to use the BBQ to make some burgers. We ran out of propane naturally. My neighbour offered his BBQ which coincidentally, was out of propane. Then HIS neighbour offered his BBQ. He was out building a deck when the power went out. He fired up his generator and continued on. His skil-saw was the only sound to be heard. All the neighbours threw in food and drink and we got to know one another.

I will admit to being a little said after the power was restored, because, except for a nod or a wave, we went back to the business of minding our own.


Infrastructure is a concern. But to me the bigger concern is the food supply. It, like gasoline, runs lean; very just in time.

Look at what the possibility of a snow storm does to the supermarket. Now imagine the effect on the public psyche when they're told "we'll have more food next week."


There is a moral to that story.

Making sure we have enough energy for everything we want whether the source is coal, oil, nuclear or hydro because energy is the single biggest contributor to a better life, richer and safer life and the more access we have the better of we are.


This last winter on an incredibly cold night(<-10 F) we had a power outage in the middle of the night. I was up late and noticed it right away. After I reported it to the utility, I made sure the dog was on the bed with me, closed the bedroom doors, and hunkered down. I'm not sure what time it came on but when I woke up the thermostat was showing it had dropped more than 15 degrees F in the house. I should probably buy a generator.


Or just put a tent up in the living room.


Tents insulate poorly.

A 1 litre Nalgene bottle, filled with boiling water, and slipped in a wool sock, on the other hand, will keep you warm. Two is generally overly toasty.


Or, perhaps, a down comforter or low temp sleeping bag if it might drop very low.


I really take for granted how great electricity is. I didn't have power for a week during the big Sandy storm and it's funny how I instinctly turn the lights on every time I go into a room. It's scary to think what it would be like if we didn't perpetually have electricity.


There was a TV series about a scenario where electricity simply stopped working: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Revolution_(TV_series)


My partner and I loved watching this show!! (We saw it over one of the streaming service, not live tv.) Too bad they stopped at 2 seasons.

But, thanks for sharing the wikipedia link, because now i see that there's a comic book series which wraps up the story. Cheers!


I didn't pay attention myself, so thanks for mentioning about the comics - I didn't know.


The book series Dies The Fire also gives the topic an excellent treatment: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dies_the_Fire


Most people are too blase about having decentralized backup systems, in every area.

We need decentralized power generation and storage (solar panel based, etc.) to survive a Carrington Event or an EMP. Or just a simple blackout. We need electric cars which represent choice rather than fossil-fuel lockin.

But we also need mesh networks and software to run on them, to survive the Internet being cut off like in Kashmir or Hong Kong. We need decentralized town currencies and much more.

Please watch this talk I gave a few years ago:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WzMm7-j7yIY


How will rooftop solar help with a massive solar storm or EMP. Most inverters actually cannot provide 50/60hz AC on their own and just sync to an external source. Even beyond that issue they'd all be fried anyways in the same even that killed the regular electrical grid.


Solar storm only affects really long wires, not short circuits around the house and a battery.

https://www.cnet.com/news/we-arent-ready-for-a-solar-storm-s...


Back when the "Y2K Bug" was emerging as a serious threat, I described to my ex-engineer father the looming issue in great detail. He listened carefully, then calmly replied "if that happens, I'll throw another log on the fire and go back to my book." Indeed, he was living preparedness: there was no "crazy prepper" stuff, just someone who had systematically thought through everything that could go wrong, and who had seamlessly integrated backup systems into his lifestyle.

I aspire to do the same, making slow progress. Too few know how close to disaster their lifestyle is.


I had a cabin up northern ontario that you had to canoe and portage to get to, no power, no running water, outhouse. Invited friends up.

What was interesting while some would come up, others claimed they could not live without a hot water bath, or electric lighting, and while my outhouse had seven (yes seven) coats of white paint and the hole was so deep I had problems getting out when I first dug it - the idea of not using a flush toilet was alien to them.

Some people are not ready for how basic things can get without power.


I wish it wasn't so expensive to have a switch next to your circuit-breaker that was labelled 'electric lines/natural gas/water' and depending on which selection would cut-off the home electricity from the others and enable the electricity to come from, respectively, the central grid, a small natural-gas-fed generator (with auto-start battery?), a pico/micro hydro generator in the basement/crawlspace.

Having the ability to convert your electricity bill to a more expensive water/natural gas bill and still have power during an outage would be quite nice.


The natural gas genny portion exists, the water one does not. The water one doesn't exist for two reasons:

1. There is only energy in the water system because your city has pumps/water towers to give it pressure. So in a disaster, you running your hydro setup is just placing more strain on the water infra who are likely running on generators.

2. Hydro plants need huge amounts of water to provide power. To even power a single outlet, you are talking in the range of tens of thousands of gallons of water per hour. Your water bill would quickly eclipse the cost of just buying a generator.

---

Going back to natural gas, you are looking for an automatic transfer switch. When the power cuts, it disconnects you from the grid, turns on the generator automatically, and you then have power again. When the power is back, it switches you back to grid and turns generator off. Only downside is that there will be a several second power cut while generator turns on. You generally can only get this feature on midrange cost and up generators. For cost savings measures, you can also buy a manual transfer switch, with the obvious downside of you having to flip the switch and go start the genny.


XKCD did a "What If" on hydro power from your municipal water[1]. tl;dr: "In either case, for a bathtub faucet, this works out to almost 200 watts, or $25 per month." (And that's in addition to all the other issues he pointed out.)

[1] https://what-if.xkcd.com/91/


"The honda was a veritable bomb, it was filled with cannisters as many as they could cram in."

Somehow that one sentence shivered me as I imagined a crowd of happy people surrounding a car with bottomed out suspension.


@dang do you mind adding (2013) to the title?



There is probably a moral to this story: We are too much dependent on centralized systems because of perceived efficiency, but how true is that anymore? How hard is it to be i.e. energetically autonomous though? In sunny places, a house could probably be affordably autonomous, however these solutions have not been explored at scale and are not cheap yet. (I already know it's possible to have food-autarky, a garden and a few chicken will do).


We can't support 7 billion people if each one of them has a house with garden and grows it's own food. That's what the middle ages were, look at the population then.


The truth is probably somewhere between the two of you. We shouldn't be entirely dependant on centralized systems, nor should we attempt to be 100% self-sufficient. I'm sure there's a best of both worlds approach.


I guess this is a good a time as any to ping Jacques about getting the photos back on his windmill build page. Still one of my favourite build logs...


On the todo list. When I shut down Camarades.com/WW.com I took the photo archive offline as well, but did not realize my blog pics where hotlinked from it. Now I need to go digging around on some ancient backup server.


Check out ‘World Without Us’ by John Wiesman. A fascinating thought experiment wherein we all suddenly ‘beam up’ and Earth left to go on evolving.


Keep in mind that in 2003 China still hadn't figured out how to make small engines with good (enough for western consumers) quality control so everyone and their brother did not have a backup generator. These days things are very different. Many businesses (especially ones that depend on refrigeration) have backup generators now.


But most generators need fuel. It's only a temporary fix.

It's funny how a generator creates peace of mind, and yet we don't consider the magnitude of the disaster for which they give us peace.


The distributors have generators because they cannot afford to be down if the power is. They need power to run their systems. They might be running at reduced capacity but they will run.

Many gas stations/convenience stores and other small consumer facing businesses have generators because generators have proliferated and they have a financial incentive to have one. Sure, not all of them have generators but not all of them need it. If your two preferred gas stations are down and the third one is crowded you'll make do fine. This is what's different from '03.

Getting fuel in a blackout is a non-issue logistically. Paying for it is where the most problems will be because so many people don't carry cash anymore.


On payment.

Assuming cell network stays up, it is just another redundancy element, have a mobile network backup to landline network.


This story makes me think that I really should have more cash in reserve at home (typically I have nothing). And other "prepper" thoughts..


A gas generator can only run on gasoline, which is a complex fuel that can't be produced without a highly specialized industrial infrastructure But.... a moderately modified diesel generator can run on pure filtered vegetable oil, and that's something that any small homestead with a modest amount of planning and equipment can make, for as long as they have oil-bearing plants at their disposal.


It's not actually that complicated. Anyone can distill ethanol with 12th century technology, all you need is a source of sugar, such as corn, fruits, etc, yeast, and a heat source. If you're getting fancy you can use enzymes but it's not necessary. The only downside is that the yield is low, and modern engines don't run very well on pure ethanol without modification.


Okay, this is true and definitely useful as one more option in a so called STHF scenario but ethanol still provides more complications for use and conversion in modern gas engines (especially if you include newer fuel injected motors in cars).Furthermore and much more importantly, biodiesel (slightly different from the SVO of my original comment but close enough)produces about 90%+ more energy than is needed for its production, while ethanol only manages about 25% or so based on data I've seen. That's a major bonus for biosiesel and SVO generators or vehicle engines because in a real catastrophe situation, you'd want the most fuel energy for the least production inputs. Also, modified diesel engines that run biodiesel can also run straight vegetable oil and even animal fats, making them more versatile and easier to maintain than an ethanol motor.


> and modern engines don't run very well on pure ethanol without modification.

For carbeurated engines (i.e. every small piece of power equipment) you just need to drill out the precisely sized hole fuel goes through to be a different precise size. Your bigger issue will be keeping it clean long term.


Thus your other electricity-related problem in an infrastructure collapse scenarios would be replacing broken down factory-made parts for the whole diesel/veggie oil generator apparatus, but with enough spare components carefully stored, this could be mitigated against for a certain extended time.


reminds me of the movie Into the Forest https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/into_the_forest




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