Friday, January 3, 2014

Newfoundland, Rolling Blackouts and Preparedness

We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces. - Carl Sagan

As the cold weather unfolds in the Province of Newfoundland and Labrador, the local utilities are having to implement rolling blackouts in order to protect the power distribution systems in the Province.

While no one likes to deal with blackouts, the response from many people in the Province has been, depending on your perspective, ignorant or humorous.

Many have taken to social media to complain that their supper will be late, that their aquarium fish are getting cold or that the entire rolling blackout procedure is in fact a huge conspiracy by Premier Dunderdale to ensure that Newfoundlanders and Labradorians will see the need for Muskrat Falls.

However, my favorite is from the ignorant people who wonder why Nalcor, the Province’s energy arm, has deliberately scheduled a rolling blackout for the coldest, highest electrical-demand day of the year.  I guess understanding correct cause-and-effect order would probably be too much for these people to understand also.

When one points out that many unlucky folks in Toronto went without power over the Christmas holidays for over a week, they don’t care.  I guess supper must have been planned to be something unusually special.

These people, as do all of us, have realities to face.

1. If we want a power distribution system, a phone system or any other type of system that never goes down, can handle any demand, etc., we do in fact have the technology to build such systems.  However, once we build them, we will then complain that our monthly bill is 5-20 times what it used to be in the good ol’ days.  When much of the new system sits idle during non-peak times, we will also complain about the waste that the utilities have burdened us with.  Balancing acceptable levels of service, peak demand capability and cost stretches the minds of the smartest people in the world – armchair engineers and accountants need not apply.

2. Despite the pleas of governments on all levels, provincial, state and federal, for all of us to have an emergency preparedness plan for ourselves, our families and our communities, most of us don’t bother.  After all, isn’t the government supposed to take care of all of our needs on demand?

3. Some day, maybe a lot sooner than we think <hint hint, nudge nudge, wink wink>, a lot of things may go wrong at the same time.  When this happens, there won’t be any time for complaining – we will be too busy surviving.  And besides, there will be no one on the other end of the phone / email to listen to your complaints because they will be too busy surviving also.  Well … that’s if communication and power systems are even working when the events occur.  My money says they won’t be.

The Bottom Line

The next time we are investing more time, energy and money into planning our next vacation, our next vehicle purchase, our next mansion or our next party than on our personal emergency plan, remember that emergency preparedness starts with each of us.

Not with someone else.

And since we’re on the subject of energy, I think energy spent on our personal preparedness is far more strategic than energy spent complaining that someone else is not doing enough for us. 

A lot of very smart, very dedicated people are doing the best they can for us. Maybe we should step up by helping do the best we can also.

What do you think?

Stay warm, Newfoundland and Labrador.  You’ll survive – you have overcome much worse in your storied history.

In service and servanthood,



As I watch many people take to social media on their battery-powered devices to complain that their power is out, I am reminded of times in my youth when the power would go out in Newfoundland.

When the power went out in those days, we were resigned to the fact that we were cut off and that we were forced to deal with each other’s company, face-to-face, until the power came back on.

We were actually forced to interact face-to-face.  Can you imagine?  Thank goodness we are protected from the horror of those barbaric days.

Addendum 2 – Advice For Aquarium Owners

For the person who wrote me a slightly nasty email informing me about the importance of their fish tank, I offer the following Public Service Announcement.

While I’m sure that aquarium fish will be fine during a brief power outage, there are two alternatives that aquarium owners who are fearful can explore.

Simple, straight-forward option:

Buy a generator in advance and keep it on standby for the fish tank.  This is easy but not very “sexy”.

Cool, techie option:

Go down in the basement or out in the shed and get your hands on a dynamo.  If you don’t have one, you can make one out of a couple of magnets, some shellacked fine copper wire and a few other odds and ends (Google will help you).  Hook it up to the rear tire on a bicycle.  Run the wires from it to a DC to AC converter.  Plug the aquarium lights and heater into the converter also.  If you built your dynamo without a commutator, it will produce AC and so you won’t need the converter.

Meanwhile, run a long piece of tubing into the aquarium filter.

Now here comes the tough part and you will need 4 people for this.

One person gets on the bicycle and inserts the tube into his mouth.  That person’s exhalations will push air through the aquarium filter.

Two people hold “the arse end” of the bicycle up so that when the rider starts pedaling, he doesn’t tow the aquarium all over the house.  As the rider pedals, the dynamo will power the aquarium light and the heater.

One person holds their smartphone for the purpose of filming the event for a subsequent YouTube upload.  Since the person will no doubt be shaking with laughter, make sure the “Steady Camera” option is on.

The fish would have been fine even if you didn’t do this.

But at least you will have a funny memory to remember the event by. :-)

Addendum 3 – January 4, 2014 - Bad to Worse

Most of the Island of Newfoundland went dark on Saturday morning when a major power distribution terminal at Sunnyside caught fire, a reminder that:

1. Nalcor needs to review its redundancy contingency, with a single point of failure taking out most of the Island.  Newfoundlanders may remember when a fire in 2006 knocked out all communication (landlines, cell phones, Internet) and services relying on these, including  911 and debit / credit card processing, for most of the Province.  Bell Aliant’s claim at the time to be “world class” regarding redundancy was pretty ridiculous given that the catastrophic failure occurred so easily with such wide impact.

2. Things can go from inconvenient to problematic very quickly.

3. We are ultimately responsible for our own needs and safety.

Murphy’s Law tends to get complex in times like this – that bad can go to worse quickly despite assurances from “experts” during the “good times” that such things are statistically improbable or “near impossible”.

But that is what personal preparedness is all about – protecting yourself from what “the experts” tell you is statistically unlikely or improbable.

Because when you are cold and dark, “I told you so” from those who are prepared brings no comfort.

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