Losing Power

Last night, while I was packing up to teach this morning, the light blinked, the fan died, and the room was suddenly lit only with the last glow of the sunset. And then it was dark.

The Valley at night, with lights

The Valley at night, with lights

We have underground utilities, and no ice storms–and certainly not in July–so it took me a second to realize the power was gone. I glanced outside, and noticed the neighbor’s lights were off, so it wasn’t just us.

Over the next six hours, I discovered how much I depend on electricity. There was no way to figure out what happened–no TV, no radio, and no internet. Yes, even with wireless, if your moden and cable connection goes, you are without power.

The idea of “being powerless” became metaphorical. The clothes washer stopped, mid-cycle, and I was immediately grateful that the no-sugar, no flour seed and nut bars had just come out of the oven. No creative play, no searching the internet for creative inspiration, no answering emails. I felt sorry for restaurants and stores with freezers, for people in hotels and hospitals who were suddenly on emergency power and feeling helpless without elevators and TVs to keep them calm and moving.

I keep the house at 83 F degrees during our scorching summers, and the temperature began to edge up. It had been a “cool” day–it had been 98F at 5 p.m. but it was humid, so the doors stayed closed.

We went outside and chatted with neighbors, and then came back inside. There was nothing to do–packing requires light and a fan, and the one lantern we have wasn’t enough light. We would move toward an activity, only to remember, again, in the dark, that the power was out.

Forced relaxation and inactivity takes some skill. We started by jumping in the pool and listening to sounds we almost never hear–neighbors outside on their patios. Birds settling in for the night. Children laughing and running. The dreamy summer outside-living that most of North America enjoys in summer is our delight starting in October. After the pool, we went to bed, grateful for an early night.

I woke at 2 a.m. to the cool breeze of the ceiling fan reviving. A small flurry of activity to shut off lights, turn the air conditioning back on, set the alarm for early enough to finish packing, and go back to the deep sleep of cool, circulating air.

We depend on certain expected powers to make life comfortable. When it’s gone, it forces a new way of thinking and behaving. Not bad for six hours, but I’m glad the power is back. I’m teaching a class today and I need all the power I can get.

—Quinn McDonald is grateful. And busy.


6 thoughts on “Losing Power

  1. Isn’t it interesting how your location affects everything. Here in northern Canada we have 6 – 8 months of below 0 Celsius (32 F) every year. Our greatest concern when the power goes out is heat. Sure the gas furnace still burns, but the fans that push the hot air around the house are electric. and of course the motors that pressurize the gas lines delivering gas to the house are all electric as well. We have 2 fireplaces in the house and they can keep the frost out of the living room pretty well – or at least as long as the wood lasts – we usually buy a cord in the fall – mostly because I like a natural wood fire and because it reduces gas use and makes the room the fireplaces are in cozy and nostalgic.

    • It is really interesting how different climates make for many different perceptions. We, too, have a fireplace. But we have so many “no burn” days, that I have never used it. Also, my palo verde trees lean over it, and they need to be cut way back before I could light a fire. And I need the trees to shade the house, because they are on the West side of the house–the side that cooks all summer long.

  2. We too live in a cold winter climate.
    Most of our summer months are cooled by living in a big old farm house and opening windows at night and closing things up most of the day. I don’t enjoy being closed in, however and often leave windows and doors with screens open on the shady side of the house. It’s old fashioned but it works and doesn’t use any power other than my own, making the rounds each morning and evening. I like that. There’s something to be said for routine.
    Winters are a different story but we have a great antique propane burner that we heat these 3000 square feet with. It’s a two story so we do have a big ceiling fan on the upstairs landing to push the air back down. We also have a heat propelled fan on the stove to move the air around in the house.
    We aren’t “off the grid” but we stay warm in winter (adding layers as needed) and mostly cool on a hot day. It helps that we don’t get the really extreme heat or cold that other parts of the country do. Extreme for us is a week or more over one hundred degrees or minus degrees in winter.
    When the power goes off we are prepared. It happens at least once a year. Candles, flashlights, a deck of cards and a bottle of brandy as it’s mostly winter that it happens. We are still warm with our propane heater and we can still cook with our 1900’s cooking stove. So, we don’t suffer much. We are without water, however. The pump on our well is electric. That means no toilet, and no drinking water. We keep jugs of water in storage just so we can use those things. Like I said we try to stay prepared. If we have notice and sometimes we have just enough flickering to make us think it might happen we fill the tub so we can use that water for the toilet…primitive but it works and you have no idea how much you miss it until you don’t have it! :smiles:
    Fortunately when the power does goes off for most of us these days it’s not for very long. Amazing how dependent we independents are when it does! But the rush of being without power is fun in itself and forces us to sit back a little and just “be”. Most of us don’t do that often enough.

    • I’ve been without electricity in another house where we had well water, and sure enough, no electricity, no well pump. We’d fill up the tub, too, to be able to flush. Your morning routine sounds heavenly. I do something similar in November and December, when it’s cool, but the house warms up with the sun. And yes, it is delightful to be reminded from time to time, how we have become used to our niceties.

  3. We have above-ground utilities and nasty weather, so we lose power quite often. In the winter it’s occasionally out for a day or two. It’s an interesting set of events that’s led to the situation that electricity is centrally mass-produced and distributed, and thus vulnerable to mass failures.

    There isn’t any inherent physical reason to produce electricity at only one place. In fact there are a number of methods of production, and most of them work at least as well in small installations. Distributing electricity, moreover, is extremely expensive in terms of infrastructure and involves inherent losses, or waste. Underground utilities lines, in fact, don’t work nearly as efficiently as overhead ones because of heat. And IIRC, you can’t transmit AC more than about 20 miles at a time in any circumstance (high voltage DC doesn’t have that limitation).

    There have been eras when the whole idea of a “power grid” instead of tiny, local power generation seemed either absurd or doomed. Around the 1960s it looked likely that fuel cells would become inexpensive enough to put one in every home, producing electricity (and pure water and heat) for one home. Fuel cells, by the way, seem cutting edge but they’re surprisingly old — 1838 (yep, that’s an eighteen!). But the first real application I ever heard of was at NASA.

    Supposedly Nicola Tesla demonstrated a way to transmit electricity without any wires at all (and I think got a patent for it) but it doesn’t seem to have panned out since. Nevertheless he did say “Ere many generations pass, our machinery will be driven by a power obtainable at any point of the universe.”

    • From Tesla’s mouth to God’s ears–however that works. My new favorite story is that our power company–APS–wants to charge every homeowner who has a solar panel on the house, a $50 a month fee because they have to “keep up the power grid,” which sounds a lot like, “make a bigger profit” to me.

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