• Weather Disasters Show Need for Change

    • Posted on Jan 18, 1998


    When I hit those subzero windchills and icy walkways these days, I think how much worse it could be. We could be living in Maine, or Vermont, or New Hampshire, or outside Montreal.

    We could be among the hundreds of thousands of frozen souls facing three more weeks without electricity.

    What would that mean to most of us? In a word, disaster.

    My house, for example, has an electric furnace, stove, three portable heaters, and a fan-driven air exchanger. It also has printers, computers, modems, telephones, a FAX machine, and probably a hundred light bulbs of various sizes and shapes.

    Of course there's a television, a refrigerator/freezer, clocks, a washer and dryer, a garage door opener, and a water pump, since I'm not using city water. Oh yes, and all manner of smaller appliances for occasional use: an iron, a toaster, a blender, a coffee-bean grinder, an electric doorbell chimer.

    Luckily, I have a wood stove for heat in case the electricity goes, but barely a week's wood left if I burn it everyday.

    Yet truth to tell, I hardly even notice that my current life utterly depends upon, well, current.

    So here's the rule: the more we depend upon something, the less we notice it. Until it's gone.

    Take air, for example. Unless you live in Southern California or suffer from asthma or emphysema, you hardly notice air at all.

    Yet this mixture of odorless, tasteless gases enters our bodies virtually effortlessly several times a minute and literally keeps us alive.

    Same with light. When we awaken, it's partly because light starts to seep into our rooms. When we get increasingly depressed during these long nights and short days, it's called SAD, meaning Seasonal Affective Disorder, and what's the remedy? More light.

    People with SAD need full-spectrum light, and they can get it by moving south, where there's more sun, or by sitting under special electric bulbs. Like air, we take light for granted, and quickly begin to die when it's gone.

    So too with water. Unless we take on several pints of relatively clean H2O a day we get sick from all manner of diseases, ranging from kidney stones to heart troubles.

    Water, water, everywhere, thank god. Without it, and air, and light, we extinguish faster than you can say dinosaur.

    And since about 1950, the very same with electricity, with one major difference. Where air, light, and water come from nature more or less ready to use, electricity comes from humans. Highly developed, technologically sophisticated humans.

    Electricity requires fuels, complex generators, transfer stations, computer-controlled grids and monitoring equipment, multi-billion dollar delivery systems.

    Without electricity, there's no heat except for what we can eke out of a wood stove, or some other relatively primitive heater. No light at night other than from candles. No way to get water easily, or to boil water if we could get it. No way to cook except on a wood stove, and indoor working toilets, no unspoiled food other than canned goods in the closet.

    In other words, without our beloved electricity, humans quickly become desperate. Of course going to work becomes the least of their worries, given the need to survive until the juice returns.

    All because we have taken a man-made commodity for granted, as though it were a natural resource.

    Not to sound like Chicken Little, but having millions of peoples' lives depend on public utilities strikes me as damned dangerous. Yet that's exactly what has happened. Our lives now depend almost completely on a relatively fragile and interruptible network of power grids.

    So what should we do? Buy wood stoves and stock up on gasoline and generators? Only the most alarmist/paranoid and/or wealthy will bother with those, or with the more obvious solution of making our way south.

    There's a better solution. Good old light and air are more constant, and more available. Both can be used to generate electricity. Instead of hundreds of miles of wires to deliver coal-generated electricity, we could home-grow much more of our own juice right on our Midwestern prairies.

    Sun and wind-generated power aren't as popular as coal-generated power yet because they're more expensive and more localized. But given the billions of dollars of disaster relief and the lives lost from so much dependency on long-distance electricity, wires, and massive regional grids, the wind and sun begin to look better and better.

    According to a recent news story, Minnesota will be second only to California in wind power, and those prairie winds blow the same in both Iowa and Minnesota. If we want to avoid future such electrically generated disasters, shifting to wind and sun power right in our backyards only makes good sense.

    That huge Canadian and Northeastern ice storm might serve as a needed wake-up call for everyone. 

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