Power Failure: Electrical and National

By | July 12, 2012 | 0 Comments


Recently the eastern United States was gripped by a heat wave, just after a storm caused a massive power outage. Here in Los Angeles the weather was much milder. But some time ago, our electricity went off. Fortunately, it came back on after about three minutes. But an hour later, I was still not back to normal.
First I reset the telephone answering machine. It’s digital, of course. Tape answering machines are no longer sold, despite their greater clarity of sound. Our digital machine is better than some − you can actually understand most messages.
Our machine has no battery backup, as did our old tape machine, so any recorded messages were lost. As I approached, the phone rang. The machine did not pick up, though the power was on again. You see, it’s a small computer, and as we know to our sorrow, computers do things their way.
The first thing to do when programming the machine is to set the time. And since the power had been off for three minutes, the clock was three minutes slow. Rather than recording the message with an erroneous time, which would make little difference, the machine refused to record anything at all until I reset the clock. A critical message might be lost, but the machine insisted that I do things its way, or it would refuse to function.
So I set the clock three minutes ahead. I had reset the machine so often that I knew the counter-intuitive procedure by heart. Sure enough, the machine picked up when another call came in. I assume it was the same person who called before, but who knows?
Next I reset the clocks on the ovens, which were blinking reproachfully. Then I opened the garage door in case the power went off again. Our door is heavy; to open I must get a stepladder and spend about five minutes of effort turning the wheel that moves the screw gear. I don’t want to do that when I have an important appointment.
Oddly, our elderly VCR needed no attention. Brief power outages don’t affect its clock. I keep it because I don’t expect a new machine to last as long or to be as trouble free. If manufacturers want to increase profit, they might consider the old-fashioned idea of creating loyal customers, instead of creating new gizmos that wear out rapidly and become obsolete even more rapidly.
The clock in our bedroom, which we depend on to wake us for work, is a cheap, battery-operated, analog device. It soldiers on despite power failures. This job is too important to trust to a gizmo with a computer chip. The digital clock on my desk, in contrast, had to be reprogrammed.
Finally, I checked to see that our cordless phones were functional again. They stop working when the power fails, so we keep one corded phone to use in emergencies. Cell phones don’t work at all where we live.
This leads us to Murphy’s Law of Innovation:

In difficult conditions, the oldest technology works best, the newer technology works less well, and the newest technology may not work at all.

But then I ran into trouble. I have a digital radio recorder to record my favorite talk shows for later listening. This nifty little gizmo has battery backup, and I leave it plugged in to save the batteries. But when it’s plugged in, the batteries are bypassed, so if the power fails, the recording stops.
When the power comes back on, even after a brief pause, the recording does not resume. The nifty little gizmo isn’t just a machine, like my old radio recorder that went on again when power was restored. No, it’s a computer, and computers are really willful and inflexible. When anything upsets their routine, they go into a funk and do nothing until they are rebooted. They have to start again from the beginning if they are disturbed in the middle of something. There was no way I could restart the recording. I hesitate to think what would happen if the power failed and came back on again, and my computer, printer, and fax weren’t connected via surge protectors.
This leads us to Murphy’s Law of Technology:

The more complex a device becomes, the less reliable it is. The more unnecessary functions it performs, the less well it performs essential functions.

Or as Scotty put it on “Star Trek”:

The more they overthink the plumbing, the easier it is to stop up the drain,

We have built few power plants for decades. Nuclear plants, which do not contribute to global warming, are blocked by environmentalists. So are mining for coal, drilling for oil or gas, and damming rivers for hydroelectric power. Wind power can provide only a small fraction of our needs, and solar power is in its infancy and works only in daylight.
Thus we remain dependent on Middle East oil, leaving us subject to blackmail, as well as likely to become involved in the violence of that region. Meanwhile, our porous borders allow millions of immigrants – legal and illegal – to enter, while our appetite for electronic devices grows unabated.
One need not be a prophet to predict what will happen. Our need for electric power will continue to increase faster than our capacity to produce it. At the same time, increasingly complex devices will make us increasingly vulnerable to power failures. Our elderly power grid often fails on hot days or after storms. Add to this the likelihood of terrorist attacks on the grid, and even a fool can see the result.
If a three-minute power failure can inconvenience us, imagine what a three-week power failure would do:
No radios, computers, or cell phones once the batteries run down.
No cordless phones.
No TV for news bulletins.
No Internet.
No refrigerators for food or medicine.
No elevators.
No hospitals, beyond minimal services on auxiliary power − until the diesel runs out.
No air conditioners or fans in summer; no furnaces or heaters in winter.
No plug-in electric vehicles after their batteries run down.
No mail or e-mail.
No credit cards, ATMs, or banks.
No way to pay bills, except in person in cash.
No way to get cash.
No traffic signals.
No medical devices or blood bank.
No burglar or fire alarms.
No police, fire, or paramedic response once they run out of fuel.
No National Guard or military response once they run out of fuel.
No trucks, trains, or airliners once they run out of fuel.
No pumps for gasoline, diesel, or jet fuel.
No way to survive in cities.
No way to leave, unless you already have a full gas tank, and can get through streets blocked by looters, and crowded highways blocked by stalled vehicles.
When our nation was founded, people had no electricity. But they had horses and mules for transportation. They had farms close to town for food. They had nearby streams for water. They had hearths and wood fires for cooking. We have none of these.
● We need to build power plants to match our increasing population and our increasing dependence on electronic devices.
● We need to make these devices more user-friendly and more resistant to power failures.
● We need to use non-electronic devices when possible – for example, wind-up clocks, mechanical can openers, and hard copies of important records.
● We need to provide backup power sources for essential services.
● We need to provide backup fuel pumps and storage for emergency services – for example, a week’s supply with a backup generator, or a gravity-operated storage tank.
● We need to become less dependent on Middle East oil.
“Power grid attack” yields 4,320,000 results on Google. In addition to conventional attacks, we have cyber attacks, electro-magnetic pulses, and solar storms. As we upgrade the grid, we must not make it even more dependent on computers connected to the Internet – and therefore more vulnerable to cyber attack.
When we talk about power, we tend to talk about military power, or economic power, or political power, or even moral power. But to exercise any of these forms of power, we need the more mundane form of power we get from the wall plug.
Dr. Stolinsky writes on political and social issues. Contact: dstol@prodigy.net. You are welcome to publish or post these articles, provided that you cite the author and website.

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