Canada's Energy Problem: Interlude - Do You Remember the Night of the Blackout?

First, some videos and questions to preface my blog entry. Where and what were you doing during the Northeast Blackout of 2003? What are you going to do when you realize nothing is in place to prepare for a protracted infrastructure failure, be it a blackout or a lack of oil?

Personally, I think a more accurate commercial would be a bunch of teens staring at monitors wondering why they can't see the latest juicy gossip about [insert celebrity name here].

This actually reminds me of a video tape of a man stuck in an elevator for 41 hours. You can see it here but the story behind it is probably more dramatic (although it is eight pages long).

To be honest I'm not sure what I would have done in his situation. I do know my typically sweet, understanding and reasonable self would be very, very PO'd by the 12 hour mark. Interestingly, White was not compensated a large amount for his troubles. I think this is telling...when the elevator stops and no one seems to care you're inside, who's going to come to your aid? Personally I can't help but compare this to the current state of Canada's energy infrastructure and power sources. Who is going to save us when we're stuck without power or a proper infrastructure in place to prevent the same disorder that occurred 6 years ago?

Perhaps you were at a home during the blackout and simply did as most of my friends did. They had a barbeque! Afraid the meat would spoil, their parents cooked up steaks (and whatever other meat they had in the freezer) and had plenty of ice cream for dinner. The general consensus was that everyone in the neighbourhood was quite friendly, despite the occasional commuter nearly collapsing on their porch when they finally reached home. As time passed and they grew hot and bored, they wondered how long they would have to last until the air conditioner and television would turn on again.

The blackout of August 14th, 2003 affected Northeastern and Midwestern United States as well as parts of Ontario. The numbers of affected residents were estimated to be approximately 55 million (Please note, according to Statistics Canada there are a little over 33 million Canadians). There was a lot of good will during the black out. Average people would direct traffic while motorists and pedestrians listened willingly. Neighbors had barbeques and speculated about the source of the blackout, as well as their various horror stories involving their trek home. It was kind of nice actually. Everyone went outside because it was too dark to stay at home.

But it wasn't all nice of course. While several gas stations could not operate without electricity, a rare number of Burlington, ON stations were selling gas for 99.9 cents (with lots of ready and willing customers lining up), claiming their supply was limited despite prices being in the low 70s prior to the blackout. How's that for blatant price gouging? At one point the Canadian government was seriously considering rationing the gas supply. The supply chain system was also disrupted, for example transport trucks could not proceed on their routes because they required refueling before making the long journey to Manitoba. Oh and those that believe they can survive using their cellphones and 3G networks should probably consider how the generators powering cellular towers ran out of fuel.

To be honest, sometimes I do wonder if Jeff is right to say we'll plunge into chaos as soon as we run out of oil and gas to power our technology obsessed lives. A surprising fact that I discovered through my research was that there was looting in...Ottawa, Ontario. Can you believe it? Actually, my naive self believed (at the time) that Canadians were too polite to loot and pillage as their cars stalled on the highway and became useless roadblocks, while their fellow drivers tried to maneuver through the mess.

According to this Slate article by David Greenberg, for NYC it was a mixture of technical and socially-motived reasons. The most important reason was 9/11. Conscious of the blackout's source not being from a terrorist attack, New Yorkers nonetheless recalled how they banded together to ensure their city did not succumb to the same events that overtook them in 1977. What happened you ask?

The infamous New York City Blackout of 1977 resulted in looting, arson, vandalism and assaults all over the city. It was chaotic, but here are the stats for a brief look at what occurred (Source):

In all, 1,616 stores were either looted or damaged during the blackout. More than a thousand fires were set, 14 of them resulting in multiple alarms. And in the biggest mass arrest in city history, 3,776 people were thrown in the jug. The jails were so overcrowded that the overflow had to be held in precinct basements and other makeshift gaols...A congressional study later put the damage caused by looting and vandalism at $300 million.

Experts generally offer the following (probable) reasons for the chaos:
  • NYC was in the middle of a harsh heat wave,
  • United States was experiencing a nation-wide economic downtown (I suppose when you get the chance to get the TV you always wanted...), with NYC struggling with bankruptcy
  • General public's fear stemming from the Son of Sam murders
  • When the blackout occurred, most store owners had gone home and were not there to defend their property
  • NYPD morale was low due to the Mayor's attempts to assign only one officer in each patrol car (During the summer of Sam!), and the night of the blackout only 8,000 of 25,000 police officers reported for duty, while some just stood passively by*

Alright, I will admit that with the right conditions (which I feel we are a few steps away from) I do believe a protracted blackout or other energy related infrastructure failure will result in chaos. I'm just not sure how long it will take for people to realize that they're like Nicholas White in his claustrophia-inducing elevator with just a lighter, a pack of cigarettes and Rolaids. Not only are they not prepared, their cries for help are going to go completely unheeded as the authorities scramble to maintain order when someone decides that a five finger discount isn't so bad during this recession. At least White didn't have to worry about anyone else in the elevator with him...you have all your unprepared neighbours to deal with.

As for being prepared, here is a bit of an extreme example. My friend's father stocks up two cellars, a freezer and two fridges full of food as well as a power generator in preparation of an impending oil crisis. Many people laugh and marvel at the amount of food and drink he constantly keeps restocking, but to be honest if I'm in the area during a blackout, I'll probably head their way. I also don't laugh, especially after watching that documentary on peak oil (and because I'd rather they let me in when I run out of food and water at my own home).

So tell me...what were you doing in the Blackout of 2003? Are you ready for another?

The truth is we're probably not. The mindset is also that we shouldn't need to be. The government will take care of this. Well you should probably pay more attention to how the government seems to be screwing up on a consistent basis lately (For more current examples, feel free to Google: Lisa Raitt, cancer treatment and isoptopes, AECL sale, eHealth)

*(Please note: The truth is that the NYPD were ordered to act slowly, to be deliberate when dealing with the mobs of looters (this was due to a National Riot Commission advising against a heavy hand when dealing with riots because they proved to make situations worse than better). Ultimately there were only two civilian deaths despite all the rioting. Perhaps it was a poor consolation to store owners but by the end of the blackout the streets were not littered with dead bodies as some would expect. Especially when the looters of '77 began to loot each other, many brandishing weapons to defend their ill-gotten gains. Technically there should have been more arrests, but police chose to try to maintain order than arrest every single offender.


Tuesday Video Link: Hal Grades Your Bike Locking

Some lighthearted content for a change. Hal Ruzal is an awesome bike mechanic from New York that goes around rating locking jobs (and bikes sometimes). Great way to learn what to do (and not to do) to protect your green investment!

Hal Grades Your Bike Locking

Hal (and Kerri) Grade Your Bike Locking

Hal Grades Your Bike Locking 3 (The Final Warning!)

Canada's Energy Problem: Part 2 - It's not just the Economy, Stupid

It's actually a bit odd in Toronto as of late. At least in the malls...not because they are empty due to recession woes, but because they're absolutely packed. I've seen and heard of the hordes of people clamoring for parking spots (this is why public transit is so wonderful, no parking!) and waiting in long lines at the Food Court at Vaughan Mills, Yorkdale and Eaton Centre. I sometimes wonder whether the recession affected Toronto at all...and then I hear from my friends in quiet conversations that their parents have been laid off and run out of employment insurance. They wonder aloud to me if they should take a year off school to try and help with the family finances. Some are actually working full-time, frantically trying to budget and scrimp to pay their tuition and travel costs for the next school year. The majority of their parents work in the manufacturing sector. It's either they've been laid off, their hours have been reduced or there is a strange "two weeks laid off with EI one week work" sort of deal. Their parents are not even employed by GM or Chrysler, they're employed by the parts suppliers (as far as I'm aware, none of their parents belong to unions, in case you wanted to know). This was before GM filed for bankruptcy protection yesterday of course. This was also before Magna decided to have a hand in the European Opel-Vauxhall deal (anyone want to enlighten me how this is going to turn out for my friend's parents?). 

Now I'm not so sure how my friends and their families will do. Line of credit to tide them over? I guess...but if you're homeless because the bank foreclosed on the family home when your parents ran out of EI and emergency funds, I wonder how you'll convince the bank you're a good loan candidate.

To be honest, as an environmentalist that raves about public transportation and biking, I should probably clamor for these outdated car companies to go the way of the dodo. When I look at my friends however...I cannot bring myself to say it, although I would love to join the throngs of people who seem to relish in the demise of these automotive giants. A much more helpful alternative was proposed by Michael Moore, the ever controversial filmmaker. An article he posted on his website yesterday detailed a specific plan to repurpose the manufacturing plants and various car dealerships to be shutdown due to Chrysler and GM's financial woes. However, despite his great suggestions I don't think it's just the economy and failing automotive giants that we should be worried about. I think many, like Moore, are overlooking something very important during this recession.

"It's peak oil, stupid!"

While I can appreciate how it supports the alternative transportations, I feel it overlooks what exactly will power all these shiny new theoretical vehicles. Producing electric batteries requires energy, producing all these light-rail systems requires energy, just getting these workers to work requires energy...where is it all going to come from if, as Moore says, we must fight "in this war being waged by the oil companies against you and me." He continues,

They are committed to fleecing us whenever they can, and they have been reckless stewards of the finite amount of oil that is located under the surface of the earth. They know they are sucking it bone dry. And like the lumber tycoons of the early 20th century who didn't give a damn about future generations as they tore down every forest they could get their hands on, these oil barons are not telling the public what they know to be true -- that there are only a few more decades of useable oil on this planet. And as the end days of oil approach us, get ready for some very desperate people willing to kill and be killed just to get their hands on a gallon can of gasoline.

(P.S. You can see this article from Jeff describing a similar situation as detailed at the end of the quote.) I'm sure we can switch all our manufacturing industries into producing modes of transportation that use alternative fuels, but if we're truly past peak oil and energy prices skyrocket, what will we do when we can't power the machines to make these shiny green vehicles? I'm not saying we shouldn't go this route, but we must look for a solution for the upcoming energy crisis while we're busy trying to make all these alternative energies more reliable and cost-effective.