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Electricity: you don’t know what you’ve got 'til it’s gone

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New York City blackout after Hurricane Sandy (Christopher Schoenbohm, flickr/creative commons)

We had a power outage at my apartment this week, which caused me to reflect on how utterly reliant we are on our energy systems.

When the electricity went out, the apartment ceased to function. Everything is electric. We had no lights, no heating, no oven, no microwave, our fridge was slowly warming and we had no TV to watch the Canucks game.

The power didn’t come back on overnight, which means we had no heat all night while it was 2c outside. Jokes about having a GenY meltdown because there was no internet, cable or way to charge my iPhone aside, it dawned on me how utterly unprepared for a disaster we are.

Vancouver - disaster ready? (photo: Amy Huva 2011)

If Hurricane Sandy had hit Vancouver, I’m not sure how prepared I would have been for living without heat for weeks (especially if it then snowed!).

Being someone who is always thinking about climate change (I mentally measure 1m of sea level rise when I’m running on the sea wall), I then started to wonder how prepared I am for the actual reality of climate disasters. 

Climate change will make weather more extreme, because we’ve pumped the atmosphere full of carbon, which acts like climate steroids. As more extreme weather events happen, at the same time that sea level keeps slowly rising, current infrastructure that was built in the 20th century with the assumption that the climate wasn’t going to change will become more vulnerable.

Things like blackouts or brownouts could become more common if the city you live in hasn’t planned for climate resilience. Key infrastructure for powering cities could be overwhelmed in a giant storm as those storms become more common and if the city you live in isn’t preparing for these storms with climate change at the forefront of the planning process, life could very quickly get uncomfortable.

And this is the thing: you don’t realise how integral electricity is to your day, every day. Without electricity, my alarm wouldn’t go off, I couldn’t make my morning coffee, and my shower would be cold. I would have to bust open the emergency exit stairs in my office building to get to my floor for work. Once I got to work, I wouldn’t be able to get my job done; I would have no email, no computer, no internet, no phone, no lights to even read a book unless I was sitting by the window.

Without electricity, my day doesn’t function. But it’s so common and I’m so surrounded by it all the time that I don’t realise how dependent I am on it until it suddenly goes off.

As the climate crisis intensifies and the carbon crunch nears, if cities haven’t diversified and decentralised the electricity grid, we could end up with serious disruptions to our lives and our livelihoods.

Luckily, with our Greenest City 2020 plan, Vancouver is planning for it. The city is slowly reducing our dependence on fossil fuels, so that we can transition to the new renewable economy with minimal disruption to the way we live and work.

These are the options that we have for the coming effects of climate change; plan, prepare and implement, or ignore, deny and react. The cities, companies and organisations that plan for the implementation of a renewable economy will be the ones that thrive in this century. The ones that hitch their wagons only to a 19th Century form of fossil energy will struggle. 

(2) Comments

Jeff Pluim March 9th 2013 | 8:08 AM
One main thing that the writer is missing regarding power outages. If the outage is major, meaning a situation like what happened with Hurricane Sandy, you also have no running water. Water is pumped by electric pumps, and where this writer may have experienced a very localized power outage that did not cut power to the water pumping stations, a major outage will leave people without water. This is why it is so important that people prepare themselves for this eventuality. Store 3 days of food and water, at a minimum.
amyhuva March 11th 2013 | 2:14 PM

You are right Jeff Pluim! It was a localised outage, so we didn't lose water.

Good point that I didn't think of!