Yesterday morning, somewhere around 4:00, the electricity went off. The temperature outside was freezing: 0C (32F); the temperature inside dropped to 16C (61F) within two hours, at which point the electricity was restored. It was a gentle reminder of how vulnerable and energy-dependent we are.
Sixteen degrees Celsius is certainly easily survivable. Had the power remained off for a few more hours, however, the inside temperature would have taken as little as 8 hours to reach the outside temperature of 0C. That’s not so easy to live in, especially with no electric lights, stove, or refrigerator, never mind television or computer. At least we wouldn’t have had to worry about the contents of the freezer.
A few years ago my parents did live through a very unpleasant and potentially dangerous power outage: the Canadian ice storm of 1998. They went over one week without electricity in temperatures hovering about the freezing mark, and that event was a motivating factor behind them deciding to sell their farm and move into the city. For hundreds of thousands of people, pipes had to be drained, cooking was by BBQ and campstove, and 600,000 people had to leave their homes.
There are various problems with a system that makes us so dependent upon centrally-generated power and long supply lines, and it is inevitable that such outages will occur again. Peak Oil students suggest that this world is coming for the developed countries sooner rather than later. We interviewed James Howard Kunstler on our radio show, and his prognosis is bleak. Climate change will also disrupt energy supplies for various reasons, from stronger and therefore more destructive storms, to countries hoarding energy.
Some people will be in much better shape; those who live in a PassivHaus, for example, which drops in temperature at the rate of 0.5C per day without energy. Compare that to my townhouse, which drops 2C per hour. And it’s not an old house; it was built in 1992. If my parents had been living in a house built to PassivHaus standards, the interior temperature would have dropped from 21C (70F) to 17.5C (63.5F) over the course of one week with no power, assuming no other attempt was made to heat the house.
Unfortunately, we don’t build houses that way here, in one of the coldest countries on the planet, even though the cost difference is minimal upfront and there are big savings long-term – heating and air-conditioning costs are near-zero. Some PassivHaus owners make money by selling back to the grid. France and the U.K. have mandated this quality of construction for 2020 and 2016, respectively.
What would be your situation if the electricity went off and stayed off for an extended time? Most Canadians and Americans would be in desperate shape very quickly, regardless of the weather outside, but throw in winter and things could get ugly. The 600,000 people driven from their homes in Ontario and Quebec had somewhere to go: perhaps relatives in a nearby city, or a hotel paid for by an insurance company. And good luck working or sending the kids to school! If power outages are more widespread, more frequent, or longer, civilisation as we know it will end very quickly if everyone is scrambling to survive.
Building codes should have been revised decades ago to mandate passive solar gain for all buildings, and thermal mass and good insulation to retain the heat gained. Instead, we are totally dependent upon central generating stations and long power lines, a system both inefficient and insecure.
What am I doing? I’m working toward my own PassivHaus.