This year's summer wasn't the hottest on record. In 2012, Toronto and surrounding areas experienced small amounts of rain and a few weeks of extreme heat. For the most part, however, the temperature hovered just above normal. Other than the weather, it was a typical summer. People went about their life as usual. Spending time with family, grilling and barbecuing in their back yards, and enjoying the occasional weekend in the cottage country -- all were favoured activities of the summer months. Not many were bothered by stories of droughts and floods, heat waves and colds naps, fires and melting ice happening around the world. Even fewer thought about the magical substance that allows us to enjoy all the comforts of modern life.
This magical substance, also known as the power, brings to life everything we use in our homes, our cars, our offices, and our communities. When we can't turn the lights on, we say that the power is out. When we can't turn on our television, we say that it has no power. When we want to use our computer, we say that it has to be powered on. When we want use our cellphones, we say that we have to charge it up with power. Power, it seems, is at the heart of everything. A visitor from the past, having learned of this incredible magic, would ask, where does this power come from? A power plant, of course, any 3rd grader would be able to answer. Our power is generated at the power plant, it is then delivered to our homes, offices, and communities via the many interconnected power lines. Inside our homes, it is then available for our immediate use through a set of yet another smaller power lines, which we call wires. These inevitably lead to a wall, from whence we actually draw this power. Power, power in the wall, if you're gone, so is our world.
This year, the two day power failures in India had left over 600 million people without power. A late July power outage was caused by overheating of, long in need of replacement, transformers. One after another, the whole electrical system in northern India collapsed. Millions of people were left in sweltering heat without water and air conditioning. Businesses closed, stores shut their doors, traffic lights extinguished and the public transportation system was ground to a halt. Traffic jams were everywhere. Cars stopped in the middle of intersections, highways packed with vehicles like sardines in a can. Buses and trucks looming like frozen giants above a sea of still rickshaws, motorcycles and small city cars. The gridlock was so bad and so long that people left their cars in the middle of intersections, hopeless of being able to get back home any time soon.
The police was stuck in a rut. Without the ability to communicate with the central office, officers weren't able to respond to emergency calls. Not that any of these calls could get through in the first place. With the power grid down and the cell towers running on quickly depleting diesel backup generators, the lines were jammed. And since landlines are not as common as they are in the West, the limited land telephone system was overwhelmed in a hurry.
If you were in need of medical assistance, your best choice at the time would be to find a local healer and pray to his personal god that he knew what he was doing. Ambulances were unable to reach those in most dire emergency and for those people lucky enough to get to a hospital, finding a free bed or hallway floor to lie down on, was nearly impossible. Diesel generators were able to keep the major hospitals running for a short time, but eventually some had to be shutdown. It's hard to deliver fuel in a complete gridlock.
India, like many third world countries, was undergoing to process of rapid modernization and economic growth. As part of this drive, everything in the country was being converted to use electricity. From gas stations to big supermarkets and everything in between now required electricity to work. When the power went out, people couldn't fill up their cars, shoppers weren't able to buy groceries and water because they had abandoned the use of cash for the convenience of plastic. Anyone with a fridge was forced to cook all of their food for fears that it would be spoiled by the heat. Those with gas ovens were the only ones able to accomplish that task.
Of course not all suffered such a horrible fate. Many rural Indians went about their daily lives as if nothing happened. Some didn't even notice that the electricity was out. The food was prepared as it had always been, on a wood fed fire. Public transportation relied either on animal or human power, with legs being the main propelling force and water was easily accessible from a village well or the nearby river. Life continued as it had for thousands of years before, without interruption.
The power was out for a whole week. The nightmare, for it was a nightmare to all who are used to the amenities of modern life, came to an end slowly. Starting with New Delhi the grid came back online and life began to resume its normal patterns. The power company was able to restore power to the most sensitive and power hungry areas of the country first, with more rural places receiving secondary attention.
Eastern Canada is part of a massive power grid system that also covers much of the easter United States. This system was designed to ensure that if any part of the grid experienced overcapacity, it could draw on power from neighbouring regions that had plenty of it to spare. On paper, this design looked like a good idea at the time. If New York state was experiencing higher the average loads during a summer heat wave, Ontario, with its several nuclear and coal plants, could pick up the slack and deliver the much needed electricity to its neighbours. Quebec and the easter provinces could also participate in sharing the benefits of the interconnected power grid. But there was a major flaw in the design. On August 14 2003, this interconnectedness led to a massive trip, which like the falling dominos, brought much of the Eastern seaboard, including Toronto, back to the 16th century. A computer failure at one of the power plants led to a successive shutdowns of all power generating units in the Northeast. The power went out in the afternoon and came back shortly before midnight on the same day.
The chaos that followed the power outage was on similar scale to India. A streetcar stuck in the middle of intersection, traffic stretched back as far as the eye can see, and gas stations not able to pump fuel are just of the images from Toronto's streets that day. Cops sweating at major intersections, directing traffic, quickly became a common place occurrence. Businesses closed early, factories shutdown production lines and planes were left stranded on the tarmacs all over the eastern side of the continent. There were reports of gas stations that still had power raising the fuel prices by as much as 20 cents litre. Communications were knocked out everywhere. Television broadcasting, centred in major population centres along the eastern seaboard, was halted as a result of power loss. Access to news sources was cut, with major Internet providers affected as well. A media blackout of these proportions hasn't been seen since early days of mankind. Everything went still. When the sun finally went down, millions of people in metropolitan areas without power were able to see the night sky. For first time in a new century people were able to see what a starry sky should really look like.
The whole event lasted no more then ten hours and afterwards we thought we learned our lesson. Our power grids were vulnerable and needed to be fixed. The calls went out, investigations announced, working groups created and conclusions published. The final result? A stream of insults and accusations flew back and forth between American and Canadian officials. What really caused the problem was not much of an issue, but rather on which side did it start? Everyone was looking for somebody else to blame, no one learned the real lesson being taught.
Nature has a way of letting its offspring learn from their mistakes. A small child, upon touching something hot, burns its finger and quickly learns to either avoid that object or learn how to handle it with care. The power failure of 2003 was equivalent to us touching something hot and burning our finger. The power failure of 2012 was us touching a similar hot object with the whole hand. The pain is much stronger now, longer lasting. Will we learn now what we failed to learn nine years ago?
We are not vulnerable because the power grid was interconnected and a failure of one transformer could cause the cascading collapse of the whole system. We are vulnerable because we rely to much on this power in the wall. In the winter it heats our homes, in the summer it cools our rooms and through out the year it keeps our food from being spoiled. It drives our transpiration, it pumps our water and it transmits our communications. Without it our lives become chaos. As evident in the events described above, with out power we are in deep trouble. In the past thirty years of relentless economic expansion, we have forgotten the most basic tenets of human life. The most important tenets are: we live in a physical world and our planet has limits and. We constantly undermine ourselves by relying on the power in the wall to keep our economy going and growing. Our money, our books, our communication and our society are now just series of one's and zero's in a virtual world that seizes to exist every time some flips a switch. We expand planetary resources to generate power as if there was no end of the in sight. At some point in the near future it will become impossible to extract all the natural resources needed to power our society and our society will stumble and eventually fall. We must find a better way of using this power to our and our future generations' advantage.
Electrical power is not bad. In many cases it has bettered lives of millions, yet we take it for granted now. It's just there and we assume that it will always be there. It will not. We must learn from these events and reduce our reliance on this magical power. We must learn to live with the land, not on the land. We must learn to get by with less, in order to enjoy more.