Thoughts on being power-less

No one pays much attention to electricity.

Until we’re forced to go without it.

I’ve not blogged for a while because I’ve been intermittently without electricity–first, by design, for a couple of days last week, when I took a rafting and camping trip off the grid in northern California, and then after I returned home to Bethesda, where a summer storm that killed 22 people also left more than 1.8 million people without electricity in the mid-Atlantic states.

Being power-less does interesting things to people.

Before leaving on the rafting trip, I confess, I was uneasy about doing without a cell phone, Internet access, email, Twitter and baseball scores, not necessarily in that order. I try to turn off my computer on Saturdays, to observe the Jewish sabbath, but I rarely succeed. Even when traveling overseas, I try to check in at least once a day. On an ordinary day, I rarely go more than an hour without checking email. This is an addiction, plain and simple.

Once I got out on the middle fork of the American River, none of that mattered. (Well, I did think about my beloved Washington Nationals now and then.) I was traveling with a group of fun and interesting people, assembled by Jib Ellison of the BluSkye sustainability consulting firm. The rafting was enormous fun. I camped for the first time in more than 30 years. (The technology of tents has improved nicely since then.) We ate well, and marveled at the beauty of the Sierra Nevadas.

Being off the grid was liberating–and restorative.

As it happened, we talked some about electricity. This was a group of sustainability people, after all. David Crane, the ceo of NRG Energy, talked about how he’d like to see solar panel on the roofs of half of the homers in America, roughly 50 million in all, but lamented the fact that most people aren’t aware that the cost of solar has fallen dramatically, that you can lease panels rather than buy them and avoid the high upfront costs, and that in some states the owners of solar-powered homes can sell electricity back to the grid. Most people, we agreed, just turn on their TV or plug in their laptop without thinking about how they are powered.

That wasn’t the case, of course, after a powerful storm struck Washington, D.C., and its suburbs on Friday. Many people took the inconvenience in stride, especially those of us, like my wife and I, who were fortunate enough to be able to check into a hotel for a couple of nights. But others griped incessantly about Pepco, the local power company, and a few treated the power outage as a hardship, which, to be fair, it can for older people or small children which suffer from the heat.

Hundreds of people flocked to malls and coffee shops to feed their Internet habit, sometimes squabbling over outlets.

 

That there might be a connection (no pun intended) between their electricity usage and the extreme weather — particularly the sweltering heat that has enveloped the DC area — probably did not occur to many. Burning coal, which generates more than 40% of the electricity in the US, is the biggest single contributor to climate change.

In a very real sense, the storms that cause us to lose electricity are caused, in part, by the fact that we use electricity that’s produced by burning fossil fuels.

To be sure, it’s not possible to link any particular weather event to global warming. But according to the National Climatic Data Center, more than 16,300 daily high temperature records were broken through June this year in the U.S. Whew! For more on the relationship between climate change and extreme weather, check out this update on Heat Waves and Climate Change from a nonprofit group called Climate Communication.

Don’t blame Pepco, folks; blame us.

Being without power is, of course, a more than an inconvenience for many. It’s a way of life. An estimated 1.3 billion people, or about 20 percent of the world’s population, live without regular access to an on-off switch of any kind, according to the International Energy Agency. About 85% of people in rural sub-Saharan Africa, for example, have no electricity in their homes.

Their kids can’t study at night. And they can’t plug in at a neighborhood Starbucks.

Maybe instead of whining when we’re powerless, we should try to be grateful that we live in a country where the electricity is nearly always on. Be even more grateful when we have an opportunity to unplug. And give some thought to installing  solar panels on the roof.