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.


  1. says

    “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.” Remarkable, isn’t it?
    Yet losses do foster gratitude and awareness. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” as the song goes.
    What is nature telling us about human nature?

  2. Ed Reid says

    “Burning coal, which generates more than 40% of the electricity in the US, is the biggest single contributor to climate change.”

    The statement above, while it is a common allegation, is not necessarily factual. It is the “hypothesis du jour” of the climate science community.

    • Warren Goldstein says

      Note the peculiar construction “not necessarily factual” which means nothing. As for “hypothesis du jour,” try “hypothesis of the decade, or last two decades.” As for the “climate science community,” who else would you want to be formulating hypotheses? Coal companies? Petroleum trade associations?

      Those Tobacco Institute hypotheses sure turned out to be helpful, didn’t they?

      • Ed Reid says

        The expression “not necessarily factual” acknowledges that what Marc stated as fact might possibly be fact, or not. Nobody KNOWS whether it is factual or not.

        CO2-driven AGW has been the hypothesis since CO2-driven AGC was abandoned as the hypothesis of the 70s.

        Perhaps, instead of “climate science community”, I should have used the term “TEAM”. There are climate scientists who are not members of the TEAM who are not considered to be part of the “climate science community” by the TEAM, but nonetheless are engaged in constructing and testing hypotheses regarding climate change. The TEAM has made efforts to keep those hypotheses from the peer reviewed literature and from the IPCC product, as documented in the Climategate e-mails. The TEAM has also made efforts to keep its data and its methods safe from the scrutiny of the non-TEAM climate scientists and statisticians.

  3. Catherine Sheehy says

    Thanks for this message, Mark. It is a helpful perspective. Nonetheless, as a resident whose power has gone out nearly every time we have a storm in this area, and for whom solar power isn’t yet an option (mass metered condo bldg, we’ve had our roof analyzed, not quite the right setup for solar, we’ve been told) I kind of do blame Pepco. Just a bit. 😉

      • Ed Reid says

        Montgomery County’s policies regarding tree trimming adjacent to power lines are arguably equally awful.

        If gas and water utilities had begun life by hanging pipes from poles, all utilities would have been underground long since.

        • Heidi Nielsen says

          I agree that we need to switch over to renewable power sources. But this power outage was caused by trees falling on power lines. That’s it. Trees. For some reason intelligent people continue to believe that the cost of putting power lines underground is unacceptable, but the cost of loosing power for several days, several times a year is fine. Yes, there are issues with insulation and water when you put lines underground; but the technology has improved significantly (just look at Dominion’s work in Burke, Virginia).

  4. says

    Thanks for the post. In many ways, its healthy for us as a society to do without power for a few days. As our climate changes, resiliency and redundancy are concepts we need to adapt to. I am fascinated by whether events such as these make us more dependent on a secure source of electricity – or whether we can learn that we can actually do without it – including 24/7 air conditioning. The danger in the outrage towards Pepco is that we may be further convincing each other that learning how to adapt for a few days is not beneficial.

    John Ackerly

    • Heidi Nielsen says

      John, with all due respect, I do not think the elderly and poor in our county would agree that this situation is beneficial.

  5. Lucy Montecino says

    Couldn’t have said it better. It’s a no-brainer that the record heat and sudden violent storms are caused by global warming which is caused by burning fossil fuels.
    We need to prepare for more of this kind of event by finding alternative power and putting cables underground.
    Taking power breaks by not using electricity sometimes will get us accustomed to the rationing that is sure to come, too.
    Besides, candle-light and quiet is kind of peaceful.

    • Ed Reid says

      Why do you believe “rationing” is “sure to come”? Is it really something you look forward to in your future?

      “Enquiring minds want to know.”

  6. says

    Marc, I share your addiction and also don’t make it through shabbat w/out checking in. I would call it a reinforced habit, though, not quite an addiction. Close though.
    I have been wondering if people with solar panels were able to keep their power? Does it “flow” through the utility and then back to your house, or directly through the house. have not seen any reporting on this.

    • Ed Reid says


      People with solar panels have power if/when the sun shines. They do not need the grid to use that power, unless they are using an inverter which requires grid connection to maintain output frequency. Any power in excess of their on-site needs may be net metered to the utility grid, if the grid is functional and if net metering is an available option.

      People with solar panels and battery storage have power if/when the sun shines; and, can store power in excess of their immediate on-site needs for use during periods when the sun is not shining. They do not need the grid to use the power they generate and/or store, again unless their inverter requires grid access to maintain frequency.

      People with adequate solar panels and storage have the potential to live “off the grid”, if they choose to do so. However, these systems must generate all of the power required on the site when the sun is available; and, must store sufficient energy to meet the power needs of the site when the sun is not available. This significantly increases system cost; and, can require active energy management.

  7. Marc Gunther says

    Betsy, most people with solar on their roofs would at least have some electricity during a grid outage, depending on whether the sun is shining. If they have their own storage (batteries) they would be in even better shape.
    In some states, the meter turns in both directions–homeowners can buy power from the utility when they needed, and sell their surplus electricity back to the utility when they don’t, i.e., during the day if their house is empty. This is known in the utility business as “net metering.”

  8. says

    The immediate solutions lie in very localized ‘storm proof’ innovative energy generation and storage methodologies – and the will to implement them. They are out there- the difficulty in the U.S. is funding and acceptance of need.

    About AGW: with 98% of the worlds premier scientific academies having published papers affirming the theory of Anthropogenic Global Warming (with the only hold-outs being academies beholden to the carbon fuels industry) it is pretty much in the bag as to what is happening.

    The Consensus List

    And I do place a great deal of blame on the carbon fuels industry. They have spent many years and millions of dollars beating the denial drum to generate doubt in the publics mind.

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