Blackout: living without electricity

IMG_1540This feature was first published by Wellcome Collection.

22:45, Saturday 5 December, 2015. Power cut. Blackout.

Storm Desmond was wreaking havoc across southern Scotland, northern England, Wales and Northern Ireland that weekend, and the national news was dominated by stories of terrible floods. But in Lancaster it was loss of power that was proving most challenging for local people.

Elizabeth Shove, a professor at the University of Lancaster, was out of town at the time. Observing from a distance, she decided to pack her car full of camping equipment and head into the city on Monday. Generators were being brought in, and power was promised to have been restored, but she took the gear, just in case.

As she drove into Lancaster that Monday evening she noticed the traffic lights weren’t working. Almost 48 hours after the city first plunged into darkness, the power was off again.

Elizabeth directs the Demand Centre, and her research is all about energy in everyday life. There’s nothing quite like a blackout for illustrating just how reliant on electricity we have become. “We just don’t know, and would never know, really, how far that dependence has gone,” says Elizabeth, “until the blackout, which is illuminating.”

And actually a power cut is much more than a blackout. Sure, the lights go out, but a lot of other things stop working too, as Elizabeth explains:

Phones didn’t work. Electronic door-locking systems defaulted to open, letting anyone in. Fire alarms that had only limited battery backup failed after a while. Lots of building energy management systems didn’t work. Cash machines didn’t function, nor did credit card payment systems, or traffic lights, or petrol pumps.

In a way it didn’t matter that people could no longer charge their computers or phones, because the power cut also meant, for many, there was no Internet or mobile phone signal. Keeping in touch was tough, and listening to the news impossible if you didn’t own a battery-powered analogue radio. Many people simply didn’t know what was going on. Lancaster is near Heysham Nuclear Power Station, and vague rumours about a problem with the power plant led some to fear the worst.

It was in fact a flood at an electricity substation that saw the city’s power cut that Saturday night in December. Generators were brought in on the Monday, but they were quickly overloaded. Things didn’t get back to normal until Friday, when the city was fully reconnected to the mains. As the government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Mark Walport says in the Royal Academy of Engineering’s ‘Living without Electricity’ report, “life for more than 100,000 people in Lancaster reverted to a pre-electronics era”.

The power cut affected households, businesses, banks, hospitals, schools, and transport, even other utilities like gas, water and sewage. Did you know your gas central heating needs electricity to work, or that some modern taps and toilets require a power supply to run or flush?

“A blackout reveals to us how dependent we are on the electrical system,” says historian David Nye. “The history of blackouts is also the history of the consumption of electricity, and the history of our dependence and how it grows.”

Nobody knew how long the Lancaster power cut was going to last. For Elizabeth it revealed the temporality of energy use. If the power supply isn’t always on, you find out which power dependent things are flexible, and which ones are not. On a domestic level, it might be working out what you can delay doing – the laundry, say – and what you can’t – mealtimes, for example. “Suddenly things that haven’t been visible before come into view,” says Elizabeth. “There were lots of surprises.”

One surprise happened at the Lancaster Royal Infirmary. Like most district general hospitals it had standby diesel generators, which meant it was one of the only places in the city with light, functioning plug sockets and hot food. As such it was a beacon in the dark, and quickly overwhelmed by power-hungry people.

According to the ‘Living without Electricity’ report:

The hospital was seen by many as a community centre. People with nowhere else to go wandered in off the street. The canteen served a record number of meals. A group of students arrived with a six-way extension lead and their mobile phone/tablet battery chargers which they connected to the first free 13A socket they could find. As a community centre, it was serving a valuable function – increasingly important as other facilities were closed – but well removed from its core business.

It’s perhaps tempting to gloss over what happened in Lancaster with talk of a community rallying round, of a ‘Blitz spirit’. Elizabeth cautions against this, warning it’s a way of disguising more serious problems. “Valuing community spirit is not the same as being better prepared for disruption,” she says. “The power cut showed that our depth of resilience is really very shallow. People didn’t have cash, students didn’t have food. The hospital was exploited for its power, they weren’t expecting it, or prepared for it.”

So what else did Elizabeth learn during that week without power?

The difference between mains power, and generated power; that the light being on isn’t as important as the Internet being on; that people with wood burning stoves and landlines were in an infinitely better position than those without. We learned that we’re completely in the grip of the grid, but also that power cuts aren’t uniform, that the geography and extent of the situation shifts all the time. And that a mobile phone can work as a radio, even without a signal!

What did it teach us about future energy use, not least in the context of climate change and the global movement towards renewable power? “If the future really involves a lot more renewable power, then the power supply will be more intermittent,” according to Elizabeth. She continues:

It doesn’t necessarily mean full blackouts, but it probably will – and actually hopefully will – involve a much more calibrated ebb and flow of demand. So, not everything is available to be on absolutely all the time. Closer connection with the seasons is really very likely to happen. The practices that depend on electricity will have to be rethought in terms of their timing.

Perhaps it’s also worth casting our eyes back to blackouts of the past. David Nye explains that, “The very beginning of the use of this term was in the 1930s, when people were intentionally blacking out cities or airports or military bases as a military tactic – the intentional control of light and the reduction in the use of electricity.”

There are self-imposed blackouts, of a sort, today too. This year saw the 10th Earth Hour where people across the world chose to turn the lights out for an hour, to “shine a light on the need for climate action”. David calls this a “greenout” rather than a blackout. “The choices we face now with electricity are fundamental,” he says. “Will we continue on the high energy binge of the 20th century? Are we going to treat the electrical grid’s technological power and momentum as something that’s inevitable? Or will we consume, maybe, a little less?”

This article was inspired by, and quotes from, ‘Electricity – where now?’, an audio installation produced by Simon Hollis for Electricity: The spark of life.

The image featured at the top of this article is taken from a public information poster now stored in The National Archives. It was designed by Tom Gentleman some time between 1939 and 1946.

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