Around the world, darkly

2008-02-21 00:00

Power outages are not exclusively the domain of South Africa and other developing countries. A morning spent googling and delving into Wikipedia has enlightened me on the global extent (and complexity) of power outages. Wikipedia has a list of “famous wide-scale power outages” that occurred between 1965 and 2008 that skips effortlessly across continents. The list includes First World cities such as New York, London, San Franscisco and Auckland, and countries such as Sweden and France, as well as developing countries such as Brazil.

Famous, or rather infamous power outages include the New York City blackout of July 13-14, 1977, which resulted in looting and rioting, and the more recent blackout during Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, which left most people without power for between four days and a week. Causes of famous power outages range from hurricanes and heat waves (and resultant air conditioner usage) to ice storms, wind storms, landslides, malfunctions, maintenance, old cables and even “sabotage to a feeder line by insurgents” in one case.

In 1998, Auckland in New Zealand experienced a crisis in which the city’s central business district (CBD) suffered a five-week-long power outage. Most of downtown Auckland received electricity from one supplier via four cables, two of which were past their replacement date. In a domino effect, one failed, then the next, putting an insurmountable load on the remaining two, which then began to fail 10 days later. This left about 20 city blocks in the CBD almost entirely without power. The noise from the generators that were brought in caused customers to shy away, costing businesses significant amounts.

On June 12, 2006, Auckland had a blackout that lasted many hours, caused by a grounding cable falling across the feeder, apparently caused by “the failure of a corroded shackle, as the result of unusually high winds” (Wikipedia). The power went off at about 8.30 am local time and was restored to Auckland’s CBD at 12.40 pm and to other affected areas by 2.45 pm.

New Zealanders from all over the country argued heatedly in an Internet blog site, called Kiwiblog, over whether it was a big deal and who was to blame. At 9.43 am on that day, Scott H. wrote, “It’s affecting everything — most banks in the Auckland South area have closed, and ATMs are down. Shops are not open and traffic is at a complete standstill on the southern motorway. Teleconferencing and videoconferencing, as well as cellphones, are affected. It’s like banana republic stuff. Go to bed.”

The blackout was indeed disruptive. According to Wikipedia, suburban commuter railway services were suspended, over 300 groups of traffic lights were off, some hospitals were closed, leaving only emergency services in operation, and radio station transmitters located in the Skytower were taken offline for a time. There were mobile phone and telephone service failures, people were stuck in lifts in office buildings and semester exams at local universities were postponed.

One blogger wrote, “The blame for Auckland’s infrastructure woes lies absolutely and solely at the feet of decades of short-sighted, incompetent civic leadership.”

Craig, (who probably did not live in the blackout area) wrote, “Gee, the whole universe doesn’t revolve around the comfort and convenience of human beings between the Bombay Hills and the Auckland Harbour Bridge. Fancy that…”, which led to a vitriolic reply from Russell to the effect of “700 000 people, Craig. People with small businesses and medical appointments and kids being sent home from school and stuff. Don’t be so snotty.”

Power crises seem to bring out the worst in people. Having lights to ward off the darkness, warm water and a cellphone signal so that one can call for help, fulfils primal needs for shelter and personal safety. Likewise, when a business income is threatened, survival mechanisms kick in. We lash out in fear and anger, not only in South Africa but universally.

A blogger called Mikey expressed his fear of anarchy in this posting: “I saw a report from the UK recently that said the country was ‘four meals from anarchy’ — meaning that most people only had enough of the basics to get them through the next four meals, not even 48 hours, then society as we know it starts to break down. Auckland today made that seem spookily close.”

In 2001, Brazil faced a severe power crisis when a drought caused low water levels in the hydroelectricity reservoirs. The government instituted an electricity-rationing programme that included fines and incentives.

Antonadia Borges (PhD in social anthropology) and Marcelo Rosa (PhD in sociology) answered some of my questions regarding lifestyle changes in Brazil: “The governmental campaign on saving energy was massive — on the radio, in newspapers, on TV (even being mentioned in the plot of the popular soap operas). During the nights the street and traffic lights were turned off [not during the day, as we are seeing in South Africa]. The domestic appliances changed a lot. People started to be concerned — when they bought a freezer or an air conditioner, for example — with the energy consumption.”

The implications of this were broadly felt. The New York Times reported: “Residential power use fell 35%. At the same time, household appliance sales fell an average 23% in May and 30% in June, according to the Brazilian Association of Electro-electronic Manufacturers, known as Eletros. Microwave sales alone plummeted 70%.

“Now home appliance manufacturers and stores are trying to lure energy-conscious consumers back into the stores to replace old, energy-guzzling appliances with newer, more efficient models.”

According to Borges and Rosa: “Since the two main crises in Brazil our behaviour [has] changed a lot. At home we don’t leave lights on in rooms we are not in. We just buy energy saving bulbs.”

The Brazilian economy failed to reach projected growth figures that year as manufacturers cut back on production to avoid fines and consumers stopped buying new appliances and electronic goods.

“After the first angry reactions, people started to engage themselves in saving energy. Today we can feel the effect of that crisis in our daily behaviour,” said Borges and Rosa.

And Craig, the “snotty” blogger, replied to Russell, after Auckland’s power had been restored, “Oh, come on. Who said this wasn’t newsworthy? I just think watching Dick Hubbard bleat about Auckland being a ‘Third World city’ is just a wee bit over the top, and having to wait for a latte isn’t exactly an Earth-shattering crisis. Pardon me for having a sense of proportion.”

Maybe he has a point. Somehow we need to adopt an attitude of crisis management (turning out lights for a start), while trying to retain some perspective — if that is at all humanly possible — even while the primal cave-dweller instincts stir.

• Kate Richards is a full-time mother and freelance copywriter.

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