Tag Archives: power outage

  • Is Our Power Grid At Risk?

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    On August 14, 2003, high voltage power lines in Ohio brushed against trees and failed. A software bug kept an alarm from going off, which caused a chain reaction of power station failures that knocked the lights off for 50 million people in the eastern United States and Canada. Transportation shut down as airports, subways, traffic lights and tunnels stopped functioning. Cash registers and ATMs quit. Cell phones became useless when their towers stopped working. In Cleveland, Ohio, water pumps halted and left 1.5 million people without drinking water. The blackout caused $4 to $6 billion in damage and contributed to at least 11 deaths.

    Night Before Blackout - Power grid The night before the blackout (source: NOAA News)
    Night After Blackout - Power grid The night after the blackout (source: NOAA News)








    We in the U.S. don’t usually think about power. So let’s consider it.


    Electric Power System and Control Communications - Power grid Electric Power System and Control Communications (source: energy.gov)

    Electricity is unique. Unlike food or water, electricity can’t be stored. In any moment, all the power produced is used. It’s generated by one of 6,000 public and private power plants and sent hundreds or thousands of miles through high voltage wires. The whole system is divided into four regional grids. Most of the time, it’s a consistent, convenient flow. It’s designed so if one part of a grid fails, the electricity flow is transferred to another part. If a smooth transfer doesn’t happen, however, the electricity load can behave like a flash flood, sending a blast of power a station isn’t equipped to handle. When that station’s breakers fail, its electricity gets transferred to yet another station. If enough stations fail, there’s nowhere for the power to go. It slams through station after station, all of which shut down to protect themselves. Blackout.

    Alternatively, if one power plant fails, others might not immediately have enough power to supply everyone’s needs. This is an especial concern in the eastern U.S. during winter. Some plants run on natural gas. But heating needs take precedence. So if there’s not enough natural gas to both heat the population and generate electricity, electricity goes first. Blackout.

    Both utilities and government have taken many steps to improve the way they handle potential failures, including upgrading software, establishing communication plans and practicing emergencies. Two types of situations in particular make them nervous: geomagnetic storms and cyber and physical attacks.

    Solar Eruption - Power grid Solar eruption (source: NASA)

    The sun constantly barrages the earth with charged particles. Normally, the magnetic field around the earth stops most of the particles – and creates the aurora borealis light shows. Especially during times of high sunspot activity, however, the sun can eject a light-speed blast of x-rays and energy, called a solar flare, and particles from its outer layer, called a coronal mass ejection. A NASA writer compared the solar flare to a cannon flash and a coronal mass ejection to the cannonball. When the cannon flash hits the earth, it can disrupt radio communication and navigation. The cannonball is much worse. It can create electrical currents that can overload utilities. A 1989 geomagnetic storm took only 90 seconds to collapse a northeastern Canadian power grid. Millions of people lost power for up to nine hours. The storm also caused minor damage throughout the U.S.

    Longer outages of several days, even in one area, could cause widespread government, financial, and infrastructure destruction, according to a National Research Council workshop.

    “Loss of these systems for a significant period of time in even one region of the country could affect the entire nation and have international impacts,” one presenter said at the workshop.

    But at least scientists are getting better at predicting solar storms, their strength and duration. They can now give utilities 45 minutes’ warning. It’s something.

    Power Grid (The Weather Channel) source: The Weather Channel

    A more insidious threat is human attacks. A March 24 USA Today investigation found that the nation’s power grids face a physical or cyber-attack once every four days. Unless the attackers are, say, from the hacker group Anonymous, they don’t usually give any warning.

    On April 16, 2013, attackers cut six underground fiber-optic cables at a substation in northern California then fired more than 100 shots at its transformers. They caused more than $15 million in damage. They were never caught.

    Utilities and government agencies are trying to prepare for attacks. Every few years, the North American Electric Reliability Corporation runs a cyber attack response exercise. In its first, in 2011, 75 organizations participated. Its third is planned for this November.

    However, even the Department of Homeland Security’s Industrial Control Systems Cyber Emergency Response Team admits it’s impossible to stop all attacks. The best they do is communicate effectively and contain damage.

    After a power grid disaster, government and utilities’ highest priorities will not be you.

    They’ll be getting power plants online and making sure medical facilities and first responders have the watts they need, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

    “While these government and industry groups initially focus on critical facilities, homeowners, business owners, and local leaders may have to take an active role in dealing with energy disruptions on their own,” the DOE wrote.

    Here are some ways to prepare, from Ready.gov, the American Red Cross and the DOE.

    • Have a fully stocked emergency kit including food and water, a flashlight, batteries, cash in small bills, and first aid supplies.
    • Keep your cell phone and other battery-powered devices charged and have an alternative charging method. If you have an electric garage door opener, know how to release it manually.
    • Keep your car’s gas tank full. You can run a vehicle for power, but not in an enclosed space, unless you like carbon monoxide poisoning.
    • If you use a power-dependent or battery-operated medical device, tell your local utility so it can prioritize your home. Have a backup plan.
    • Find out where to buy dry ice. Fifty pounds will keep a fully stocked fridge cold for two days. Without it, an unopened fridge will keep food cold for only about four hours. A half-full, unopened freezer will keep food cold for about 24 hours. Food in a packed, unopened freezer will stay cold for twice that long.

    Several months ago, a nearby transformer blew out. It was evening and rapidly getting dark. My special needs daughter panicked. I had my cell phone and its flashlight, but only about 10 percent of charge remained.

    I had a flashlight, but its batteries were dead. By the rapidly diminishing power from my phone’s light, I found batteries and got it working. My daughter calmed down. But the power didn’t come back on for several hours, and the electric company was working on the transformer well into the next day.

    I learned two lessons. First, keep my phone charged (maybe I haven’t learned that one yet). Second, know where emergency equipment is and make sure it’s in good shape.



    Posted In: Disaster Scenarios Tagged With: electricity, failure, power grid, power outage

  • Preparing for Minor Emergencies

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    Minor Emergency - Train Derailment This derailed train forced us to evacuate our home.

    When I was a young, budding teenager, we lived on the outskirts of town. Everything to the front of us was houses, subdivisions, and city, but behind us were trees, a farmer’s field, and further still, railroad tracks. One chilly winter evening, we received word that we had to evacuate. As it turned out, a train had derailed and spilled its contents of ammonia.

    5,000 people were ordered from their homes.

    We were definitely unprepared for this abrupt evacuation order, but we just as certainly couldn’t stay home. And, if my memory serves me correctly, we didn’t have too long before we had to be out. Fortunately, we had some relatives on the other side of the city that were out of town, so we were able to stay there for two days until the spill was cleaned up.

    But what might have happened had we not had that familial resource across town? We had no other shelter or way to cook food. We would have been eating at McDonald’s for the next two days (which us kids would have loved), but that most certainly would have strained the family budget.

    Not only that, this happened in the winter time. Up in Canada where I grew up, winters can be brutal. There was no way we could camp out in the family minivan. We were lucky we had somewhere to go.

    This isn’t the kind of disaster we normally worry about. Never in my imagination would I have thought I would have to evacuate my home because a train dumped ammonia everywhere. There are other minor emergencies and disasters we might not consider. Power outages, broken water mains, locking yourself out of your home, medical emergencies, and other situations we just can’t quite comprehend ever happening to us. But, just like the train and ammonia event, we have to be prepared for anything.

    Victoria Gazeley of Modern Homesteading suggests that if you’ve been preparing for major disasters, it’s highly likely that you have a lot of what you need for the smaller, more minor emergencies. Power outages are a more common occurrence than ammonia spills, but are you ready for one of those?

    Minor Emergencies - Power OutageJust in case of a power outage (or other minor emergency), Gazeley recommends having a backup method for cooking food, like a Kelly Kettle. The Optimus Polaris Stove is another great alternative option for cooking when the power goes out. Alternate sources of light, power, heat, and water are also important resources to store. Check out the Government of Canada’s site for more information on preparing for power outages.

    These resources are not only good for power outages, but a host of other minor emergencies as well. Remember, a huge tornado or a massive earthquake aren’t the only things that can come in and disrupt your life. While it is still important to prepare for those major disasters, take the steps necessary to ensure that you will also be prepared for minor emergencies as well. When there’s a proverbial ammonia spill, the time to prepare has ended.


    How have you prepared for minor emergencies? Let us know in the comments!

    Posted In: Planning Tagged With: ammonia spill, minor emergencies, power outage, evacuation

  • DIY Oil Lamp

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    When a power outage strikes, hopefully your emergency supplies are up to date, complete with emergency power and lighting gear/options. Keeping a variety of flashlights, headlamps, and lanterns (along with batteries or solar power options to keep them charged) is ideal, but if your batteries runs out before the power turns back on, try making this DIY Oil Lamp to light your adventure.

    The San Francisco Globe shows us how to make an oil lamp that can last for 6-8 hours, using two common household items: an orange and some olive oil. Check out the tutorial here.

    Oil Lamp 2Orange Oil Lamp

    For more DIY projects, check out these articles:


    Photo Courtesy of the San Francisco Globe

    Posted In: Uncategorized Tagged With: power outage, DIY, light

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