Back when the government started organizing electric power companies and energy became something for the federal government to regulate, one of the things they did right was to overbuild the system. It was a time when they anticipated massive growth and tried to prepare for it as best they could.
But there was no way they could foresee the massive increase in energy usage that would happen through the years. Today, our systems are woefully inadequate, overburdened in a number of ways.
Much of the electric infrastructure we depend on is far past its prime, with some electric power lines actually still in use after over 100 years. The number of power plants and substations which are still in use after their 50-year life expectancy is on the rise, with maintenance lagging.
More money is being put into unreliable wind and solar power, because it is “green,” than into systems that can be depended on.
What this has resulted in is that the United States has more blackouts than any other developed country in the world. While we are the technological leader of the world, we are doing a better job of exporting that technology, than we are in making use of it ourselves.
Much of that is political, specifically the aforementioned focus on wind and solar power, which only work when the weather is cooperative.
The extreme weather in February of 2021 helped to show just how vulnerable the electrical grid is, especially in Texas.
While there are a number of different things that ERCOT (the Electric Reliability Council of Texas) did wrong, which added to the problem, the basic problem was that Texas was unprepared for the low temperatures that occurred, mostly because there has never been a long stretch of weather that cold in Texas.
There is no way to realistically expect that ERCOT would have been ready for what happened.
More than five million people lost power, most for several days and some for as long as a week. It didn’t happen, but the Texas power grid was minutes away from it all going down. Had that happened, it would have taken months to get the power back on.
Power outages of minutes or even hours aren’t a big deal; but these longer-term power outages can be serious. They’re on the increase too. According to the US Department of Energy, the five year average rate of major blackouts is doubling every five years.
• From 2000 – 2004, there were an average of 44 major outages per year.
• From 2005 – 2009, there were an average of 100 major outages per year.
• From 2010 – 2014, there were an average of 200 major outages per year.
This trend is continuing, so we can all expect to see more major power outages in our own personal futures. Poor maintenance, a result of so much money being put into wind and solar power will only make that worse.
The only real question is when those blackouts will come and how bad they will be.
Planning for Blackouts
Anyone who wants to make it through these major blackouts in some degree of comfort needs to do a little preparation. I had several friends and family members who were part of that five million in Texas who lost their power, water and heat for several days. Fortunately, none of them died, but over 100 people did.
The basic problem boils down to everything we do involving electricity. So losing electricity doesn’t just mean that we can’t watch TV, use our computers and have the lights on; it means that we don’t have such simple things as water. During that freeze, most of Texas was either without water or had no more than a trickle coming out the faucet.
While it would be ideal to be able to produce enough electricity ourselves, to meet all our needs, that’s a bit idealistic.
The reality is that it would cost a lot of money to put in enough solar panels and a big enough battery backup system to ensure that everything in your home could continue operating during one of those prolonged blackouts, it’s just not practical for most of us. We just can’t afford that big an investment.
So, while we should have some solar power, we shouldn’t count on powering everything. For the rest, what are we going to need?
Heating is the biggest challenge, assuming the blackout occurs when it’s cold enough to need to heat our homes. There are really only two practical solutions; either wood or propane catalytic heaters. Of those, wood is by far the more common. Every other option requires electricity.
Wood heating means either having a fireplace or a wood-burning stove. Of the two, the wood-burning stove is much more efficient, as it can radiate heat from all sides. Make sure that you don’t buy one of those stoves which uses pellets and that you put in a good stock of firewood.
Wood heating isn’t going to heat your whole home. Rather, you’re going to have to drag mattresses into whatever room the wood-burning stove installed in and have everyone camp out there.
I just talked to a friend last weekend who had 20 people camped out in his living room. They were a bit cramped, but everyone made it through the week.
Refrigeration is our second most critical use of electric power. If the blackout happens in the wintertime, that’s not such a big deal, as the food can be taken out of the freezer and put I the garage or outside. Just make sure it is in something where animals can’t get to it. But what about the summertime?
The average refrigerator/freezer unit will keep food cold for about 24 hours, without electrical power. Then the temperature will gradually start to rise and things will begin to thaw.
Considering that you probably won’t be able to buy dry ice to keep it cold, you’re either going to have to eat that food quickly, cook it so that it lasts a bit longer or can it. If you can’t do one of those with it, chances are that it will go bad.
In order to be sure that your family is going to have food to eat, you want to have a good stockpile of non-perishable food on hand. This is something we do as preppers anyway, so it really shouldn’t be an issue.
But even cooking that food is going to be a challenge, as you won’t have either electricity or natural gas. That means having some alternative means of cooking available, along with the fuel you’ll need. Of all the options, the two which make the most sense for most of us are either a barbecue grille or a camp stove which will burn gasoline.
The only problem with using either of these is that it will tend to mess up the “nice” pots and pans most of us have in the kitchen. Unless you’ve got some cast iron cookware to use, you’d better count on your cookware being damaged. That’s okay; cookware can be replaced.
Coleman still makes their “dual fuel” camp stove, the only one in their lineup which will run off of gasoline, rather than propane. It’s probably the best survival stove there is, as gasoline is probably going to be the easiest fuel to find.
Compared to food, water is a much higher survival priority. But during the February freeze pretty much all of Texas was without water. Our local water authority couldn’t pump water, because they couldn’t get any of their four diesel generators to start. I think they probably didn’t have the fuel stabilized for cold weather.
Without power, it’s unlikely that any municipal water authority is going to be able to keep pumping water for a week. While most probably have generators, I’m pretty sure that none of them have enough fuel stored on site to make it through seven days. We’ll need our own source of water.
Fortunately, this is an easy one to solve, as we can stockpile water readily enough. But I wouldn’t just count on the water you buy at the local supermarket, I’d put in some sort of rainwater capture system as well.
You’re going to need much more than a few cases of water bottles, especially if you expect to be able to cook and clean.
Light is one of the easier problems to solve. We can either use flashlights, candles or oil lamps.
I’d recommend on planning for a combination of all three, as you will find that you have different needs for different activities.
While a flashlight might work well for some things, it’s not the best way to light a room. Make sure you’ve got a good stock of batteries, as well as oil for the lamps.
Another thing to consider is buying 12 volt LED lighting or battery powered LED lighting. Either one of those run on very little power and can be recharged by whatever solar power you have, unlike other lighting systems which might require a higher voltage or draw more current.
The other really easy thing to take care of is communications. Our main method of communications today is the smartphone, with just about everyone owning one. Phone companies and radio stations are required by regulation to have backup power, usually in the form of generators.
So it’s likely that there will still be power available to run the system and keep communications going. If you have enough solar power to charge your phones, you’re set.
During Those Seven Days
Preparing for a seven-day blackout is one thing, living through it is another. It’s not just good enough to have everything you need; you’ve got to do the right things to take care of your family.
Just determining if you’re in a major blackout or not is going to be the first challenge you’ll face. Don’t expect officials to be forthcoming with information, as they won’t be.
Rather, you’re going to have to take your best guess, based on what’s happening. For the most part, that means if it lasts more than a couple of hours, it’s time to start looking at the situation; is there some sort of weather event going on, which would make a power outage likely?
The other big indicator is how widespread it is. If your neighborhood is the only one without power, it will probably be back on soon; but if the whole city is blacked out, then it’s a major problem and will likely continue for several days. Keep in mind that there’s nothing sure when it comes to such things.
You may decide that the power will be out for a week, only to have it turn on the next morning. That’s okay. You’re better off putting your emergency plan into action and then having to go back to normal, than waiting to put your plan into effect and not starting soon enough.
Actions to Take
The first thing to do is get your family together and tell everyone what is going on. Then put everyone to work preparing to camp out wherever your wood-burning stove is. As part of that, fill every container you can with water, even if you have abundant water on hand. You really don’t know how much you will need.
Chances are that the stores are going to be closed, but if there’s anything you really need, it might be a good idea to make a supply run before hunkering down.
Take cash, as the stores probably won’t be able to use their cash registers, which also means that they won’t be able to take plastic. It would be a good idea to plan on marking prices on everything as you shop, so that when you get to the cash register it can all be added up.
Moving everyone into the living room will make it possible to keep everyone warm, or at least somewhat warm. It would help to block off the other parts of the home, perhaps by hanging a heavy blanket over the doorways, to help keep the heat inside the room you’re staying in.
I’d start cooking or preserving whatever frozen food you have on the second or third day, right about when it starts thawing out. Cooked food will keep longer than raw food, but it will still go bad. Then again, if it is cold enough that you’re forced to camp out in the living room to have heat, you could always put the food outdoors to keep it cold.
The big challenge is going to be keeping everyone from going nuts, sitting there in the living room of your home. If schools and work are still open, then that would solve that problem; but that’s unlikely.
There is little that we can do on most jobs, without electricity and our schools need it just as much. You don’t want to send your kids to school, just to sit there in dark rooms.