Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Seven Skinny Cows: First slowly, then all at once

You could ask ten people when the grid went down and you would get nine different answers.

At first the grid died a little at a time.

The first inkling the people of Kates Store and Pray Church had that the grid was stressed were the rolling brown-outs.

It caused annoyance over Christmas when stoves did not come fully up to heat, cakes fell and those lucky enough to have meat were not able to get it fully cooked in time for dinner.

Even gas stoves were affected as the ignitor could not generate enough heat to open the gas valve.

The duration and severity of the brown-outs increased rapidly after Christmas.

Trains were no longer running because the cities were in chaos. Coal fired plants were starved for fuel.

Lack of key maintenance people took other power plants or power lines off-line.

The rolling brown-outs became rolling black-outs as utilities attempted to keep line voltage at acceptable levels by dropping parts of the grid. They tried to ensure at least thirty minutes of full power every day so people with battery backups for critical medical equipment could recharge, but even that became impossible.

Power was cut to cell phone towers just before it was rationed at hospitals. The natural gas powered turbines (aka, surge capacity) were the last of the grid, other than nuclear and hydro, to remain running. It was not enough.

Carson Duckworth was insufferable. He smugly ran his natural gas powered generator at full bore. He ran outdoor lights and lit up his house like a Christmas tree. He bragged to everybody he could collar how smart he was and how stupid everybody else was. For some reason, people started avoided Carson Duckworth.

People in rural areas adapted by sleeping more. Houses that had been abandoned were investigated for blankets, sleeping bags and other bedding. In most cases, IOUs were left with an inventory of materials that had been “borrowed” and who was using those blankets.

People in the city were more radically impacted. For the most part, they didn’t have very many blankets and the warmest garments many owned were hooded sweatshirts. It had been inconceivable to most people, especially those who lived in apartments and managed properties, that the heat wouldn’t come out of the ducts.

City folks saw no other choice than to sleep two, three or four to a bed to maximize the number of blankets and conserve body heat.

By the middle of January, the pressure in the natural gas pipelines fell off a cliff as key personnel did not show up and as the electricity required to run most of the pumps faded. Even when the electricity came back on, there were procedures that had to be followed to restart the system. It was not as easy as pushing a button.

Pumping stations from New Orleans to Maine went into bypass mode.

Carson Duckworth’s generator sputtered and stalled. His lights went off. Without natural gas Duckworth’s furnace did not go on.

His freezers filled with meat would have quickly thawed except the temperature inside his mansion quickly dropped into the upper thirties.

Without electricity the inserts in his handsome, fieldstone fireplaces sent the heat right up the chimney. The fans had no power to circulate air and push the heat out, into the rooms. Attempting to get SOME heat in the house, Duckworth piled the firewood high in the fireplace. He only succeeded in overheating the inserts and cracking the liners.

Duckworth, who had been charging his neighbors for water from his well, received little sympathy from the neighborhood.

Like Rick and Kate, he found that the static level of the water was forty feed below ground level. Attempts to pull the water from that depth with a cistern pump failed. Unlike Rick and Kate, he did not have a backup to the backup. He was reduced to dipping water out of a local pond and carrying it back home in two, five gallon buckets.

He found out that getting water was not the only problem. Getting rid of it was also an issue.

Due to quirks in his soil composition, he had an above-ground drain field just like 65% of the houses that had been built in the last fifteen years.

The permitting people required that the system be sized for two people per bedroom (five bedrooms) and 200 gallons of waste water per person per day...then rounded up to the next thousand gallons. They also required redundant pumps and motors, each pump sized to run three thousand gallons a day up to the drainfield.

The half-horsepower, single-phase induction motors pulled eight amps of 220 Volts at start-up. That is not a very easy power number to deliver with solar panels, windmills or even batteries.

Others, those who lived on a smaller footprint, found the transition easier.

A small economy developed. Zane pulled lead-acid batteries from the vehicles and attempted to recondition them. Primitive windmills were constructed and the windpower was used to turn alternators.

The first generation of windmills did not rotate to follow the breeze. Belts were used to step up the speed and turn the alternators. The power was used to recharge the batteries.

The tiny amounts of electricity forced people to set priorities. CPAP machines, clocks and two-way radios do not take much power. LED lights, and computers with small screens (smart phones, for example) used only a little bit more.

Using electricity for resistance heating was a non-starter as were most electric motor applications. In some cases the mechanical “motor” applications did not require constant power. In those cases, users experimented with bypassing electricity and powering the device directly from the windmill. Examples included grinding grain.

As difficult as Duckworth’s situation was, those in the city were far worse off. At least Duckworth could use a pick-ax and shovel to dig a trench to drain his septic tank overflow way from his house.

The food distribution centers in the cities manfully switched from passing out foods and reconfigured as soup kitchens. Instead of having one third of the population showing up on any given day, the kitchens were now serving the entire population three times a day.

Water bottles were handed out wholesale. As inconceivable as it seems, some people tried to use the water, a half liter at a time, to flush the toilets.

The sewage situation in the cities was dire. Lift pumps stopped functioning.

The most common form of multi-family dwelling was the two-and-a-half story townhouse. The other half-story was a sub-grade first floor, thereby avoiding the code that mandated expensive automated fire suppression systems.

The sub-grade floors started with raw sewage. Once the spring thaws came many of the units would have four feet of raw sewage in their lowest floor and it would be flowing out over the threshold of their door.

Most of the storm drains had been separated from the sewage drains but a few connections had been missed. Without the lift stations to carry the storm water over the levees, the storm water crossed over into the sewage lines at the remaining connections and backed it up into basements everywhere.

By all reasonably medical metrics, modern US cities reverted to the status of medieval cities in three months.



  1. Anybody that stays in a 'city' when the power starts going from brownout to blackout is nuts...

  2. Three months? Feeling optimistic?

  3. Cities in these conditions are simply death traps.