by Agke Grow
photography by Kati Kelly
It is seven in the evening, cold and windy. People have just finished dinner and are relaxing in front of the television, watching their favorite shows. Some are wrapped up in the comfort of an armchair, reading. Still others are at the field, playing ball, despite the inclement weather. Suddenly, everything goes black. The television turns off. The words in the book are suddenly unintelligible. The field is too dark, and the ball is suddenly invisible. The power has gone out, and life has ground to a halt.
In today’s technological society, electricity is essential to our lifestyle. Electricity keeps our roads lit and regulates the traffic. Electricity keeps the food in our refrigerators and in the grocery stores from spoiling. Without it, computers, banking and fueling our vehicles becomes a complicated issue. News becomes much slower to travel, and air traffic safety becomes difficult.
Mike Hirz, store manager of the Albertson’s in Pomona, knows first-hand how power outages can affect grocers. Three years ago, the power at a supermarket went out for seven hours. “We had to buy dry ice to keep the freezer temperature down,” he says. “We bought 500 pounds of it. The open air refrigerated coolers are your first priority,” says Hirz. “The freezers with doors can stay relatively cool for prolonged periods of time, provided that the doors stay closed.” Hirz even has moved refrigerated goods into the freezers to keep the food cold.
The check stands at Albertson’s, and most chains of supermarkets, run on the power of an emergency generator fueled by natural gas. A few of the store lights are also powered by the generator, but “we use lots of flashlights,” says Hirz. In any case, business can go on.
Some commercial sectors are unable to continue providing their services without power. At the Pomona Texaco, a few blocks west of Albertson’s on Foothill, gas sales would dry up. As store manager Cary Simpson explains, “When the power goes out, the turbines automatically stop,” she says. “So if there’s no pressure, the gas can’t pump. There’s no backup generator for turbines.” The store itself can run on a backup generator, but “no gas gets pumped.” Simpson points out that fuel pumping through the turbines is something of a delicate situation, and changing the power source for those turbines would be potentially very dangerous. Therefore, Simpson advises that “the most sensible thing is to not drive that far” if you are low on fuel, and there is a widespread power outage.
The most common cause of power outages is the wind, says Charlie Basham, of Southern California Edison public relations. “High winds can blow down utility poles,” Basham offers. Even in Southern California, where harsh weather is the exception, not the rule, bad weather can adversely affect people’s abilities to get power. Wind and rain can drive lines down. Lightning and fire can damage equipment. Water from floods can damage types of electrical apparatus, and power lines can even break under the weight of snow. Earthquakes are also a concern for electric companies, as well as car accidents involving a utility pole. In neighborhoods, unsafe digging, birds, kites or even metallic balloons can cause outages. Other times, a power outage can be a strategic method of preventing widespread problems throughout an entire power grid.
During the summer months, prolonged heat waves hit Southern California, and demand for power is at a yearly high. Heavy population growth means more people using power. The strong economy means less caution from consumers when using power, and more purchases of electronic equipment that requires electricity to operate. One way SCE reduces its summer load is with rotating outages. Sometimes called “rolling blackouts,” they can become necessary when the California Independent System Operator (Cal-ISO) declares a statewide Stage 3 Emergency. A Stage 3 Emergency arises when California’s electricity reserves fall below 1.5 percent. When that scenario occurs, SCE implements a plan of controlled rotating outages throughout its powergrid to prevent a widespread disturbance and possible uncontrolled outages. Through such a rotational system, danger and inconvenience are reduced. CPUC prohibits utilities from offering discounts due to emergency situations, including outages.
Certain circuits are exempt from the rotation, such as those deemed to provide essential services to the community. Therefore, circuits involving large hospitals, fire stations or police stations are not a part of the controlled outages. SCE also tracks customers who have applied for and have been certified as “critical care” customers who need uninterrupted power for uses like life support. They are deemed to be unable to go without power for more than two hours. The rotating outages are scheduled for one hour per circuit. Circuits can serve up to 2,000 customers and carry approximately 100 megawatts each.
People can prepare for when the power goes out in residential areas. Employees of SCE said they suggest that residents keep a flashlight and extra batteries handy at all times. Candles are less safe for lighting purposes, as they are both dimmer and involve open flame, which pose both fire threats and hazzards to children.
SCE recommends turning off all major appliances in one’s residence, except for one light bulb, which will signal the restoration of power. By turning off the appliances, people can help ensure against circuit overloading, which can delay service restoration. The La Verne Police Department recommends several flashlights and extra batteries for each residence in La Verne. Nita Ulloa, a police aide, says, “It is always good to have flashlights and batteries, even more so than candlepower, which can be dangerous.
“We have backup generators, like hospitals, so the power is backed up immediately by our background generators.” She notes that the generators run off petrol, and their primary function is to keep the dispatchers running. “The communication lines have to stay open,” Ulloa says.
The prospect of losing electricity is a scary thought. Most people do not like to be in the dark, literally, but also in the sense with the uncertainty that such a situation brings. However, people can rest assured that vital services in our society, such as food, police, fire, hospitals and the like will be able to function even when electricity is lost.
Life becomes inconvenient at times during a blackout, but the situation is far from chaotic and, with a small amount of preparation, worry-free.