Who has the power?

On Wednesday the entire state I’m living in was blacked out. Most of us went without power for between 4 and 8 hours, but there are still some people waiting for their power to be reconnected. This is an ENTIRE STATE of Australia I’m talking about.

Now the part that I found most disturbing was not that we lost power, I get that tornados in an area that never sees tornados (thank you global warming) can mess with the power grid, what I didn’t get was how utterly unprepared we were for going without power for what is really a pretty short time. One of our hospital’s generators failed after the first hour putting lives at risk and the airport generator didn’t even kick on!

Traffic ground to a halt as traffic lights went off, trains and trams coasted to a stop wherever their momentum could get them to, while our diesel trains had to stop because they didn’t have the electricity to run fans to remove the toxic fumes. People got trapped in lifts which either failed to execute their safety features, or had never been upgraded to include them.

We were warned to conserve our phone batteries, but what we didn’t expect was for the mobile phone towers to stop working after a few hours, most having only a 4-hour battery back-up, some obviously much less because two networks went off within a few hours. So the mobile phones we were saving battery on were useful then only as torches.

What many people didn’t realise was the pumping stations also stopped working. If the blackout had continued much longer we could have started drowning in our own sewerage and no water would have come out of our taps any more.

Many of my friends are also in areas where the NBN has been rolled out, so they have digital phones. All of those (along with internet) stopped working as soon as the power went down, this included the state emergency minister’s office. In fact, most of our ministers lost their phones, so they were restricted to mobile phones at the beginning of the ‘event’. Lucky the tower in the city didn’t go flat too soon.

I still have an old fashioned landline, so I was actually able to ring a friend in Melbourne while sitting in the dark and have a chat to her. As a luddite, I still had the safety of calling the emergency hotline if needed, but in the next 18 months that will no longer be available to me. Given we were also in the middle of the largest wind storm the state had seen for at least 50 but possibly 100 years, it is a miracle that no-one died as a result of not being able to call for help.

Many people have blamed our state’s high renewable energy input (40%) but that had nothing to do with this disaster. What I hope comes out of this is not that we need to shy away from renewables, but we need to embrace them even more. Imagine a world where we can all switch to our off-grid battery back-ups, powered by home solar and wind generators when needed. Maybe then we would be less likely to pollute the planet and cause these weather events in the first place?

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