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Discussion > When the lights go out

We’ve got into the bad habit of saying ‘when the lights go out’ when we mean regular power cuts, as if that was the worst that could happen. I thought I’d start a thread so people could put their thoughts down. I was going to kick off with some of my own ideas but ended up writing a poem. Weird or what? Must be global warming, sceptics are always writing ditties.

PS, no, this isn’t about me and sorry if it appears twice, it vanished the first time.


The electric lights went out when I was young.
It was tough but then we hadn’t had them long.
Mum knew how to keep a home well lit.
Well, enough light to eat or knit
And playing in the dark was kind of fun,
More than listening to the aircraft gun.

But to a growing child of seven
The best source of light was sent from heaven
And we had no need of generated light,
When fresh air and sunshine eased our plight
And games weren’t powered by docking station,
Nor batteries needed to plug in conversion.

We didn’t blame the miners or electric board
Because the problem was from bombs well scored,
On target at the local power plant
Or in local streets close enough to make you pant
And pray the Lord that all you lost that night
Was mains water and electric light.

In the seventies it was my turn
And I was the parent holding firm
Keeping young ones occupied in game
And cooking on a camping flame.
I helped with homework by candle light
And bundled everyone in wool and down at night

It wasn’t scary but slightly grim,
A life’s not easy on a permanent dim
And even then we took for granted
The grinding work that machines transplanted
But being without we could withstand
And do again by strength of hand.

At strike’s end we heaved a heartfelt sigh,
To know that now our modern world would cry
In anger, if they ever tried to plunge our world to night
Because the players had clashed in fight.
To recognise that power was ours by need
And not a luxury at risk from fault or greed.

So here we are again and darkness is predicted
But this time my life is terribly restricted.
I won’t be watching vids upon my phone,
Instead like others in this home,
I’ll stare at nothing because the TV sets are dead
And I can’t keep new tech stuff in my head.

My carer would never let me have a candle,
In case I’m burned and cause a scandal
And meals will be eaten cold
Because the camping fire’s too bold
For people trained in health and safety.
There’s no hazard in cold soup or gravy.

When the day ends I’ll wait in growing dark,
My ticking clock the only way to mark
The hours it takes before it’s time to move from chair to bed
And hear the cries of others echo in my head,
Too old to know why we’ve been turned once more
To point where power is a way of keeping score.

Twixt those who argue how to save mankind,
Their thoughts too high, no petty troubles in their mind
Of what it’s like to be a helpless invalid
Dependent on the national power grid
And though they swear the turbines will keep turning,
My lowest need’s to keep those damned lights burning.

Jun 29, 2013 at 4:58 PM | Unregistered CommenterTinyCO2

From recent more local outages what major infrastructure goes down in a power cut. IE how much will telecoms/internet be affected in a 6 hour outage for example or expected rolling power cuts?

Jun 29, 2013 at 5:17 PM | Unregistered CommenterRob Burton

On Radio 2 yesterday, one energy expert said a 20-minute power cut in London last year - which one would think was a pretty trivial affair - resulted in the Tube being out of action for 3 hours, because it takes that long to reboot all their systems.

Jun 29, 2013 at 5:54 PM | Unregistered CommenterTurning Tide

Try reading this document it's the Plan for managing electricity emergencies (up to date)

"If a prolonged electricity shortage affects a specific region, or the whole country, electricity rationing may be necessary. The electricity supply emergency code outlines the process for ensuring fair distribution nationally while still protecting those who require special treatment, using a process known as ‘Rota disconnections’.'

Jun 29, 2013 at 6:06 PM | Unregistered CommenterTinyCO2

Turning Tide
So let's just hope we don't get one at .... say ... 20 past 6 in the afternoon.

Jun 29, 2013 at 6:06 PM | Registered CommenterMike Jackson

the roll-out of data networks since the 70s has been phenomenal. Back then, we could more or less cope with rolling 4 hour power cuts - 4 hours on and 4 hours off. These days, most chain stores/pubs/restaurants/banks would have to close. ATMs would not work. Credit card authorisations would have to revert to "sign here, please". Not to mention the stuff that happens inside hospitals. No hour without electricity would lead to chaos in today's society.

Jun 29, 2013 at 7:45 PM | Unregistered Commenterdiogenes

Bravo for the poem. I’ve often thought it’ll be some mute inglorious Milton wot wins it for us. But don’t give up the day job.
Assuming that hospitals and other vital services (eg government buildings, the DECC etc) have emergency generators, I wonder whether the results would be as bad as predicted. Predicted catastrophes have a way of being less serious than imagined. Think 2K (Robin Guenier?) or the carpet bombing of Hamburg, which didn’t lessen the German war effort. (I read that people whose homes were destroyed stayed on in the factories to carry on working. Urban myth?) The USA tried the same thing in Hanoi, and the result was not positive.
It’s part of our folklore that the three day week did for Heath and the winter of discontent destroyed Callaghan. I don’t buy that. It wasn’t having the TV off half the day that did it, it was hearing Heath’s poncy hectoring voice the other half of the day. As for the winter of discontent - it was bloody cold. The dead were unburied because the ground was frozen. The Mirror ran a story on their front page that striking ambulance drivers killed a woman - it turned out she’d choked on her vomit in a pub after downing nine pints and the ambulance turned up late due to snowdrifts. Society makes the history it fancies.
Whether or not, I’m sure that the “thousands will die” story is bad karma. It apes the warmists’ 2006 heatwave story. 30,000 died in France (or 70,000, or sometimes Italy, or the Czech Republic. It’s a useful exercise to read the same Wiki article in several different languages). The official report and the whistleblower agreed - it was the shutdown of government and public services during the August holiday that caused a number of frail old people to pop their clogs a few months before their appointed hour. A TV advertising campaign would have done the trick, but there was no-one in the Ministry to authorise it.
So I’d lay off the catastrophist mortality angle. There are others. Three days of factory closure equal 1% off GNP. That’s serious too.

Jun 29, 2013 at 9:45 PM | Registered Commentergeoffchambers

Ah the day job left me Geoff, the company ran out of electricity but since it's only about my third poem since school I'll wait before I apply for a job as poet laureate.

I agree I don't think thousands will die because of power cuts but we would suffer in ways it's hard to imagine in advance. Sure, in the past we got on with life but what about today and all the rules that must be followed. What would happen if the power was cut to a child minder or school? Would they still continue or would parents have to leave work to collect their kids? Not too much of a problem if the powercuts are only between 4pm and 8pm but earlier in the day would be difficult. The elderly would suffer most with all sorts of things running on mains - from emergency call buttons to nebulisers.

Of course unscheduled cuts would be a much more difficult proposition.

Jun 29, 2013 at 10:39 PM | Unregistered CommenterTinyCO2

ok guys...just how many companies and orgs have gensets available...I know from experience of telcos and ISPs and finance houses that they have plans for outages, (and I helped to cost a lot of them) ...but obviously I do not know about the groceries and fuel stores. I see no signs of obvious back-up power resources but, if we are to survive, these are crucial areas.

Jun 29, 2013 at 11:49 PM | Unregistered Commenterdiogenes

Does anyone know what effect Japan's loss of all of its nuclear power stations had on the economy, health, welfare? I have no idea of the answer, just interested. You must have studied it closely to have come to your conclusions for the UK. Was it the catastrophe you are predicting?

Jun 30, 2013 at 2:37 AM | Unregistered CommenterMissy

Think of the children, everybody!

When we had power cuts in the 70s, it didn't really interfere with our entertainment (we played I Spy by candlelight): kids could still get the Monopoly out or attempt to break their wrists with their Clackers. Now, virtually all under-16 entertainment depends upon electricity. Just watch a whole generation of uber-green eco-freaks turn into climate sceptics overnight if they can't txt each other interminably or tell all their friends (all 587,00 of them) what they just had for dinner on Facebook.

Jun 30, 2013 at 9:21 AM | Unregistered CommenterTurning Tide

Briefly, there was, and is enough spare generating capacity to make up the shortfall. What has happened is Japan has switched back to coal. That summer, consumers were requested (not obliged) to reduce electricity consumption. Shops and businesses turned off half their lighting. People switched from air conditioning to fans (not pleasant in summer Japan). Some manufacturers switched shifts around and re-scheduled production to nights or weekends, or simply cut production when a specific consumption target was met.

At a personal level there wasn't much we could do at home or at my partner's business, as we were already running a tight ship. We don't leave lights on in unoccupied rooms. Most of our lights are fluoros, and the memsahib had already removed 50% of the tubes from her factory lights. The big consumption devices are two pairs of industrial ovens, heavy duty mixers, walk in fridge and freezer, and refrigerated showcases. There's not much you can do about that when you run a fresh food business.

Locally, we were without power for three days after the earthquake. The first thing I did after the house stopped shaking was to fill the bath with water. That was a good move as the water went off about an hour later. We had enough to drink and flush the bog. The heating went off, naturellement. We burn kerosene but without electricity the boiler won't burn or pump. We have candles, torches, a transistor radio and a small cylinder gas cooker, so we were ok, just uncomfortable in the cold and dark.

The local authority set up water distribution points around the town, so no-one was forced to be thirsty. Some of their vehicles have speakers, and they would tour the town making various announcements. The power came back after 3 days, and it took another day or so to get the water supply up and running.

Shops with barcode readers and electronic tills were really snafued. On the Saturday morning, our local supermarket was admitting people in batches. They had two people on each till, one writing a list of the stuff, the other as a runner to go and find the prices, then tot it up by hand. Being Japan, everyone was calm and patient. Japan works by cash rather than credit, so at least people weren't stuck with useless plastic.

The major problems were three. We were cut off. The shinkansen was cut, but more importantly the Tohoku Expressway was closed. That is the arterial route between Tohoku and the rest of Japan. Supplies could come by an alternative up the west coast, but the expressway only goes as far as Niigata, and then you have to cross two ranges of mountains, not an easy task in early spring with snow still on the roads and avalanches poised above.

The third problem was that Sendai has the main port for Tohoku, and all the fuel and distribution system had been swept away in the tsunami. We ran out of fuel, so even food supplies in stock locally could not be distributed. For about a month, about twice a week a queue would form, as if by magic, snaking round the block from our local filling station. Rush rush, get in line. After a few hours the truck would appear, unload, and we'd be inching forward. 20 litres per car max.

The experience was a graphic illustration of the interconnectednes of an industrialised economy. The memsahib uses 8-10 litres of eggwhite per day in her baking. We couldn't get eggwhite, because the supplier Kewpi couldn't get the cartons. The carton supplier couldn't supply cartons because they couldn't get printing ink, their supplier was in Fukushima.

Jun 30, 2013 at 9:37 AM | Registered CommenterHector Pascal

Jun 30, 2013 at 9:21 AM | Turning Tide

My guess was that mobile infrastructure would stay up for a while. If so txting each other would be a very popular activity. How Long would Bishop Hill stay up?

Things like trains, lifts etc... would be an obvious major hit as pointed out above.

Jun 30, 2013 at 2:43 PM | Unregistered CommenterRob Burton

Thanks for that fascinating report from the frontline Hector.

Amazing that everyone was calm and patient, a great testament to the Japanese culture. Somehow I can't see that being the case in the UK particularly if power cuts are the result of useless politicians rather than a natural disaster which tends to bring communities together.

Oh and I also look back on the UK 70s power cuts with nostalgia; my dad taught me and my 2 brothers to play bridge by candlelight. Great fun.

Jun 30, 2013 at 2:55 PM | Registered CommenterSimonW

Interesting comments Hector, thank you.

While there have been a few follow-up reports over here on the disaster, they have concentrated on the affected areas and the rebuilding efforts. The broader impact across the nation has not been described.

As well as ramping up their coal plants, I have read that they have increased their imports of LNG and have even been burning some oil. Also many of the big car manufacturers have increased production abroad to compensate for cutbacks at home. Did'nt they also keep some nukes running for a while, those well away from the disaster area?

SimonW has it right. The reaction to power failures here would be very different. In addition to being unpredictable in timing, the location of failures will be at the whims of Electron. As well as simple capacity issues, Germany's experience has shown how loss of frequency control can trigger a domino effect of shutdowns. We may end up with a mandated rota of cuts to keep demand within manageable limits and to maintain frequency. What a where's that old plug-in phone handset?

Jun 30, 2013 at 7:32 PM | Registered Commentermikeh

Great idea for a discussion Tiny :)

I must say I will be lost without my PC but worse than the loss of my pc will be the knowledge that people on this blog were discussing this upcoming problem somewhere between 1 and 2 years ago. We knew it would happen, we knew what needed doing to prevent it but we were totally powerless to prevent it. Writing to your MP, to a minister or to the media got you nowhere because they all had their heads firmly stuck up some ideological smelly orifice.

Jun 30, 2013 at 8:01 PM | Registered CommenterDung

The insurgency in Iraq was helped stirred by constant power cuts .In a Middle Eastern country where Refrigeration and Air Conditioning are not Luxuries they re necessities.The American invaders may have posted guards around the Iraqi oil terminals but not they forget Iraqi power stations.

The Helmond River Hydro Electric Dam is the only source of Electricity in Afghanistan.Watch Ross Kemp in Afghanistan. How many NATO Troops including British troops have died trying to hold the Strategic Helmond Valley from the Taliban.The rest of the rural provinces they've abandoned.

In Greece they have shut down the Main Television Broadcaster.That is like closing down the BBC ITV Channel Four and Five.I dont do Doom and Disaster that why i am a Climate Skeptic.
What happens when they have to shut down the Greek Power Stations.Heard fanciful stories of children being abandoned and scavenging in rubbish Tips in Athens .This is a 21st Century European Union Nation.

The Treaty of Rome was supposed to stop another war from breaking out in Europe They already had one civil war in the Balkans in Yugoslavia and is next door to Bankrupt Greece slowly running out of German Euros.

Forget Eco Power Cuts imaging .Austerity Power Cuts not just Greece but Spain and Ireland presently.

In the UK 2 years ago there was 2 days of Rioting some of it around my ways in South London in Catford Lewisham and Croydon I all heard was Sirens and Helicopters.Imagine those people instead of looting Foot Locker Currys and PC World are looting Sainsburys for canned Food and Bottled Water.

Jun 30, 2013 at 8:20 PM | Unregistered Commenterjamspid

Iraq, Afghanistan, poverty in Greece, civil war in the Balkans and all from someone who doesn't do doom and disaster. Reckon it's gonna get rough round here if we should have a power cut during EastEnders. I'm gonna clean my pa's old hunting rifle and put some barricades on the doors. Best be prepared, eh?

Jul 1, 2013 at 1:53 AM | Unregistered CommenterMissy

Re: preparations - make sure you get the licence sorted out:

although I think this sort of thing is a bigger risk:

Jul 1, 2013 at 3:14 AM | Unregistered Commenternot banned yet

Quoting Geoff Chambers:

The same exaggerations, dodgy predictions, and outright whoppers are apparently repeated in the book, together with the sinister anecdote about his scientist colleague who recommends arming your children - presumably to shoot down the millions of climate refugees who, according to Emmott, are about to invade this Green and unpleasant land.

Ho hum

Jul 1, 2013 at 7:19 AM | Registered CommenterHector Pascal

Iraq, Afghanistan, poverty in Greece, civil war in the Balkans and all from someone who doesn't do doom and disaster. Reckon it's gonna get rough round here if we should have a power cut during EastEnders. I'm gonna clean my pa's old hunting rifle and put some barricades on the doors. Best be prepared, eh?
Jul 1, 2013 at 1:53 AM | Missy

Missy, do I detect a slightly embittered tone in what you write?

Jul 1, 2013 at 8:07 AM | Registered CommenterMartin A

An embittered tone? What a strange suggestion. I have no reason to be bitter. I'm surprised you think my comment the most notable or worthy of comment in the last days. Hector's was certainly more interesting and Jamspid's undoubtedly the most alarmist. Your concern would be better directed there, at someone who seeks to spread alarm by equating power cuts at home with turmoil in Iraq or Afghanistan. Does such rhetoric not bother you a little?

Jul 1, 2013 at 8:31 PM | Unregistered CommenterMissy

It bothers me too, Missy. I've said it here before, the idea that if we keep going with current environmental policies, then we're heading for economic tipping points, and mass disorder, and blah blah is just another brand of alarmism exactly the same as climate alarmism.

All alarmism is meant to scare people into a course of political action. Just because I happen to agree with that action doesn't mean I'm happy with it as a mechanism.

But c'est la vie. Everyone with a political axe to grind tries to make out that we're headed for disaster if we don't do exactly what they say. The trouble with the climate alarmist one is people don't see it for what it is - just another thing to scare us with.

Jul 1, 2013 at 8:36 PM | Unregistered CommenterTheBigYinJames

As Hector’s account illustrates, it’s the smallest thing that can make larger processes fail.

The problem with cutting supply margins to the bone is that it puts a domino in place. If most things go smoothly then no problem but what other dominos are being set up to form a series of moderate irritations that could result in a major problem. Each toppling domino creates a wider spread of the crisis.

There are the obvious problems of potential pipe or equipment damage for the gas supply from Europe and our 15 days storage. Ditto the electricity connectors.

We have a potential in the generating unions for strike action because jobs are being lost as stations are closing and no new ones are being built. The unions are possibly a spent force but will austerity lend them new vigour? Are any of the generating companies close to the edge financially?

There could be a new petrol blockade of the ports given the ever spiralling prices or a green group could decide on action at a critical moment.

There could be an epidemic (and there are three nightmare candidates and numerous minor ones in the wings) or even just a bad flu season, making key workers short staffed. Which in turn could lead to tired, error prone workers.

Now we're not talking end of the world stuff, just major discomfort like the Winter of Discontent. We have already been down graded in the financial credibility stakes, would serious power problems worsen that? Are there any more dominoes?

Jul 1, 2013 at 10:35 PM | Unregistered CommenterTinyCO2