Gentle Decline 2/21: Blackouts & Blundering
How to handle Winter Blackouts and maybe some long-term energy issues.
I’ve had a number of people contacting me in various media with queries about the possibility of blackouts - in Ireland, as well, but in the UK in particular - during the coming winter. So let me talk you through some basic approaches to what to do. I’m going to assume that there will be a fairly typical winter for our current climate - some frosty nights, a few actually cold days, maybe a few with snow, and probably more wind-and-rain storms than we’ve historically been used to.
(Midjourney thinks winter is a lot more about snow than it is. The Victorian Winter Image continues to reign supreme!)
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However, if there is serious winter weather, be it deeper cold or snow, the blackout issues get worse. Give more consideration to the solution of being somewhere there are plenty of other people, as discussed below.
So, first, there are three different kinds of blackout, maybe four. The first is where, due to weather effects on the electrical infrastructure, the power goes out for an hour or two, or maybe overnight. In remote places, it might be out for a few days. We’re broadly familiar with these, and I think the people who live in remote (or remote-ish) places are usually fairly well-prepared for them. It comes down to “have your phone charged, have a power bank or two handy, have a non-powered source of heat, you’ll be grand”.
The second is where there’s a power cut for reasons of limited supply. We’re not used to these, really, but they’re the principal concern for this coming winter, because the supply of energy in Europe is limited when we don’t have it coming from Russia, and here in the Isles, we’re not set up to provide our own power at short notice. In most cases, where the UK or Ireland have shortages of energy, they buy it in from abroad - France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Denmark are the usual suppliers, in one form or another - but in this case, those places will also have shortages. These blackouts will be predictable, controlled, imposed deliberately, and scheduled. This makes them easier to deal with, generally, than the short-term infrastructural cuts described above. They’ll be set to last no longer than 4-6 hours in most cases, and places that need constant power will be allowed to make arrangements to have it (hospitals, cold storage facilities, etc). The main issue with these is that they’ll keep on happening, and that will get old very quickly.
The third is the same as the second, but longer - 24 hour scheduled cuts. These honestly don’t seem very likely to me, since cycling 4-6 hour cuts around an area is less disruptive than longer ones every few days. But there are circumstances - a cold snap in Europe driving costs sky-high, for example - where it might make sense to just turn off the power entirely (modulo essential services and maybe community centres) for a day.
The fourth is where the power goes off, for whatever reason, scheduled or not, and doesn’t come back on for some days. To be clear, I think this is very unlikely. I also think that not having some thinking done about it while we’re here would be stupid, so let’s do that thinking.
Here are the very basics, then. Keep your phone and laptop charged as much as you can. Keep a decent-sized powerbank on hand. You are slightly more likely to need to contact emergency services during a power cut than otherwise, so while the devices can be used for work and entertainment, make sure there’s enough charge for that. They’ll also be reliable timepieces. Keep a few candles (or other light sources, see below) in each room (the fat pillar candles will stand on their own; the taller “dinner candles” will not; acquire according to your supply of candle-standing objects). Also keep a way to light the candles in each room. A box of matches serves me pretty well, but people with mobility issues or who are prone to very cold hands in winter may be safer with a cigarette lighter or one of those things for lighting gas stoves. For short term power cuts, make sure you have some warm clothing and an extra blanket or two for the bed. Generally speaking, if there’s no heat in the house, go to bed; this works a lot better for the shorter-term cuts than the longer ones. And keep some food in the house that doesn’t need heat to prepare - bread and cheese and such works perfectly well for this. If you’re completely addicted to tea or coffee, a small gas camping stove is not a bad idea. Supply your own books, boardgames, etc; the chances that you can get much work-from-home done in these things are low.
The stuff above should cover most people for the first and second kind of blackout, and might suffice for some people for the third. However, in the case of 24-hour blackouts, you’ll probably want a source of heat that doesn’t depend on electricity (or piped gas, which frequently requires power to actually work, as do oil heating systems). Storage heaters, handled carefully, will do this for scheduled cuts, although I can’t remember the last time I saw a storage heater. A gas heater (the kind that uses the spaniel-sized yellow-orange cylinders) is another possibility. A fireplace or a solid-fuel stove is a better option, because you can also cook on it in a pinch. If you have such a facility, just make sure you have fuel for it, and you’re sorted. If you don’t, either go for a good supply of blankets, or maybe go stay with someone who has.
You may also want to look into larger battery packs. There are a lot of these, under different names, but the one that I’ve seen in person belongs to Anna, and is one of these; the River Max. It’s a solid piece of kit, it stores a good bit of power, and you can connect solar panels or other power input to it. These things are not cheap, but if it’s important to you to have power at a low level for indeterminate lengths of time, then it’s a good thing to have. You can, of course, also take it camping.
A good few people reading this are - I think - still largely working from home. Obviously, during power cuts, that’s not an easy thing to do. There are a few solutions to this. First, you can go to the office, which puts the burden of power provision, heat, etc, on your employer. This is something offices are good for, really (although new rules in Germany, at least, say that offices can’t be warmed past 19°C, and that may come in elsewhere too). Going to the office is not of particular use if you have other people in the house who can’t do so, of course. If your employer can’t provide the actual machineries of commerce either, you can reasonably not work, and while there are probably consequences down the line for it, there’s not much to be done about it during the power cut. This is closely related to what used, in times of yore, to be called “snow days”. You can also shift your hours of work so that you work when the power is on, and sleep when it’s off - this is a remarkably good solution as long as your biorhythms will let you sleep at odd hours.
There is a small concern with a rush on candles. There are plenty of shops that sell candles, but none of them have many. I could probably buy out Tesco and other supermarkets’ supply on my own, and places like The Range and Flying Tiger have more, but not infinitely many. My advice is to buy some now, some next month, and so on, so that the shops get the hint and stock up. Obviously, you can also get battery-powered flashlights (even with rechargable batteries), crank-powered lamps, oil lamps, solar lights (not so great in winter, though) and half a hundred other not-plugged-in light sources. None of these are held in stock in large quanities, and supplies of batteries in particular can become a problem. I strongly prefer candles; suit yourself as to which you like!
(Midjourney has no idea what size candles are. This is the least comical version.)
It’s also a good idea to make some arrangements in advance with someone who lives on a different bit of the electrical grid. If they have no power for longer than a few hours, they can come and stay with you, and vice versa. This is particularly relevant in the cases of the longer power cuts or the possible-but-not-very-likely more wintry weather. In the worst of cases, where both houses have no power, go for the one that still has heat, via whatever means. Having more people in the building will also make it warmer, assuming relatively normal room sizes. This does assume that there is working transport - power cuts will affect electrical train and tram systems. Buses, cars and diesel trains remain functioning, although weather can cause issues. Plan accordingly - keep an eye on weather forecasts.
There is, of course, a knock-on effect in the case of deeper cold. There will be more of a draw on the already-under-pressure power grid, and there are more likely to be outages. And some winter conditions (ice on power lines being the main culprit) can also bring about outages on their own. In ideal circumstances, there would be a community centre, school, or parish hall with a generator where people can go until power is restored, but I don’t really trust the British authorities, in particular, to do anything about providing this. So if there’s a forecast for severe cold - which, in terms of Isles housing is anything past -7°C overnight, or days that don’t get above 0°C - and your power is scheduled to be out, and you haven’t got another heat source, then go somewhere where there’s heat, if you can at all. Even if there isn’t a community centre, there are shopping centres, train stations and other semi-public spaces, and libraries. There’s no point in sitting shivering at home, and there are examples from the Texas cold snap in early 2021 of people lighting fires in bathtubs and other madness. Don’t do that.
Which brings me to another point: there is some weird belief in the Isles (and further afield, too), that the conditions in which we should use heating (or cooling, or aerating, or whatever else) should be dependent on the calendar. You’ll hear people stating in almost prideful tones that they’re not going to turn on the heat until November, and that’s that. This is stupid. If it’s cold enough that you need to do something to be warm, do it regardless of the calendar. We can’t rely on the time of year to predict the weather anymore; I’m looking at a forecast for the next ten days where the lowest temperatures are 14°C and the highs run to 21°C. September’s average temperature in Ireland is supposedly 13°C, and it used not be unknown to have early frosts around now. Climate change is here; acting accordingly is part of the adaptation we need to do.
However, there’s also the cost issue. Across the Isles - and Europe in general, I think, with a few exceptions due more to government policy and price caps than supply - heating is going to be expensive this winter even when the power is on. It’s probably not very practical to do things like installing double-glazing where you haven’t already got it, but it might be possible to put in insulation in attic or wall spaces. In immediate terms, though, there are some things you can do to reduce the amount of time you spent with the heating on.
The first - and I know my Scandinavian subscribers don’t want to read this - is to put on another layer or two of clothing. A wooly jumper over two layers of cotton is warm enough that I usually have to take it off again after a while, and a decent hoodie is also very effective. Anything with a hood is good; anything a bit longer than waist length is also excellent (there’s a reason medieval monks had hooded habits). Thick socks will also go a long way toward making you feel warm; you can wear them over lighter ones as sort of slippers. Slippers or other house shoes will also help.
Hot drinks don’t actually do a lot to raise body temperature, but they make us feel warmer, which is not nothing. Having the makings of tea, coffee, hot chocolate, or your herbal tisane of choice in the house is definitely useful.
Most modern housing doesn’t need draft excluders, but then many of us in the Isles don’t actually live in modern housing. So a roll of something to put along the bottom of a door (or in some cases a window) can be valuable, and heavy curtains over windows and doors can prevent what heat there is from escaping. You can get away without heating bedrooms in all but the coldest of weather, and closing internal doors keeps the heat in the rooms you put it in.
If you’re on an electrical plan where it’s cheaper at some times than others, take advantage. Boil the kettle and fill some flasks with hot water (or even just tea or coffee) in order not to do so when it’s expensive - kettles are vicious things in terms of power consumption. Equally, cook when it’s cheap and use the microwave to reheat; the microwave uses a lot less power. Switch off lights, unplug appliances that are not in use, and so on.
Finally, in cold weather, spend some time outside. The contrast coming back in makes you feel like your living space is warmer than it may actually be, and it’s good for your circulation and general health to get some actual cold for short periods.
In the longer term, there are two considerations. First, Europe is already working on re-orienting energy generation so as to have less dependence on Russian fossil fuels. This is good, and means that energy supplies will come back up and prices will fall again. It provides some insulation against fossil fuels running out, too; most of the re-orientation is toward climate-friendly forms. Second, with more chaotic weather in general, there will be more deep cold snaps, even as the overall temperature rises. So making changes to our living arrangements to be able to handle that will be very useful.
Usefully, climate change means that - on average - the chances of prolonged cold periods are lower than they’ve been for centuries. Less usefully, the chances of short but unprecedented cold snaps - as in Texas - have gone up. So make some sensible preparations for blackouts, for cold snaps, and for extending some hospitality to others who can’t do so.