WHAT THE HELL

Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like

Wired

Last Saturday evening, at 8:05 by my recollection, the power went out at our house. All the other houses around too. In fact, over the course of that night, the power went out over most of northern California.

We were actually grateful the lights went out when they did. The estimate had been that they’d be cut six hours earlier.

They didn’t come on again till Wednesday at about 11 a.m., so that, by my count, we were without electricity for 87 hours. Which, let me tell you, is no Fun Meal.

What’s going on in California is unprecedented. The utilities, including ours—PG&E—are preemptively “de-energizing” their lines when they anticipate high-wind, low-humidity weather patterns, mostly because problems with their lines have been found to have caused some of the most devastating wildfires in the state’s history.

Californians are irked that PG&E, for one, has a rep for having ignored the safety of its infrastructure in favor of profits and shareholder return. It took a judge in their bankruptcy case to nix the $16 million executive bonus plan they had in mind for themselves. The new CEO’s compensation incentives are supposedly tied to safety “metrics,” but you’d kind of think that should be built into the job description anyway.

Meanwhile, they get to turn the juice off whenever they sense that they’ll be held responsible for wildfires that get sparked by power lines in our burlap-dry forests. So far, this fire season, it feels like they’re a little trigger happy with that off switch.

Being without power for 87 hours is not at all interesting. You start with a stiff upper lip—“We’ll make an adventure out of it!”—but by the third night you’re a whimpering mess trying to negotiate with the cosmos just so your frozen chuck roast won’t go bad. Not to mention that it gets cold at night and the only way to stay warm after dark is to spend an hour in the bathtub and go straight to bed.

The first two nights we played Scrabble by candlelight before the bed and bath thing. On the third night we did the bath thing and went to bed without the Scrabble … at 7:30. We’d only intended to nap for a while, but decided after an hour that it was too flippin’ cold to get out of bed. We stay there almost 12 hours.

Luckily I did rescue that chuck roast by making a pot of chili with it on the Friday before the power outage. Two deli containers kept it fresh in our cooler. We learned, among other things, that two bags of ice in a cooler last exactly three days and four nights—just barely. At the end of it, we lost some mayonnaise, milk, whipped cream, and Mocha Mix. All in all, not too bad.

What we really lost was our innocence. Or the illusion that we’re fairly hardy, we-can-handle-it types. Turns out we’re whiny little babies who are overly dependent on our electronics.

I was glad we’d hung onto the camp stove we bought a few years ago, not to mention the 27-year-old Sony boom box that got us through the otherwise silent evenings. Between hot tea in the morning and classical music at night, it was enough to keep us from going mad.

The takeaway of this story is that nothing is guaranteed. You take things for granted you don’t even know you take for granted, and we happen to live in a time—all across this country—when the things we’ve counted on are on shaky ground. Key things like electricity, water, government. Whether it’s the natural end-times for capitalism, like Marx might have predicted, or just the cooked-in fallibility of human judgment, we won’t know for a while, but this experience has shown me in a pretty stark way that life could get awfully gritty here in the early 21st century.

And the futurists snookered us into thinking it was all just going to get better and shinier.

As Blazes Bolan would put it, Weird flex but okay.

18 comments on “Wired

  1. equipsblog
    October 31, 2019

    Glad to hear from someone who has actually experienced PG&E’s stupidity. You provide a first-hand perspective that the news can’t provide. It’s sweet that the executives were not able to get their bonuses. I have lived in CA in the past and am not unhappy to not be living their right now.

    • Kevin Brennan
      October 31, 2019

      A view from on the ground …. Maybe I’ll be going underground before long!

      Definitely some weird shit going on around here, but I’m no sure where else I’d like to live. Just got back from Missouri, and … no thanks. 😉

  2. TamrahJo
    October 31, 2019

    Sigh – the initial lying George (Jetson) was taken up by folks who perpetuated the lie and profited well – for me, I can rather ‘survive’ for awhile with no electricity – though I can’t earn my keep/living for long without it – :). While I am not trying to make light of your plight (who wants to lose food stores??!?) I will share my personal crusade of one, to address this same kind of obliviousness by general society and Tech Giants – I am gathering increasing evidence that high -speed internet is rather taken as a ‘given’ in the USA, however, it is not so – I have done chat support with many online providers across a variety of industries (work, personal shopping, etc.) that indicates, those in rural areas are increasingly being left behind – and yet, massive profits, promise of the future, etc., but infrastructure? Not seeing the investment – SSDD – same with services that become ‘dependent upon’, such as electricity, but not really invested in for infrastructure – I am very lucky to live in an area that electricity is provided by a cooperative – serious difference in what stuff looks like – even in cyclone bomb blizzards and approaching fires that mean stations must be powered down/re-routed – 🙂

    • Kevin Brennan
      October 31, 2019

      I covet coop ‘lectric.

      • TamrahJo
        October 31, 2019

        I was sooooo EXCITED to learn that Colorado NOW has a way to register 3 levels of Co-ops this past spring – I actually filed/did original set-up for a local group that is holding a farmer’s market with items from their homesteads and working together to get wholesale pricing from outside companies they don’t have local options for – – I truly believe the rise of cooperative model may do more for us, over all, than trying to rein in corporations, politicians, etc…. simply because – if there are more cooperatives locally, to get what you need, from, why do biz with corporations? Why donate to politicians/campaigns, etc., when it’s easier to just hurt them all where they live – – the wallet – 🙂

  3. pinklightsabre
    October 31, 2019

    Yeah, been there but not for so many hours as that. Sucks. A really crippling feeling. One time, it was near Christmas and the people on the other side of the street had power so we got to watch their lights. Man that was fun (not!). Hope you had a nice visit with your mom, I know that was a bit ago now.

    • Kevin Brennan
      October 31, 2019

      We’re in trouble when we envy others’ power. Literally.

  4. Audrey Driscoll
    October 31, 2019

    Electricity still runs the internet too. We’re closer to no fun primitive than we realize.

  5. kingmidget
    October 31, 2019

    The PG&E outages are the best example of what is a fundamental problem in this country. The all-out pursuit of bottom line profits is destroying this country. Rampant consumerism. Trump’s reversal of regulations in so many areas. Companies destroying pension. The list goes on and on and on.

    All that said … one minor typo in your post. The bonuses were $16 million, not billion.

    • Kevin Brennan
      October 31, 2019

      Ha! $69 billion indeed. That’s some mambo income inequality right there. (Thanks for the tip, though. I’ll change it ASAP.)

      But your other points are right on. And the lame-o chamber of commerce statement over the summer about changing that value system is so much alligator weeping …

  6. Marie A Bailey
    November 1, 2019

    I really don’t understand how PG&E can get away with these long power outages. And apparently their substandard equipment might still be sparking fires. We’ve had to go a few days without power due to hurricanes, but we’d have time to prepare and plan for some indoor camping. I’m glad your power is on … for now.

    • Kevin Brennan
      November 1, 2019

      I don’t get it either, but I think the guv is getting impatient and might come up with some restrictions. At least I hope so. In spite of the shutoffs, it looks like PG&E equipment might have caused five different fires last weekend!

      • Marie A Bailey
        November 2, 2019

        PG&E needs some serious competition … like solar, maybe?

      • Kevin Brennan
        November 2, 2019

        That might help! I just learned, though, that solar is no good during a power outage unless you also have a battery system in place. The things they don’t tell you!

      • Marie A Bailey
        November 2, 2019

        Just thinking that the PG&E’s power outages wouldn’t be necessary if more customers had solar power. If the utility had real competition, they’d have to better maintain their equipment or join the solar brigade, or both. CA may have made a lot of inroads on renewable energy, but, like every other state, it’s beholden to lobbyists.

      • Kevin Brennan
        November 2, 2019

        So true. Gavin’s talking about reorganizing them too so that they’re less greedy, I guess … *yeah, right*

  7. TamrahJo
    November 2, 2019

    I don’t know about there, but here? sun shines more than it doesn’t and yes, solar, plus a storage system when sun doesn’t shine is on my wish list – read a while back that Germany had initiated a national investment in getting every home and business over to solar – being energy independent of nothing but a local grid is huge for not getting bullied or playing games and for making communities more resilient. Wish they would do that here – 🙂

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