It's not a secret after last week's electrical collapse that chatting with friends beats mainlining TV or your computer for the evening, and that stargazing is a wonder in a blacked-out city. But there was no power outage when it comes to the power of belief in the grid. However much thinking outside the box is encouraged, thinking outside the grid that holds all the boxes in place has remained, in a word, unthinkable.
From both the left and right of the political spectrum, the talk is all about the need for a technical fix to make today's integrated transmission system, which feeds electricity to 50 million, more reliable.
Technical fixers on the left press their case for public ownership as the only way to ensure adequate investment in the grid itself. Private utilities won't sink money into it. Technical fixers on the right are on the defensive about the invisible hand of the market's ability to impose the fix, and agree on the need for more control.
But few see the biggest power blackout in North American history as a problem caused by the grid and requiring a non-grid solution.
A strong case can be made for today's massive power network. Stretching over vast distances and several time zones, it can tap into a large number of coal- and nuclear-fired power plants as well as hydro power. Having that range of choices is important for a tricky energy source like electricity that, unlike toilet paper, gasoline and cereal, can't be stored and used at a later time.
All it takes to make this swapping work is a million kilometres of transmission wires, which is also what makes it a highwire act. It can be safely estimated that work and materials to bring these lines up to speed will cost as much as $150 billon. To no one's surprise given that markets are about helping people make money, fixing the grid is a mega-project that only governments are stupid enough to buy into. That's one reason why we have a consensus on right and left demanding government action to fix the grid.
A heavily automated network like this makes what are called "normal accidents" almost inevitable. While computer systems count faster than humans, their "thinking" is limited to zero-one choices. Whenever there's a need to choose from a wider range of responses, the computerized systems trip up or go out of control. And since they're geared to speed, they trip up fast, as in less than two hours for the electricity system needed by 50 million people to go haywire. In the era of normal accidents, the old saying about everything being connected to everything else is replaced by "everything is locked into everything else."
But there is another way of doing things. It's called a resilience or redundancy strategy, as outlined in Jon Barnett's book The Meaning Of Environmental Security. The cornerstone of this multiple fail-safe strategy is reducing dependence on electricity, for the simple reason that electricity is not a good thing. It's unreliable, as we now know, and as we should know but don't, it's a filthy energy source, reliant on toxic fuels like coal and uranium.
This reduction-of-electricity approach would be a snap in the summer, when air conditioning is a major electrical load and when trees can each lower the temperature around them by as much as five degrees, and roof gardens are possible. It would also be easy if we stopped sprawl, grew more food locally and relied less on frozen imports that require scads of electricity to store and prepare.
After reducing electrical dependency comes reduction of coal, nuclear and hydro power. The wide world of energy offers more supply sources than the grid-obsessed have identified - like deep-water cooling from the lake or creating electrical energy from the controlled (anaerobic) rotting of compost and from methane emissions from older landfill sites.
We can create electricity from livestock manure that otherwise despoils waterways. We can use small waterfalls for small towns, as is done in places like Fenelon Falls, and wind power, especially in areas along the Niagara Escarpment that have perfect drafts for windmills. And when the costs of direct and immediate electricity are compared to the cost of insurance or of a breakdown (think of the smallish ice cream shop in the Beaches that lost $5,000 worth of ice cream last Thursday night), solar photovoltaics become economical.
This anti-grid package is referred to as resilient or redundant because it relies for energy on such a wide range of sources or substitutes, and because it can be designed not to be so white-knuckle close to maxing out. If there is a surplus, it can be used to fill solar batteries for a rainy day.
Why would such an approach be resisted and ignored? Engineers aren't smitten with diverse systems. They like what they see as the reliability and cost-effectiveness - estimates of which now have to be totally recalculated - of coal- and nuclear-fired power stations. Electricity brokers and others who make personal fortunes by swapping and trading don't see many places to make easy money in a local system.
Private utilities, mainly in the U.S. but expected in parts of Canada, find it cheaper and less troublesome to buy or swap surplus power from another area than to spend years building an expensive power plant in their own area. And beyond these special interests are the groups that believe in solutions that centralize control in a world that's already chaotic enough. They can centralize by keeping the number of variables to monitor within a range that bureaucrats are comfortable with.
But for those who liked the majesty of stargazing when the lights went out, there really is another option. It will cost a lot less than $150 billion.