Jacques Mattheij

technology, coding and business

A World Without Power

The 14th of August, 2003 was an interesting day in many ways. I’d just taken the family down to Toronto to spend a day there and pick up our newly minted passports at the Dutch embassy. We had some fun in the city seeing the sights, visited Niagara Falls and were on the way back on a sunny August thursday afternoon. What could possibly go wrong? We pulled into a gas station just outside of Barrie. We parked behind the person gassing up and waited our turn. The guy took his time, walked into the store to pay, got into his car and drove off. We moved up the line to the pump, I got out and put the nozzle into the fuel port but nothing happened. This normally means that the pump hasn’t been ‘cleared’, usually that takes 10 seconds or so (an annoying little bell starts ringing in the office over the blinking light indicating the pump that needs to be cleared). After a minute of waiting I went into the office. “Sorry bud, the power is out”.

Bummer! The car we were driving was our family car, one of those ford minivan affairs and it wasn’t exactly a paragon of fuel economy. 3.8 liter engine, still slow as could be and it drank like a fish. So when we pulled into the gas station the needle was at ‘empty’ and the fuel warning light was on. We were stuck for the duration.

I looked at Barrie from the highway down and noticed that there were lots of people in the streets, many more than you’d normally see in a place like that. Traffic lights were out. Billboards were dark. Little by little it dawned on me that this was more than just a trivial outage. I tried my cellphone, it still had a signal and called to the Island where we lived. We had a business there (a gas station, coincidentially) and I asked them if they had power. No, they didn’t. Oh oh. But the generator was up and running and as far as they were concerned it was business as usual. Maybe a bit more busy because some traffic from the highway pulled in on the island to gas up. I asked them to call the supplier (Wardlaw fuels in Sault Ste Marie, an awesome company to work with) to make sure they were going to be provisioned.

An hour and a half into the blackout a truck from OPG pulled into the station. The guy in it took all the ice his truck would carry, paid cash and drove off again. Now I was getting really worried. OPG is the “Ontario Power Generating Company”, they are the company that runs all the grid infrastructure, and more importantly they run the nuclear generators. If a guy with that much knowledge buys ice he must know something that the general public doesn’t know yet: that this outage is going to take a very long time, long enough that food will spoil. Nuclear power is funny in that it is excellent baseline power, but when you shut down a nuke it’s going to be down for a while. They go down quite quickly but they take forever to get back online.

I saw one guy walk around to the spot where the air hose for refilling tires was. A few minutes later the same guy walks by with the length of air hose coiled up and on his shoulder like it was the most normal thing in the world. Presumably he was going to use it to siphon fuel from one car into another. Let’s hope they were at least both his cars. Another guy made off with the fire extinguisher. I’ve heard it say that the veneer over our society is very thin and that it won’t take much to bring out the ugliness underneath but I had not expected to see that illustrated so clearly so quickly. Suddenly I didn’t feel safe and I did not want to wait for who knows how long next to an unfamiliar town in a vulnerable position like this with my wife and kid with me.

My mobile still worked, so I called the gas station on the Island again. The mood around us continued to detoriorate from resigned to menacing, people were getting angry with the operator of the station (just some kid that was clearly not the cause of the trouble). I asked the people at our gas station on the Island to please go to our house, get our other car (a honda civic hybrid, capable of doing 1200 km on a single tank if you were careful), load it up with fuel cannisters and drive down to where we were. They said they’d get on it, and that the station was being mobbed by people that wanted gas, some coming all the way from DesBarats and Sault Ste. Marie (a good 50 Km or 30 Miles away). They’d already gone through one full drop (50,000 liters) and another one was on the way. Our trusty diesel was doing just fine running the pumps and half of the freezers, they’d sold the food in so they could be switched off, the other half at a discount rather than to let it go bad.

We talked to some of the people stranded around us. One group was a bunch of motorcycle enthusiasts, guys that not only drive but build their own bikes. Lots of nice metalworking there so we talked for a bit about that. One girl that was stranded came from Toronto and was on the way to Muskoka, a popular place to spend the holidays. We waited… One of the bike guys went into town and scored a pizza. One of the pizza bakers had set up in the street and was selling pizzas for $5 as long as he had ingredients. We munched our pizza, talked some more and waited some more.

Barrie is about 500 km from the Island, and around 10 pm I saw our saviors roll into the station. Two kids with huge grins on their faces and music blaring loud from the open windows. I don’t think I was ever so glad to see my own car. The honda was a veritable bomb, it was filled with cannisters as many as they could cram in. We gassed up, then gassed the bikes of the bike guys (we swapped addresses, they invited us for a pig roast which we attended and they came to visit us on the island). The girl got enough gas to get back to Toronto, and we parcelled out the remaining fuel in the same way, just enough to get as many people home as possible. No charge, obviously (people were on the whole expecting to pay the gas station with a credit card or debit card). We made a lot of friends that day :), and quite a few enemies too (all those that we couldn’t help).

So, finally done we drove back to the island. It was the weirdest ride on Highway 17 North ever. Normally even at night there is light traffic there, this time not a single car. Just lots of wildlife, deer, moose and the occasional bear that had already taken over the highway so we went pretty slow. In none of the little villages on the road were there any lights. When we got back to the island it was 5:30 am or so, the gas station was still open, the pumps were still manned and going pretty much continuously. For 75 miles around there was no gas. The distribution point had huge tanks (millions of liters) that did a gravity dump into the delivery trucks, and then the truck would do a gravity dump into the underground storage tanks at the station. So none of that required power. And then the generator driven pumps would pull the fuel out of the underground tanks and deliver it to the customers just like normal.

The outage lasted 2 days and a bit. We went trough our monthly amount of fuel in that time and we made the Sault Star (the local newspaper) after the power was restored. (Good thing too, their presses were down just like everything else, we wouldn’t have been able to cope with the demand if there had been any publicity during the outage, word of mouth we could deal with, barely).

When we bought the station one of the first things I did was install that generator. I felt that what with the station being critical infrastructure for many of the islanders that we could not be dependent on Ontarios power grid. The island was fed by cables to a step-down transformer, and after that there was a ‘low voltage’ (not really that low, but low compared to long distance lines) distribution net on the island and every house had its own drop transformer. Outages were frequent, once every couple of months, and more frequently in the winter months. Whenever lightning struck it was 50/50 that the power would go out. I imagined a situation where the power was out for just a bit longer than normal and decided that we could not run that risk. My software background makes me abhor single points of failure and to run an infrastructure business without a back-up in place seemed unwise and ran against my nature (even if the partners in the bussines thought that it was a bit over the top they still helped installing the genny).

I didn’t have any idea that there would be such a massive power outage (there had not been one like that in decades). I also didn’t know that I was going to be one the main beneficiaries of having a back-up. I definitely didn’t plan to get our business in the newspaper this way and did not realize how many people would end up relying on our silly little out-of-the-way gas station with it’s puny 2x50K liter reservoirs for a critical resource (a typical highway station has a 1/4 of a million liters). But being prepared for the occasion sure didn’t hurt. What is really scary is that apparently none of the other (much larger) stations than ours had thought this scenario through. Critical infrastructure being down is annoying enough, but the knock-on effects are devastating.

Our house didn’t have any issues at all, we were ‘off the grid’ by that time so our business worked uninterrupted. One thing that I was very impressed with was how well the cellphone network dealt with the outage, for at least 24 hours all the base stations worked, after that point they slowly dropped out one by one as their batteries ran dry.

Infrastructure is invisible, as long as it works. And only when it fails do you realize just how much we are all dependent on it and how badly we are able to cope with such infrastructure being unavailable for any length of time. No power translates quickly into: no fuel, no water, no food and so on. If this had happened during the winter instead of a nice summer day the results would have been much more severe.

There is no moral to this story, but I’d like to add one: if you’re in the infrastructure business design as if lives depend on it. One day they may, even if you can’t foresee how that is possible. Even if you’re just running a lousy gas station on some barely accessible island.