The Seattle Times today runs a column by David Klinghoffer and me that spells out some ideas for dealing with storms like the one that slowed Seattle down recently and left a million and a half people--including colleagues of ours--without power, some for more than a week. Even today I am hearing of needless financial losses by businesses that had no generators to back-up the regular power supply. Vast supermarkets on the East Side of Lake Washington (Seattle suburbs) closed for want of electricity and not only suffered the lack of normal income, but had to destroy perishable goods. Filling stations, restaurants, even doctors' offices closed. For such businesses the financial loss alone was probably more than what it would have cost to have a couple of big generators available. We will have such storms and other disasters in the future, so will the private and public sectors use the recent event as a wake up call?
Mind you, when we talk about decentralization we are not suggesting that the power grid should be taken apart; far from it. The central grid is a wonder of engineering, capable of supplying power from strong areas to weakened ones as needed. Rather, by decentralization we mean that local, neighborhood and even private back-up systems--redundancy--should be available for those rare but traumatic times when a regional system breaks down. Let's see some imaginative innovation from private and public sources now.
For a new example, on this blog we have urged the adoption of plug-in hybrid cars as a way to conserve fossil fuels. My colleagues in the Cascadia project of Discovery Institute suggest that the plug-in hybrid car batteries could, in a pinch, be used to supplement a home's electric supply after a power outage. I don't know for how long, or how successfully, but it is worth investigating.
Indeed, I hope that one outcome of the Seattle storm will be to wake up state legislatures and city councils in Washington State and around the country this winter and spring. New laws and regulations should be considered, not to add further to the paperwork load already required of builders and businesses, but to substitute for it. For example, a colleague in Woodinville, WA, north of Seattle, was without power for eight days but kept warm because he had "old fashioned" gas heat appliances that worked--with a struck match applied to the pilot light--when the electricity failed. Newer systems operate under a code "reform" that is designed to prevent home accidents by preventing such over-rides. Thousands of people with the new "reformed" systems therefore sat in the cold and dark in my colleague's neighborhood! Surely, as our article says, it should be possible to come up with safe, alternative ways to over-ride gas and oil systems that rely on periodic electric stimulus.
Talk about a need for "intelligent design"! Our forefathers in the bad old days a hundred years ago suffered with wood stoves and clunky coal furnaces that required the periodic cleaning of heavy cinders and polluted the atmosphere. But at least they survived any winter storm sent their way!