Living Without Electricity

The reports this past week of the widespread blackouts in India have me fondly remembering my time there.  For most of my stay, electricity was spotty. It depended on where I was, what time of the day it was, and whether there was a generator nearby.  Going about a day’s normal activities, required a different mindset. I would plan to do the things that needed steady electricity during times when experience taught me I had a good chance of having that electricity. It was always a bit of a guessing game though.
This week, 600 million people — half the country’s population — were deprived of electricity and transportation networks for hours.

The first power grid collapse, on Monday, was the country’s worst blackout in a decade. It affected seven states in northern India that are home to more than 350 million people.

Tuesday’s failure was even larger, hitting eastern and northeastern areas as well. Both back outs cut power in the capital, New Delhi, where residents sweltered.

Then, as now, the problem isn’t so much that the grid is damaged or broken. The grid is fine, there’s just more demand than generation. Power grids require a delicate balance between the two, and when demand gets too large, power companies shed loads. You don’t get to decide when your block looses power, someone you don’t know gets to make that call.

Can you imagine someone making the call to deprive 600 million Americans of power? There would be rioting in the streets. People would die by the thousands of exposure, burns, food poisoning, you know where I’m going with this. Most Americans don’t have systems in place to be without power for any length of time. (Yes, yes, there are only 300 million Americans, I know.)

When I was in India, many of the places I stayed in used various forms of indigenous architecture to make the buildings more comfortable without relying on fans or air conditioners.  In the dry heat of the central south there were usually vents along the top of all the exterior walls, light colored roofs and high ceilings. In the more humid areas trees were used to move moisture heavy air and block the intense sun.  Neem trees were what we saw most often. Amazing trees, I’ll never forget waking up and breaking off a twig for a toothbrush.

People had ways of cooking that didn’t rely on grid-backed electricity. Natural gas is used pretty commonly, as is wood. I even stayed at one place that used a small methane collector powered by animal poop to supply the stove. There were the tandoori ovens, and small sturdy grills.

Shopkeepers could usually be relied on to have a generator running, if only to save the frozen and chilled goods. The World Bank estimates that two-thirds of Indian companies have back-up or independent power supplies. Added to about a third of the 1.2 billion population that never has electricity, this means total grid failure in India is less of a disaster than in the United States or Europe.

There are lessons to be learned there I think.

– Calamity Jane

16 comments… add one
  • Tim August 9, 2012, 8:07 am

    I’m one of those dinosaurs whose SHTF-plan is to go “no-tech” or “zero-tech”, wherever possible. I see all these beautiful, whamy-dyne, off-grid solar power systems out there, and they are impressive. The reason I don’t go that route is, I just don’t see any aspect of my life that absolutely *requires* electricity. It’s a lot of money & effort for stuff I just don’t care about. I.e.
    1) When it gets dark, light a candle of go to bed.
    2) If the world goes to sh!t, do I really want to keep hearing about it on short-wave radio?
    3) Power for comms gear it only going to attract unwanted attention.
    4) I don’t advocate powered optics; if it needs batteries, I don’t want it.

  • j.r. guerra in s. tx. August 9, 2012, 8:14 am

    My two ‘dang – I wish I still HAD’ are refrigeration and A/C. The refer could be small, a cubic foot or two would be just fine. Definitely have to keep the food portions to what you will eat now.

    A/C would be for sleep comfort – a cubicle the size of a casket would do (that would freak out the kids though, lol), I can go without it during day (would be very uncomfortable in summer) but sleeping in 80 degree with matching humidity – UGH!

    • irishdutchuncle August 10, 2012, 12:09 pm

      j.r. :

      maybe RV or marine appliances are the answer.
      (you’d still need a generator)

      Climate Right models CR-2550 & CR-7000 are portable, made to be used with tents, teardrops etc.

      (i was thinking about getting the AC parts from a “Suburban”, and trying to rig something up)

  • Ray August 9, 2012, 9:04 am

    Its not THAT bad, Shure most of the welfare people will freez/starve in the dark, just waitin’ for rescue. But most of them WILL NOT work to survive. Back in the hills they didn’t bring electric in ’till the mid ’50s .Hell they didn’t pave the main road ’till 1969 ( our side road got paved in ’72) IF you are willing to WORK . Life without isn’t that bad. Its just HARD. Your internet, lights ,telophone,cars,Kroger, TV, X-BOX, NONE of that “stuff” is keeping you alive.Your hands ,your head and your heart are. Ray in ky

  • irishdutchuncle August 9, 2012, 9:37 am

    in general i think low tech is the way to go, at home. (with a well maintained “getaway car” so i can run to the “jersey shore”, or “Poconos” for a respite) but a refrigerator sure beats an ice chest, for keeping food…
    i’d really like some way to keep a fan running, plus replace stale air, with fresh air. (don’t shut yourself up in a “convection oven” house.
    if i lived on a lower floor, i’d have to fabricate “window bars”.

    • irishdutchuncle August 9, 2012, 12:30 pm

      ) of course it would be nice to have a low tech way to make icecubes.
      a refreshing glass of iced tea, just isn’t the same without the ice.

      as Spook 45 suggested (see below) winter would be pretty bad with the grid down. the thermostat, oil-burner, pellet stove, well pump etc. all need power from somewhere. i have a couple propane camp stoves, and a Coleman “dual fuel” camp stove. i’m a bit leery about using them indoors. i guess the safest place would be on top of the electric range, in the kitchen. i’m looking for a backpacking stove that can burn kerosene, to round out my cooking preps.

  • Spook45 August 9, 2012, 11:00 am

    I hv to say its a lot tougher when its cold than when its hot. At least when its hot you can aclimate and go tothe creek etc to cool off. When its cold, its just misserable. PRos and consz to both I guess. When its cold, you can store food out side or bring ice in from outside and put in the freezer(big cooler) to keep food. Also, tho, when its cold its harder to heat but you can use the same heat source to cook on. Cooking itself becomes an issue for those who are ill prepared. As for myself, when Oblahblah started talking about”bankrupting the coal industry” I saw the handwriting on the wall and between that power outages during the snow and ice started stockpilng coleman lanterns(light and heat) and coleman cookstoves. During the ice storm of 94 we were ten days without power and while the woodstove heats pretty well, its not so good to cook on. The little stoves are a godsend when you need to cook up somthing to eat or even just boil water for coffee or tea. Also, penny stoves and hurricane lamps(what old folks call coal oil lamps) are great for this. THe penny stove will run on lots of differet fuels and the lamps are just light. Candle lanterns are a good investment. Candles are cheap and good ones last, and the candle lantern adds an element of saftey and mobility afforded to the candle user. Me, I take the shotgun approach and did D) All of the above.

  • sput August 9, 2012, 11:46 am

    I’m with Tim, ready to go back to the 1800’s — to a degree. I use what batteries I have, have hand crank radios, and small time solar charged devices. If I get a heads up before the SHTF, I’m stocking up on batteries. I have all the alternative stuff in place.

  • ace riley August 9, 2012, 12:57 pm

    first- who would have thought that india had electricty to 350 million?
    second- having spent time in several 3rd world countries, i am not surprised- need power, steal it by going directly to the pole…not sure how the grid is designed, but that is a lot of people on one grid system

    once you are completely weened off electricty, it is not that bad, hard but livable- what is hard is not having electricty – power outage, storm, etc.. when your life is based on electricty for a week or two.

  • smokechecktim August 9, 2012, 1:13 pm

    in the mountains of nepal they have few roads and very little electricity ( think post disaster US) THey have been developing a little gadget called a biomas generator. You dump cattle dung, water, kitchen scraps, and old plant material into a tank called a digester. One of the byproducts of this compost like process is methane gas which is stored and used to power the kitchen stoves. When they are done with the digesting the resulting stuff is called bioslurry and is an excellent fertilizer. I saw it in small villages in nepal but they use the same system in cambodia and vietnam. I dont think an individual household would produce enough waste and manure, but for a small group living off the grid this would save on firewood and provide a source of gas for multiple used

  • JL August 9, 2012, 1:53 pm

    I really want a clay oven! My grandmother grew up using one, great for tortillas. The smaller ones take a small amout of fuel to cook with. Not for use indoors though.

    • j.r. guerra in s. tx. August 17, 2012, 7:37 am

      To me, a solar oven sounds like a great experiment for you.

  • Nantan Lupan August 9, 2012, 5:32 pm

    He live up along our northern border so yes winter is a concern for us. Our modest farm house can’t have a fireplace added to it, so instead we store a kerosene heater and 40+ gallons of fuel. We have a hand pump, but it freezes up, but we figure we can always melt snow and then run it thru a Berkey.
    Waste can be frozen until spring, then burned.

  • Kiwi Mossberg Fan August 9, 2012, 5:38 pm

    Currently India is trying to buy Uranium from Australia (or they are going thru the process, I can’t remember) for use in Nuclear Power Reactors. With a Billion people in a developing country, getting them all on the grid and supplying steady electricity will create a boom in their economy. Why need electricity if you don’t use it right?

    If the world economy is slowing going backwards, why not give a 7th of the worlds population a way to spend money and generate employment, manufacturing, business, a growth economy on steriods. Why are they not doing this is more my question!

  • T.R. August 10, 2012, 8:30 pm

    I’de be afraid of that thing tipping over . It doesn’t look all that stable .

    • irishdutchuncle August 12, 2012, 12:47 pm

      yeh, it needs to have three or four legs added to it.


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