The Day the Grid Failed

by Mike Robertson

When the grid crashed, it affected almost all of us. We were one of maybe five neighborhoods in the city that had the foresight and the commitment to prepare for oil and natural gas unavailability. We saw it coming and we deliberately bent our backs to the task of changing how we lived. We had reduced our dependence on fossil fuels to almost nothing in ten years. But we still needed electricity for certain critical functions, and we hadn’t believed it would disappear so soon.

Our neighborhood was conveniently bounded on all four sides by parks and industry and businesses and a river. Sixteen blocks deep by twelve blocks wide. Over two thousand homes and small businesses, mom and pop stores mostly. Some machine shops and auto garages. It was a pretty good mix. Close to seven thousand people. On the whole, our lifestyle was better than it had been before the urban economic crunch began and we committed ourselves to sustainability.

A small park and pavilion in the middle of our neighborhood, along with the church and meeting hall and school nearby, proved to be resources vital to our transition from dependency on fossil fuels to the sustainable, resilient community we were becoming. Those spaces became the focus for our work, the places where we gathered to educate ourselves and hash out our transition plan. As our plan matured, they became workshops and celebration spaces. It took us close to three years to fully develop our plan. Then when it came time to stop meeting and talking and making to-do lists and to roll up our sleeves and start building our new lives, almost no one shirked. We were by then a true community.

We started with a network of backyard gardens. Of course. Feeding ourselves was our first priority. At first we had to work with the city to allow us to raise small livestock too. Chickens and rabbits and goats. At the same time, we convinced our neighborhood church to let us turn part of its space into a food storage and distribution center. Then we learned how to build low-tech, affordable electric vehicles with which to deliver locally manufactured goods and trade with other neighborhoods. Most of our streets became cart and bike and hiking paths; parkways with yet more gardens. Some of us became push cart vendors to our neighbors. We created new, entirely local occupations for ourselves. We began eliminating our one-car per person lifestyles and turned our multi-car garages into workshops to pound out things we needed to get along. Tools. Utensils. Parts we needed for transport and food storage. We recycled everything locally.

At each stage we evaluated our progress, celebrated our successes, and considered our next steps. Leadership emerged as needed and rotated frequently. Everyone had something to offer. Not surprisingly, the children and young adults often took on surprising amounts of responsibility and pushed us toward project completion.

None of this was as easy as it sounds. We felt alone, especially the first few years. Our friends and colleagues outside our community looked at us oddly. Most of us maintained outside jobs, at least until we felt we could afford to work full time for the Transition, but building up our small, local economy was a vital part of our plan. Change strained us all, but we felt increasingly connected, to each other, to the earth, and to ourselves. We began to see more clearly what our real needs were, as opposed to what we’d been taught all our lives we should want. All things considered, this effort of ten years gave most of us more satisfaction and meaning to our lives than we’d ever known. As we distilled and refined our identity as a self-sufficient community and began to accept that we were succeeding in our efforts, our pride grew and we felt less pressure to depend on anything outside our Transition Village.

Still, when the grid crashed, we all realized suddenly how far we still had to go. Fortunately, Marge Hill and her partner Delores had been making candles for the last few years. Demand for them had been small but steady. Up until then, candles were considered almost a luxury item among our locally produced goods. When the electricity stopped, we discovered that, expecting something like this, they had stockpiled their surplus candles. By the end of the second night, they had enough food credits to last them at least a year.

I had taken on the job of drilling wells in the neighborhood to supplement and then replace city-supplied water, knowing that it, too, could dry up on us. Our transition plan’s goal was to make our community resilient, able to weather sudden changes in available resources. To stay flexible and smart and responsive to our environment. But the work that I did, that many of us did, still depended on electricity. Our immediate response was to huddle. Who in the community was working on alternate energy sources? How much progress had they made? How much had we, the community, supported and resourced them?

Not enough, of course. There were so many other things that had to be done first. But when you’re dependent on something, and that something suddenly isn’t there, it’s amazing how fast priorities change.

I was one of several engineers in our community. We quickly zeroed in on a house near the south end of our neighborhood, bounded by the river that runs through the city. It housed a commune of inventive young minds who had had limited interaction with us, the older organizers. Their focus had been on achieving energy self sufficiency.

Some of us dropped in on them.

“What do you have?” we asked.

“Several things,” was the reply. “Solar panels on the roof. A small wind generator. Human powered generators. And a small water turbine. None of it enough to power the whole neighborhood.”

“Tell us about the turbine.”

It was a prototype, made of a hand-built water wheel, a shaft, an automobile alternator, and a hand-wired circuit to stabilize electrical output to twelve volts. Power was buffered by a car battery. Finally, the battery’s output went to an inverter which sent 120 volts across the street to their basement test station. The whole thing was housed on a floating platform anchored near the bank of the river. It generated only a few watts. But it worked, it was reliable, low-tech and maintainable. Best of all, it was scalable. “We’ll help you make larger versions,” we said. “Lots of them.”

After about a month, we had a prototype that produced enough power from the river to provide power to a couple dozen homes. By the third month, our neighborhood had power again. The city’s engineering department, what was left of it, examined our setup and, resigned to it’s practical necessity, gave it a pass. It became a model for the rest of the city and helped kick off transition planning for the rest of the city.

Our lives continued to improve. The young inventors in the communal house found they had all the time and resources they needed to continue innovating. Our neighborhood made sure the rest of their needs were met.

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