From January 5th to January 8th 1998, freezing rain fell on Eastern Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick. Trees were heavy laden and power lines came down in many locations. Millions were without electric power for days, thousands of rural dwellers waited weeks for power to be restored.

Of Ice and Energy

As the crisis of electrical outage passes into memory, we have much to reflect upon.

I'll never forget the wonder and apprehension that filled me as I roamed the streets on the third night of the storm. The crack and rumble of ice covered branches crashing to the ground. The view of Merrickville bathed in moon light filtered through the clouds, night vision no longer blinded by electric lights. The accumulating weight and tension of warm wet southern air meeting the northern darkness.

How long would the power be out? We collected our batteries to fill the ghetto blaster and hear the news. Why was the media compelled to dramatize a real drama? "Total devastation" they repeated as though it was music to their ears; "like a war zone". A lot of trees were damaged and the power was out, but what words would be left to use if our homes had been broken open to the weather or the roads bombed out. You'd think that not being able to drive at 100 kph was the end of the world.

One commentator was exciting his listeners to hound our politicians about being better prepared for the unexpected. Did he think we don't have memory enough to remember the lessons from the event in weeks to come when the critical activity of the moment had subsided?

Lessons there are a plenty from our time without power. One lesson is the resilience of communities in time of need. For a short while many of us dropped the contemporary attitude of "How can I make the most money" and reverted to older approach of "How can I help?" This almost instinctive response to need is largely responsible for the survival of human-kind in the days before technical dependency. It will be our primary resource in years to come as we reassess these dependencies for their long term impacts.

Another lesson is that it is good to be prepared. No one ever imagined four days of raining ice. We know better now and can act accordingly. We should also know about and prepare for changes to another energy dependency.

Demand for petroleum is projected to outpace supply within the next decade. We can count on the market price rising until fewer people choose to buy the product. When oil prices went up in the past, we complained, but we still paid. The four fold increase in the early 1970's only briefly slowed the increasing rate of consumption. How high will the price have to rise to compensate for a real short fall in production? It is worth noting that international debt problems began in the 1970's when the enormous volumes of cash transferred to oil exporters was loaned back at interest to anyone with a taxable population for collateral.

If you doubt the need to prepare for a change in the availability of oil products, explanations are available. Projections are based on methodology developed by M. K. Hubbert for assessing resource supplies. Production begins with easily retrieved deposits and moves to those that are more difficult to exploit. Consumption of the resource grows with availability and reaches a peak when, due to the increasing difficulty of extraction, production can no longer meet demand. Availability decreases from there. Known as the Hubbert Peak, the high point in production generally comes when about half the total supply is exhausted. ( ) Oil industry and independent consultant estimates as to when this peak will occur differ by less than a decade. ( )

If you don't have access to the Internet, call Natural Resources Canada or the Ontario Ministry of Environment and Energy and ask them about the Hubbert Peak for oil production. They should be familiar with the work of: Jean Laherrère of the World Petroleum Congress Committee on Joint Definitions of Petroleum Reserves, the Energy Information Administration in Washington DC, L.F. Ivanhoe of the M.K. Hubbert Centre for Petroleum Supply Study, and the independent consultants; Dr. Collin Campbell and Richard Duncan.

There are other questions to ask: Why are we committing ourselves to long term agreements that tie us into long distance trade dependency? Why are family farms not supported while agribusiness expands reliance on energy intensive industrial farming? Why do we build wide roads encouraging people to live long distances from where they work? These are not trivial questions. They are uncomfortable to contemplate, yet they stem from a reality that is far more predictable than an ice storm, the likes of which no one had ever seen before.