5 min read

The Columbus Blackout

Last week, Ohio and the greater Midwest were hit by a broad front of storms that resulted in a few discrete derechos. These winds damaged areas to the north and south of Columbus, Ohio which, to hear AEP tell it, also damaged electric infrastructure. Twelve hours after the storms hit, as a subsequent heatwave settled in over the region, Columbus and wider environs were blacked out. Now, it wasn't the whole city that lost power, no. It was a specific set of neighborhoods, including my own.

Again, to hear AEP tell it, and shills like NPR, the damage from the storm, half a day past, resulted in the power company's inability to keep up with demand. This forced the company to shed load–much like in Texas a while back–and they had to shed that load in conspicuous areas, which they will claim were chosen due to geographic location.

Before summer began, Ohio was seen as being in better standing than most of the Midwest and Mid-South states like Arkansas and Texas. It was expected that these states would be in trouble this summer. And they yet may be. But Ohio, belonging to another grid, was seen as more stable. Despite that, all it took was a frontline wind, the likes of which roll through the state every other year or so, to knock out power to hundreds of thousands of people. To be clear, frontline winds are dangerous, and powerful, and blackouts are to be expected from them–just, you know, where they actually cause damage. Columbus was hardly touched by these winds. And yet, twelves hours after the storm passed, and the damage was done, we lost power.

I got off light. My family and friends, mostly, got off light. We lost power for about sixteen hours and then again for another eight. And it's silly for me to act like it was a big deal because it wasn't, not for me. But it was an outrage, and it was a wakeup call. I work in what you'd consider critical city infrastructure. Despite this, we lose power at the drop of a hat. Despite that, we only had several power bumps through the day, not intermittent blackout conditions. This is another check in the "sus" column for AEP. We know the blackouts were intentional–it seems almost certain then, that they decided precisely who should lose power and who should not. And the who, you can guess, was decided by predictable metrics.

What Happened, Forgetting the Why

While I was at work, I had a couple discussions about power failures and generators and the like–the possibility being on our minds from the storm and the building heat. When the building started flickering, my concerns grew. But, leaving work, I didn't see any signs of a blackout until I got within a block of home. Traffic signals were out, and so was a gas station just a couple hundred yards from my house. By the time I got in the door, we had lights for maybe another half hour. The house had been cool all day, but because we live in an old house with bad windows, we felt the effects almost immediately.

My wife turned on her hotspot, and I got out all the power-outage gear I have, kept in a little box at the top of the basement stairs. Included are a very small solar "generator," that can give a cellphone or an iPad a boost, a solar lantern, crank radio, and crank lantern. All of these items can be plugged in to charge in addition to other methods–redundancy being your friend. Despite these gadgets, I have to confess they barely changed our night. For a bachelor, this setup might be enough; turn on a light, turn on the radio, open a bottle. But for us, with dogs and chickens, things weren't so good. The temperature in the house rose about ten degrees by the end of the night. We didn't cook indoors–I cooked my wife an egg over a tabletop fireplace outside–and we hardly opened the fridge or freezer. We closed all the blinds, shut the upstairs doors, all that. This was Tuesday, and the high was in the low to mid-90°s. The real feel, or whatever you want to call it, was above 100°F. All we could do was watch the AEP outage map push our restoration time further and further out, until I couldn't even do that. I lost cell service about three hours in on the first night.

We were pretty miserable, but it was the misery of white affluence–we weren't in any danger, we were just bored and hot. Our animals made it through the night. I sweated through the outdoors to water my plants from a rain barrel and to take care of the chickens. The trouble worsened for us the next day.

Capitalism in 2022: It's Dark and Hell is Hot

I had to go to work the following morning. My wife and I packed up the car with the dogs and she went north. Her father lived about an hour away, where the supposed damage had struck but they still, inexplicably, had power. I went in to work. I had hardly gotten my radio off the rack when my wife said she'd received a notification that the power was back on, and turned the car around. I'd checked on my neighbors the day before and they confirmed the lights were on. This lasted for about three or four hours before my wife let me know we'd lost power again. When I got off work, the house was already hotter than it had been the night before.

The outage maps from AEP showed us a carefully sculpted path. Rich neighborhoods had few to no outages, while the rest were littered with outages of thousands of people. I went out to get supper and hopefully some ice, driving through intersections with unlit traffic signals, and listened yet again to NPR shilling for those in charge. An AEP spokesman was on, refuting the idea that their intentional outages were targeted at, as they put it, "non-affluent areas," but rather they were due to geographic location–an idea that seems farfetched when you look at a map.

This is how it's going to be: no matter where you are, the growing strength, frequency, and variation of climate disasters means that our infrastructure cannot keep up. If our existing infrastructure cannot weather these disasters, and capitalists refuse to improve upon it–choosing instead to enrich themselves–that infrastructure will crumble. Your life will be, at best, considered interruptible. This isn't a new idea; it's just new to our firsthand experience. Sacrifice zones have been utilized for, well, ever. But these zones will necessarily expand as our way of life becomes less and less tenable. More people will be considered expendable as the rich struggle to keep themselves afloat.

While it hasn't been reported yet, it's entirely likely that this planned outage killed someone, or even multiple people. And it's simply business for power companies–they mean only to increase their profits rather than see their customers through. Our government will not push back on that. We're entering into an era that people like me have been warning about. While we endured a heatwave, there were five other concurrent weather-related disasters in the United States. As this newsletter goes live, I'm watching the thermometer creep up from a downright cool 60° to 95°, perhaps with a blackout soon to come, and summer has hardly started.

Even preaching preparedness the way I do, I was not able to simply flip a switch or pull out some gear that magically made my home comfortable. We put tinfoil on the windows and slept downstairs and endured. We won't be able to ameliorate every effect of climate change, or, for that matter, every failure of capitalism. But we owe it to ourselves to start taking these things more seriously. This is no longer a when/if scenario; it is, simply, now. We should start acting like it.