On blackouts

06-09-2003

The recent electricity outage in the United States and Canada reminded me that during my childhood, blackouts were quite common. Of course, they never lasted more than a few hours, at least as far as I can remember. I never saw power being cut off deliberately, for saving purposes, like my parents back in the 1950s. It would then be announced on the radio that power would be cut in certain regions and people filled up their kerosene lamps or just sat around in the dark and told each other stories.

I witnessed regular power cuts in Yugoslavia, just after the war, when electricity was needed for the industry and households had to manage somehow. For half a day power would be switched off - it was no fun in winter.

However, I have fond memories of power failures from my childhood in communist Czechoslovakia. They were not too frequent, but there certainly were a few every year. Sometimes, we hardly noticed when they occurred during the day, but in the evening - unless it came in the middle of my favourite movie - a blackout was quite an adventurous experience for me as a child. All of a sudden, everything went dark and quiet, my parents were groping around the flat, trying to find the torch light and the few candle stumps they had misplaced somewhere after the last power failure. The eerie light in the house, the strange shadows, the quiet, dinner and washing by candlelight - all those things were fun for me as a kid. When an outage occurred during the morning classes, we would all shout it was too dark for us to read and write and the lesson was over.

On the other hand, we were reminded to save electricity on every corner. There were stickers on light switches saying "Turn off the light when you leave the room - save electricity". And we did. Without giving it a second thought.

After the fall of communism, our newly born free market economy manifested itself by glaring neon lights and lit-up shop windows, laser shows and loud music coming out of every shop. Cities and households are buzzing with electric power and... there are very few power failures. When it happens, it is usually fixed instantly. I thought that was to do with a better functioning economy, more sophisticated power plants or a more reliable grid. But as the recent accident on the East Coast of Canada and the United States proved, even the most developed of economies can be struck by a power failure as severe as that. Watching the pictures of dark American cities and people sleeping on the pavement, I realised how much I am dependent on electricity - much more than a decade ago. I have replaced my old phone with a digital one that is, of course, useless at times of blackouts, and after my old battery-powered radio broke down I bought a new - digital - one. And there is, of course, the computer and the mobile phone.

I hope that seeing what happened in the US, Czech power producers have learned from that experience and they will make sure nothing like that could happen in this country.

Still, I did not throw away the old phone that works even at times of power failures, and I keep a fresh batch of candles and batteries in my cupboard - just in case.

06-09-2003