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Random Thoughts About Electricity

Electricity and I have a rocky relationship. I don’t work well with it, at all! It all started when I was a kid. I went to microwave something, stuck my finger up to the button, and proceeded to blow out the appliance with an enormous flash. That was the end of our first microwave oven.

Electricity brings many good and bad things.
Electric Towers

There was no obvious reason for it. One minute the thing was working and the next it wasn’t. I wasn’t on any carpet at the time, so it wasn’t static electricity from the floor. Whatever it was, though, it was catastrophic and permanent.


Then there was the house my family lived in for the second half of ninth grade. We were going about our evening, minding out own business, when half the house went black. Not the whole house, just half of it. Dad tried the breaker, but it only tripped a second time. We decided to wait for the electrician after that.


It was a good thing we did. As Dad let the dogs out for a pee, he happened to put his hand on the wall near the back yard light switch and discovered it was hot. When the electrician came to look at the switch the next day, he found the wires burnt out and a bunch of black ash fell the floor. We had an actual fire on our hands, which, thanks to the breaker, didn’t spread anywhere else.


When I was in college, I was watching the movie PT-109 and they had just gotten to the most tense part of the film. All of a sudden the wall outlet near the front door started to buzz angrily. It was so violent that it rattled the whole wall. Eventually the GFI tripped and the socket went dead. It exhaled its death rattle of stinky plastic and that was the end of it. The electrician found a manufacturer’s defect in the fairly new electrical outlet.


Then, of course, we have the two electrical incidents in the summer of 2016. It started with a thunderstorm in June, with lots of cloud-to-ground lightning in the valley. One of the bolts struck a power pole somewhere in our neighborhood, causing the lights to blink for several minutes. Finally we heard the gunshot of the blow-out fuse going in the distance and the power went out. When it came back on several hours later, there was a burnt plastic smell in the bathroom, which would get worse whenever we turned on the light.


The guys from the power company came by and sniffed the outlet, and they smelled the same thing, so it wasn’t just me. When they pulled it out of the wall, you could see it was burnt on the side. I later took it apart and discovered the whole front of the plastic was smoke stained.


But that wasn’t the end of it. July came along and the power went out in the middle of dinner. When it came back on, the ceiling fan started making a weird buzzing noise. Suddenly there was a burst of electrical static from the surge protector my computer was plugged into. It popped and then there was a puff of burnt carpet smell. I still have the burnt spot on my living room rug where the surge protector heroically gave its life for my computer.


I took the surge protector apart. The whole inside of the thing was blackened. Worse, the heat was so intense that it melted an LED light. That could’ve been my computer, but, thankfully, the surge protector did its job.


The power company came by again. This time they discovered that our house was not grounded. We had them install a lightning arrester on the outside of the house and to put in a grounding rod. We have (so far) had no other problems. (Always say “so far” because the wiring may hear you and decide to be a dick, just out of spite.)


Yes, my life has been wrought with weird electrical incidents, and they’ve left me a little paranoid. So why is it that I go on YouTube and watch videos of failing electrical infrastructure? I can watch electrical poles sizzle and spit out plasma for hours and not be disturbed. It’s all mildly fascinating.


I think my favorite video comes from New England. The transformer in the neighborhood got so overloaded that it began to boil. You could hear the oil boiling on the video. It sounded like someone was frying chicken. Apparently they had a twenty-one hour power outage while the thing was replaced. It was fascinating, yet disturbing at the same time.


That’s the way I am with air travel, too. As I said in a previous blog post, I am a nervous flyer, but I watch stuff like Mayday: Air Disaster and remain perfectly calm. In fact, watching all these videos about air traffic control emergencies and air disasters makes me less of a nervous flyer. Why? Because I see the things that go on while the plane still stays in the air, and they are amazing.


Not so with the electrical videos, though. They introduce new ways that electricity can fail and trick you, yet I still watch them. I watch whole compilations. There’s even one video where a guy spliced together a bunch of videos into a techno song.


A guy once asked me to help him change a wall outlet. He asked me to pull the outlet out of the wall, once we figured out how to turn the power off. My hands were actually shaking and I wasn’t able to finish the job. I just can’t with electricity. That’s someone else’s job.


Did you know that electricity is the number one cause of wildfires? Well, technically, human beings are the primary cause of wildfires in the West, but of all the human causes, electrical infrastructure is the main one. PG&E in California is a primary contender. They not only lit the deadly Camp Fire in Paradise, they lit the destructive Tubbs and Nuns of 2017, and the record-breaking Dixie Fire.


Some places in the country have power poles that are over a century old and are still in use, and when they fail, down come the wires into the dry brush. People are calling for the repair of this country’s electrical infrastructure, but little has been done to change it so far.


“It isn’t our fault,” says PG&E. “It’s climate change.”


You mean the thing you denied for decades until you were in trouble, guys? Yes, climate change contributes to conditions that lead to wildfires. However, that does not mean we should be ignoring the other causes of the problem. In fact, climate change makes it more critical than ever to fix those other problems, especially the electrical infrastructure.


And don’t get me started on green energy production that is not actually green. I am thinking of those flash steam solar projects in the desert that mine fossil water and use toxic coolants. The wind farms that are built without taking flyways into consideration. The solar projects the destroy desert tortoise habitat. There’s also the very water intensive geothermal projects, when the IPCC’s most consistent prediction is increased drought. And there are electric cars, that at the moment aren’t much better for the environment than fossil fuel burning vehicles, when you consider lithium batteries and environmental impact.


Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against renewable energy, as long as it’s done in a logical and environmentally friendly manner. Offshore windfarms have become habitats for sea life. Solar energy can be produced anywhere, including on the tops of buildings, parking lots, and aqueducts. New wind technologies are also allowing us to produce wind power anywhere.


There’s nothing environmentally friendly about geothermal, and there never will be by current technology standards. They are essentially mines of heat, and they are not actually renewable. The water from the site eventually runs out, and the only way to keep it going is to inject more water into the ground. Not to mention the geothermal plant produces toxic products that have to be disposed of. There are also limited areas you can mine for geothermal heat. Before you go around advocating for it, please take the time to read up on geothermal power production for yourself.


And don’t give me that “I know, but this is our only option” bullshit excuse. The whole point of fighting climate change is to stop the damage to the environment. If you are taking out endangered species to produce electricity without fossil fuels, you are no better than the fossil fuel industry. What’s the point?


I could go on with the problems with electric cars. As usual, the political party who is pushing for electric cars is not taking rural populations into consideration. They want to put in charging stations along interstates and US highways, but what about the rest of the country? Are they going to put charging stations on those back roads in the deserts and mountains?


I once had a city environmentalist tell me that people who live in rural areas are selfish. That only people in the city matter and everyone who lives in a rural area should just move to the city and live in an apartment like he does. Um… You do realize that cities use more electricity and fossil fuels than rural populations, and they are a primary source of air pollution.


Where do you suppose you food comes from, you naïve jackass? It doesn’t come from the city. It comes from all those “selfish” farmers and ranchers. It doesn’t just magically appear in the vending machine you used for lunch. All that sugar was grown somewhere rural. Your coffee is grown in a rural area. The ingredients of your vegan burger were grown in a rural area. Without us, you starve, moron!


Fortunately, that idiot doesn’t represent the average environmentalist. Unfortunately, only the extreme ones are heard because they have the loudest voice. I think it’s time for the rest of us to speak up. We need it known that we want green energy, but not at the expense of our water and natural habitats. We want electric cars that are more environmentally friendly. We want politicians to do something, not just shake hands over an agreement and whine to the media when it’s not met. We don’t want hope and idealism. We want realistic ways to help the planet.


Funny how a topic that started out small and isolated becomes the big picture for Earth. There are many ways we can help the environment. Changing our electricity production is just one small part of it. Until we see the big picture and come up with a plan that addresses that big picture (and we actually follow the plan), nothing is going to change.

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