Montreal, November 15, 2012 • No 305


Harry Valentine is a
free-marketeer living in Eastern Ontario.


The Benefits of Private Initiative
During Times of Emergency


by Harry Valentine


          Parts of Canada and the USA periodically experience weather-related emergency situations. In early 1998, a winter ice storm knocked out electric power for a period of several weeks across Eastern Canada and the northeast USA. Almost every year, the Mississippi River has a spring flood, while tornados and hurricanes sweep across the USA from mid- to late summer and into the fall months. These weather events usually cause destruction to property and general devastation.


          While Hurricane Katrina caused extreme destruction in New Orleans, the event was not unexpected. Officials at the American weather office had previously warned of the need to reinforce and raise the height of the seawalls that protected New Orleans from being flooded by a powerful hurricane that could push tidal height to extreme elevation. They even produced computer simulations of such an event. But their appeal to raise and reinforce the seawalls fell on deaf ears in Washington.

          Similarly, weather researchers had for several years warned of the potential for a super storm to raise seawater tidal levels to extreme elevations along the American East Coast. Yet government officials at various levels continued to approve permits to construct new homes and buildings in the low-lying areas. Then along came Hurricane Sandy, destroying entire communities and knocking out electrical power as well as municipal water distribution systems.

          In almost every weather-related emergency that has occurred over the past several decades, electrical power was interrupted. This is no coincidence, given that government always controls some aspects of electrical power generation and distribution. State regulation often forbids owners of private property from connecting private power lines across their property lines. It is often not feasible for a single homeowner or business to own and operate an on-site electrical power generation system. Such a system may only become viable in the event that an owner can sell electric power to close neighbours.

          During an emergency when the electrical power grid is out of service, a private local power generation system might still be able to provide electrical power to a small group of buildings. The owners of these buildings might then be able to provide temporary shelter or temporary assistance to neighbours without electrical power. In the region of Quebec located to the north of Laval, residents complained several years ago of frequent power outages and decided to take the initiative to resolve the situation themselves. Some people bought gasoline powered generator sets that they used quite frequently. Others installed wood stoves and pellet stoves in their homes. On cold days when the electrical power was interrupted, they could cook their family meals on the wood and pellet stoves.

"While governments run campaigns to encourage citizens to prepare for emergencies, governments also send out a mixed message. Government energy policy actively discourages groups of private citizens from independently generating and sharing electrical power."

          The ingenuity of many private companies has helped private citizens cope with emergencies. Such companies have developed technologies such as small rechargeable batteries and LED lighting that requires very little energy. This lighting technology became commercially available many years after the ice storm of 1998. During power outages, this author has turned on battery-powered LED lighting inside his residence at night. After the power was restored, the batteries still had plenty of power. There is also a solid-state technology with no moving parts called a thermoelectric converter. It can generate a small amount of electrical power when placed on top of a hot wood or pellet stove. This electric power may recharge small batteries to provide power for LED lighting and radios.

          A growing number of residents who live in rural areas and experienced the ice storm of 1998 are taking action to increase their independence. These people tell of having lived through subsequent power outages that lasted several days, during which time they had heat and light inside their rural homes. Most rural homes also use septic tanks when they flush their low-volume toilets. They also access groundwater on their property for home consumption, at a safe distance from the septic tank.

          In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, the residents of some districts were without municipal water. A small number of property owners had installed water pumps on their land to access groundwater as an alternative to fluoridated municipal drinking water. Homeowners who live in areas that provide municipal water and sewer connection may see little need to install an independent water pump on their property, but during an emergency when the municipal water supply is interrupted, a private deep-level water pump on private property can often guarantee a family a short-term source of potable water.

          While governments run campaigns to encourage citizens to prepare for emergencies, governments also send out a mixed message. Government energy policy actively discourages groups of private citizens from independently generating and sharing electrical power, requiring them to register with the state and submit paperwork regarding their power generation that may be subject to ongoing inspections from state officials.

          Such intrusion by the state discourages citizens from undertaking the initiative to organize with their neighbours for their mutual benefit. The hardship suffered by citizens across Eastern Canada and the northeast USA during the ice storm of 1998 involved centrally controlled and centrally generated electrical power that could not reach the population. In comparison, multiple decentralized and privately owned micro and mini power stations that operate free from government control on private property in rural areas and in neighbourhoods can go a long way in terms of guaranteeing citizens a secure supply of electrical power during weather-related emergencies.