Canadian Consulting Engineer

The lights are out!! — Notes from a road warrior engineer

The day of the Big Blackout is fading from memory now, as power generation in Ontario -- painstakingly slowly -- st...

August 22, 2003   Canadian Consulting Engineer

The day of the Big Blackout is fading from memory now, as power generation in Ontario — painstakingly slowly — starts to come back on line.
However, consulting engineers who spend a lot of time in airports and hotels, flying to various business meetings, might enjoy these personal reflections from Kevin Hydes, P.Eng. principal of Keen Engineering and one of the editorial advisors to Canadian Consulting Engineer magazine.
Hydes found himself caught in Ottawa Airport on August 16 on the day of the big power outage. He was trying to return home after being to a presentation by the Prime Minister about the government’s package to help Canada achieve its Kyoto Accord goals. His entertaining account was originally written for the Keen internal newsletter. Following is an extract:

Notes from a “Road warrior”
16 August 2003
Crisis? What crisis?

After Chretien’s $1.3 billion announcement, which will be a catalyst towards Canada reaching our KYOTO target over the next five years of approximately 25% energy reduction across the entire country, the 100 or so invited guests applauded.
The message was clear. The world is getting warmer, greenhouse gasses need to be reduced, we all need to get on with the program. Many of the initiatives announced will drive business for member firms of the Association of Consulting Engineers of Canada.
The most interesting announcement was the ONE TONNE challenge, essentially asking all citizens to reduce their personal greenhouse gas emissions by 1 tonne, an approximate reduction of 20%, by habit changes and purchasing choices.
I decided to stay an extra day, went to a meeting in Montreal, and got back to Ottawa on Thursday. I was finally looking forward to flying back to San Francisco. I got to the airport early enough to make a number of calls to KEENers and have a one-hour conference call.
THEN THE LIGHTS WENT OUT !!!!!
It was 4.30 p.m., so at first nobody thought too much of it. We noticed fire engines racing out on the runways and noticed a lack of aircraft movement on the runway. At the same time, the Air Canada lounge began getting much more crowded and distinctly warmer.
Everyone began making calls on their cell phones. There was a sudden noticeable frenzy of people trying to make calls, cell phones, pay phones. Nothing worked. The cell phone receiver stations were beginning to fail due to the power outage sequence and overload.
One chap was able to get a call to the U.K. and his wife was telling him, and in turn us, that the grid was failing in the northeastern U.S. and Eastern Canada. “It was on the BBC” she said!!!!!
Then the speculation started — “terrorism I bet ” said one man. “It was the air conditioning overloading the system,” another remarked. By now, the 100 or so of us in the Air Canada lounge had become comrades in search of the data.
Going to the bar, the fridge was off and the beer was becoming decidedly warmer.
Eventually we got some “official” news from the Air Canada staff. “There’s been a problem. All power is out from New York to Chicago.”
Time for another warm beer.
People began entering the lounge who had been stranded on the runway as the air traffic controllers were shutting down air space. One woman, head of American Express corporate travel, gladly drank white wine as she told of her 1-1/2-hour ordeal.
STILL THE LIGHTS WERE OUT and it was now 95 degrees in the lounge. “No openable windows,” I said, “That’s why we need green buildings, for times like this.” Everyone agreed as we began to cook nicely in our hermetically sealed box, with CO2 levels rising along with the heat.
The computers had shut down, of course, so we couldn’t find out if this was a four hour delay or longer.
Eventually, after about three hours, we were able to get some cell phone messages in and out (you had to dial 20 to 30 times to catch a signal). I managed to have the Fairmont Hotel number on quick dial so decided to grab the last room they had. “THE LIGHTS ARE OUT” said the helpful lady on reception.
Just at that time, a security guard came into the lounge and said “We’re shutting down the airport, you have 15 minutes to leave the building.” A mass exodus followed.
Most of us decided to share cabs back to downtown Ottawa. Most had not managed to book a room so were just going to walk from one to another to get a room. By now it was dusk and THE LIGHTS WERE OUT.
In the streets, all traffic lights were off, street cars were stalled and traffic was congested.
At the Fairmont (aka Chateau Laurier), a beautiful 100 year old HEAVY structure, with OPERABLE WINDOWS, I knew that I would be in a room that would be cooler than the hotel across the street — glass box, sealed up!
On arrival, the place was dark, candles everywhere and staff with flashlights.
The registration desk computers were down, so the check-in was more done manually. The restaurant was open but only serving cold buffet — not bad.
Of course, the elevators were down except one for emergency needs, so I used the stairs.
I decided to go out to the market area of town and see what was going on. Most places were shut, but a few entrepreneurial places had brought in small emergency generators and lots of candles. Water was affected because pumps were off and domestic hot water non-existent for same reason.
The beer was of course all bottled since the draft pumps and cooling systems were all off.
I went to the Ottawa airport the next day and spent four hours lining up, to be told “No flights today, Sir, try tomorrow.”
So back to the hotel.
Eventually on Saturday p.m., I managed to fly to Chicago and then to San Francisco.
I guess the reason I typed this note and hoped you would read it is quite simple. This sequence of events has made our goal at KEEN much clearer. I went to celebrate new policy announcements related to KYOTO, became intertwined with the biggest power failure in history and realized the two are directly connected.
Our goal at KEEN must be to continue to find ways to design and build buildings that USE LESS and are LESS DEPENDENT on a system that is
* Unreliable
* Overly complex
* Destroying the planet
If any of you need any more convincing that we need to do our part personally and professionally, please call me directly.

Kevin Hydes, P.Eng.
Keen Engineering
Vancouver, B.C.


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