Traditional connections

[vc_row][vc_column width=”1/2″][vc_column_text disable_pattern=”true” align=”left” margin_bottom=”0″][mk_dropcaps style=”simple-style”]L[/mk_dropcaps]ast Christmas was one that Rita Plaskett won’t soon forget. On December 21, just as her family’s busy holiday was set to begin, Plaskett’s home went dark — an outage that would leave the Toronto events planner without power until Christmas day.

“I lived by daylight,” she recalls. “I had a radio with batteries, so I was able to find out what was going on. And I had a lot of canned food.”

Plaskett was one of hundreds of thousands of people who endured power outages this past December, after a massive ice storm swept across southern and eastern Ontario. The storm deposited up to 30 millimetres of ice in some places, snapping power lines and damaging transformers over a widespread area. While most of those affected had power restored within days, many residents were without some combination of lights, heat or hot water throughout one of the coldest holiday seasons in recent memory.

“I was lucky. I had a wood fire,” says Plaskett. “But it did get pretty darn cold.”[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][vc_column width=”1/2″][mk_image src=”” image_width=”800″ image_height=”1732″ crop=”false” lightbox=”false” frame_style=”simple” target=”_self” caption_location=”inside-image” align=”left” margin_bottom=”10″][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column width=”1/1″][vc_column_text disable_pattern=”true” align=”left” margin_bottom=”0″]Burning logs from the stack out back as an emergency heat source can quickly reveal that most modern home fireplaces were built for looks, not practical function. Without a means of automatically, efficiently capturing and transferring the heat to other areas of the house, much of it flies up the flue along with the smoke, high in particulates, carbon monoxide and more pollutant gases.

“The heat is only in the immediate vicinity of the fireplace,” says Rita. “But it does the trick when it’s all you have.” Of course, long before humans discovered how to effectively extract and transform chemical energy stored in other natural, carbon-based substances such as coal and oil into thermal energy, wood warmed everything from solitary travellers to palatial buildings. Burning trees is a relatively quick way to release energy from the sun stored over decades.

And burning oil and natural gas products releases that same energy stored over hundreds of thousands, even millions, of years. The natural gas combusted in Plaskett’s typical forced-air-distribution home heating system burns much more efficiently than wood, and it’s always on hand through the winter, controlled by a thermostat. But with no electricity to run the blower motor and push heated air through ducts around the house, the unit went cold.

Rita’s Pontiac G6 has no such direct dependence on the grid, thankfully, so on Christmas Eve she went out to deliver presents to family members who otherwise would have come to her. As she turned the key in the ignition, the usual happened: tiny droplets of crude oil refined into gasoline ignited, exploded and released an incredible amount of energy as expanding gas — ultimately converting into the mechanical energy that propelled her vehicle down the dark roads in her North York neighbourhood.

But while the fossil fuel is transformed into motion at the touch of a pedal and normally available at the tip of a nozzle, gas stations rely on electricity to pump the liquid. No electricity, no more gas. And few of Ontario’s nearly 4,000 gas stations have backup generators. That means that when the large portions of the grid go down for an extended period, so can transportation — with enormous repercussions. During 2012, Ontario motorists relied on more than 15.5 billion litres of gasoline. That works out to burning almost 30,000 litres per minute, enough to fill a medium above-ground swimming pool every minute. And suddenly, a low tank could mean finishing Christmas errands by foot.

The whole experience inspired Plaskett to take a new approach to family celebrations — for a start, to have Christmas in July. It reflects her own parents’ tradition of spreading holiday commitments throughout the year. “And then no matter what happens,” she says, “there’s sure to be some time in the year when we can all be together.”

There’s irony in our reliance on this seemingly endless electricity supply (which we so often take for granted). Despite the fact that it makes our houses habitable through the winter, enables us to travel to visit friends and relatives, cook holiday dinners and uphold other traditions, it can also isolate us. We separate ourselves by rooms and storeys in comfortable spaces as small as our own homes; we withdraw into favourite TV shows and the facade of social interaction on glowing screens. A cold, dark night and a few logs draw us together; the prospect of a Christmas celebration nearly missed begets a new family custom in July, when the weather is balmy and the barbecue can surely handle a feast for the whole family.[mk_font_icons icon=”icon-stop” size=”small” padding_horizental=”4″ padding_vertical=”4″ circle=”false” align=”none”][/vc_column_text][vc_column_text disable_pattern=”true” align=”left” margin_bottom=”0″ el_class=”Story-Author”]– Nick Walker[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]