Energy scarcity seems to be descending over Europe slowly but surely and while the focus continues to be, for now, on teaching people to consume less energy, reports are emerging with the word “blackout” in the headline. I hate to be trite but winter is coming. And we might as well prepare for what back in the 80s we called a power supply schedule.
As the name suggests, scheduled supply means that you don’t get power around the clock. Blackouts are implemented for a certain period every day. The worse the supply situation, the longer the blackouts, see Pakistan’s latest troubles with that.
They were in double-digit blackout territory and because I always root for the underdog I won’t forget to mention that these blackouts were largely caused by soaring LNG prices, in turn caused by Europe’s dash for storage refills. The refills are going well, by the way, north of 70% so far and the target is 80% by October 1. Well done, Europe! Now for the electricity bills.
Electricity is already becoming prohibitively expensive for a growing number of people in Europe. In the UK, bills are expected to soar above 4,000 pounds, possibly reaching 5,000 pounds, per year in 2023. And yes, the UK government is preparing for blackouts this winter.
What do you do in a blackout during the winter? Well, if you have a fireplace that uses wood (and you are allowed to use it), be grateful. If you’re unlucky enough to live in a place with central heating coming from gas or electricity, buy a jacket or a couple of blankets. And change your habits.
I usually start cooking around 6 pm. It normally takes me no more than half an hour and then it’s in the oven or on the burner. In case of blackouts, like the ones in Romania in the 80s, I would have to change that and cook much later at night… probably for the next day because dinner at midnight is a bit of a a stretch, even for us.
According to sources who were older than me during the mid-80s blackouts in Bulgaria (the winter of 84/85) so they have a better recollection of them, the schedule was three hours on, three hours off, although in some places they were one hour on, four hours off.
So, you had to fit in your energy-intensive activities in three-hour slots followed by three-hour slots with no electricity. Imagine the peaks that would appear on an electricity consumption graph. There was a joke at the time that seen from the sky, Bulgaria must have looked like a disco club (it was the 80s, the Disco Era).
I remember my mother springing into action when the power was on, fitting in cooking, laundry and hoovering into that three hour slot. It’s not exactly difficult, one might say and one will be right. Yet it isn’t exactly pleasant as well to have to cram everything in a three hour slot instead of taking it at your own pace.
So, if blackouts are on the cards, get ready to reorganise tour daily schedules, even if you don’t cook, clean or do laundry. Because even if you do not do any of these things, you will need to charge your electronics. And you will need to keep track of when the blackout will occur so you can charge them ahead of time.
You will also need heating. And as I mentioned earlier, if you happen to live in a place where the heat and the electricity comes from the same place and that place is subject to blackouts, congratulations, you just joined Irina’s Freezers Club!
In the winter of 1997/98, I lived in Cambridge, England, at average temperatures of between 10 and 12 degrees. The reason had nothing to do with energy scarcity. The reason was that my room was on the top floor of my landlords’ house, the radiator was faulty and the heat simply did not reach it fully.
I couldn’t get a heater (the landlady didn’t allow it and I understood why), so I learned to get out of bed really quickly in the morning, get dress really quickly and rush downstairs to the kitchen to warm up before going to school. By a stroke of luck, a fellow Bulgarian whose room was a floor below mine had just adopted a boyfriend so whenever I could I slept in her room in her absence.
It is because of this experience that I tend to switch to grave irony whenever I read about the latest pseudo-moral statement by a European politician. I still remember how cold and miserable I was every single freezing day in the winter of 1997/98. None of those politicians, I bet, has ever experienced a similar degree of thermal discomfort. And I had it way better than a lot of people who are either homeless or cannot pay for their heating so they are forced to turn it off completely. You can die of cold.
And then I remember someone on Twitter saying that Europeans should shut up and suck it up because look at what the Ukrainians are going through. How being cold and miserable would help the Ukrainians was unclear but that sort of attitude is one that will change very fast when the temperature drops below zero. But wait, there’s more.
Blackouts not infrequently go hand in hand with hot water “outs”. One doesn’t need a lot of imagination to visualise showering with cold water in December even if one has electricity-independent heating supply. To put it mildly, it is not pleasant.
Back in the 80s, hot water outages were a regular thing in the summer when the Sofia thermal plant, which supplies heating and hot water, shut down for maintenance. It still does, by the way. But back in the 80s, when our huge Soviet-made immersion heater entered the scene.
We heated buckets of water, then we mixed it with tap water and filled the bathtub for a sublime bathing experience. And if there’s not enough energy for water pumps, it’s not just hot water that becomes unavailable.
That’s when you have a proper “waterout”. And that is when you begin to fully appreciate the miracle of plastics because if you want to be prepared, you’d fill any available receptacle with water and plastic water bottles make by far the best receptacle — unbreakable and easy to turn into an improvised water tank for washing hands and cutlery, also food.
I know this from first-hand recent experience. Water pump problems in the area where I currently live are, while not as frequent as they used to be, still more frequent than we’d like them to be. This Wednesday, there was no water from 10 am to about 8 pm. The bottled backup got into action, although it is less than perfect for showering. Praise be to the 10-litre plastic waster bottle.
That might sound bad enough but that’s because most of you have no idea how Romanians lived in the 80s, courtesy of their dictator’s “rationalisation” policies, which, as far as I can understand, came down to cutting all manner of local consumption sharply in a bid to boost exports and, respectively, hard currency income for a government that was dead set on cutting debt.
Here are a few choice bits of Romanian reality from back then, graciously supplied by one of my readers here, Valentina Marinescu, who, like my husband, lived through it. A thousand thanks for the information, which made me tear up and recall how my mother-in-law, who spent most of her life under Ceausescu, once said “Am I sorry that he got shot? Like hell I am! He deserved it!”
The provision of adequate food, housing, and health was no longer taken for granted. Schools and the extensive apartment complexes that housed the newly urbanized population saw regular electricity and heating cuts during subzero temperatures because an expanding industry struggling to meet the export targets of the regime needed more electricity. Industry earned precious hard currency, so consumers had to endure daily blackouts, even though the country produced more electricity than Spain and Italy.
But Europe today has the opposite problem, right? It cannot produce enough electricity because of governments’ series of smart choices made over the last decade or so. Be that s it may, the result may end up being quite similar to what was happening in Romania at the time.
Electricity and central heating were restricted as well. During the busiest hours of the day, private homes were left without electricity, the same happened at night as well. As far as heating was concerned, as it was mostly centralized it was easy to control the amount of hours the citizens would have access to hot water and heating – it was irrelevant whether it was summertime or in the middle of a harsh winter.
General illumination would be reduced by 50% and local illumination will be introduced. By 15 December 1982, 14, 20 and 40W (lightbulbs) would replace all high voltage fluorescent tubes. It was likewise forbidden to use any electric heating appliances, with the exception of places where there were activities outside normal hours of central heating system working hours. A schedule of hours in which to use lights and electric outlets [was implemented]. Room temperature had to be strictly followed [no more than 16 degrees Celsius during the winter per a 1988 decree] and [the temperature of] hot water was no higher than 50-60 degrees.
Sounds dreamy, doesn’t it?
In all fairness, I don’t really believe it will get to be as bad as this in Europe this winter. However, if challenged to explain why I don’t believe it will get to be as bad as this in Europe this winter, I would run into a difficulty.
Full storage caverns do not mean uninterrupted and abundant supply of gas to last until spring. Europe will need a lot more for a relatively painless winter. And that can’t all come from the U.S. for simple export and import capacity reasons, not to mention costs. Winter is coming and so is pain.