Remembering the August 14 Blackout: street crime, comical interviews, and energy conservation

Nine years ago today, the eastern North American electricity grid crashed when trees fell on a transmission line in Ohio. Most of the northeastern U.S. and southern Ontario suddenly were without electricity. The blackout occurred in the middle of a hot sunny Thursday afternoon. I was walking back to my downtown Ottawa office when everything just went down: traffic lights, building air conditioning, computers—everything. Like millions of others in eastern North America, I assumed it was just a local outage.

But soon people who were listening to their car radios—powered by their internal combustion engines, not the grid—spread the word that this was a huge event. Offices emptied and the streets filled with people with nothing to do. (The Indian subcontinent experienced a much-greater blackout event very recently. The sheer scale of the Indian event boggles the mind.)

Somehow I ran into a good friend, Lorne Smith, who was on his way to catch a bus home. Lorne and I walked through the downtown of Ottawa which was just packed with people, and witnessed the denouement of one of only two incidents of spontaneous street crime in the affected area (apparently the other was in New York City): the chasing down and capture of a jewelry store robber. This occurred on Sparks Street, just west of Elgin.

Two rough customers who had been drinking on a sidewalk patio had decided, when the nature and extent of the blackout became known, to take advantage of the general confusion and rob the jewelry store right next to the patio. They held the place up at gunpoint, forced the employees into the vault, and were in the process of grabbing whatever they could when they were surprised by the son of the store owner, a civil servant who worked just up the street and had dropped by with a colleague to help his father shut the place down. The robbers panicked and ran, with the owner’s son and his colleague in hot pursuit. I just remember four men running through the crowd south on Elgin St., past Lorne and me, at top speed: two in front, roughly dressed; two following, in office clothes. All had serious looks on their faces, in contrast with everyone else.

When the front two had passed us by about ten meters (thirty feet), one of them leaped into the air in mid-stride, pivoted, and fired a pistol. The report was extremely loud, and many in the crowd instantly dropped and lay on the sidewalk. I said to Lorne “that was a blank. Real guns aren’t that loud.”

The running men disappeared around the corner onto Queen Street. From the crowd’s reaction, we could tell something interesting had happened. So we followed onto Queen Street, where the two men in office clothes had captured one of the front-runners. One of the office-dressed men was lying on the front-runner, grim-faced, holding one of the captured man’s arms in a police-style arm-twist. Neither man said anything. Soon a policeman showed up, and the capturer quietly said a few words and the policeman put handcuffs onto the captive. That was it.

It turned out that the man who had been captured was not the shooter; the shooter was captured days later. And it also turned out he had not been firing blanks; he had fired live bullets at his pursuers. At least one bullet was discovered embedded in the outer wall of a nearby government office building. Incredibly, nobody in the crowd had been hit.

Lorne and I walked over to Hull, Quebec, which is just across the Ottawa River from Ottawa. Quebec is not on the same grid as southern Ontario and the U.S. northeast, so was not affected by the blackout. We joined other friends on a patio for dinner and as night fell watched Ottawa turn totally black. It was surreal.

In August 2003, none of the the Ontario nuclear units taken out of service in the 1990s had yet returned to service. Pickering unit 4, the first of the mothballed reactors to be refurbished, returned to service a month after the blackout (see article). That means that much of Ontario’s electricity was being supplied by coal-fired generators from the five coal plants. Which also means that when the grid tripped, the three plants (Lambton, Nanticoke, and Lakeview) on the southern Ontario grid also tripped. Their combined capacity was something like 6,000 megawatts, and on that hot afternoon they were running pretty much full tilt.

The blackout in Ontario lasted about 14 hours. I remember the radio in my bedroom kicked on at about six a.m. I awoke to a hilarious CBC radio interview with a federal cabinet minister. The interviewer asked the minister if he had any information on what had caused the blackout. The minister said something like “from what I understand, the blackout originated because of a fire at a nuclear plant in Pennsylvania.”

The interviewer quickly said “a nuclear plant in Pennsylvania?”

The cabinet minister’s quick reply: “I never said it was a nuclear plant in Pennsylvania!” You could hear people whispering to him in the background.

During the 14 hours of blackout in Ontario, the three coal plants were not operating. If they had been, they would have generated in that period something like 67 million kilowatt-hours (allowing for the likelihood that their production may have dropped somewhat in the off-peak hours). And they would have produced around 66,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2), the principal greenhouse gas.

Here is a question. Is it good or bad that Ontario’s coal plants did not put 66,000 metric tons of CO2 into the atmosphere during the 14 hours of blackout?

(AFTERWORD: Lorne Smith, a talented, good-hearted, and troubled man, died in February 2008. Rest in peace, my friend.)

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