Matt Heath: Calling all Kiwis: Let’s take back the power

Opinion

How much do you depend on electricity? What would happen if you switched your mains off right now?

Cities and towns across the North Island were plunged into darkness last Monday on one of the coldest nights of the year. It was a big deal. Energy Minister Megan Woods blasted Genesis Energy. The talkback lines ran hot with Kiwis screaming “incompetence”, “Third World country” and “heads must roll”.

In a panic, on my radio show, I asked the Prime Minister, “Is it time for New Zealand to go nuclear?” She said “no”. I replied, “But Prime Minister, nuclear power plants are really safe these days. Can we please have them?” She said “no”.

Amid the hysteria, I believe we missed the larger question: How soft have humans become if we can’t handle a night without electricity?

Three hundred thousand years ago, the first anatomically modern humans arose. They knew nothing about electrical currents. Now and then, someone would get hit by lightning, but that was about it. The Greeks discovered electrical charge, but Plato, Archimedes andPythagoras didn’t have lights in their homes. That wouldn’t happen for another 2600 years. It was the late 1940s before most Kiwi houses had electrical appliances.

So for 299,920 years, we humans had no electricity in our homes. We’ve been connected to power for 80 years so far. That’s 109,470,800days without and just 29,200 with electricity. So why is one night without power in 2021 a disaster? Yuval Noah Harari wrote in Sapiens, “One of history’s few iron laws is that luxuries become necessities and spawn new obligations. Once people get used to a certain luxury, they take it for granted. Then they begin to count on it. Finally, they reach a point where they can’t live without it.”

Electricity has gone from a nice thing to have, to complete dependence in under a century. That’s why I’ll be turning the power off at my house next week. Without warning, I plan to flick the switch for 24 hours. I’m hoping for a lovely night of family bonding. Maybe board games by candlelight. Perhaps we could enjoy ghost stories under blankies; I might get the guitar out and sing some of my old band’s songs. My kids may become enraged at this point and bum rush the power box. No worries, I reckon I can hold them off. Either way, they will have a new appreciation of electricity. Better, we will find what we are missing survival-wise. Rotten meat and the milk in the fridge is a small price to pay for a lesson in self-reliance.

If the thought of turning your power for a night scares you,you should definitely switch it off for a night. You are addicted to power.

Most of the world’s electricity generation is from generators based on scientist Michael Faraday’s 1831 discovery that a magnet inside a coil of wire induces an electric current to flow in the wire. In a turbine generator, a moving fluid — water, steam, combustion gases, or air — pushes a series of blades mounted on a rotor shaft. The force of the fluid on the blades spins/rotates the rotor shaft of a generator. The generator, in turn, converts the mechanical (kinetic) energy of the rotor to electrical energy. Different types of turbines include steam turbines, combustion (gas) turbines, hydroelectric turbines, and wind turbines.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to Google power (as I just did) without power. Few of us carry the knowledge to produce our own organic homemade electricity. That’s why we need to take the power back by turning it off.

New Zealand could be attacked at any time by grid-destroying aliens, zombies or by slightly more demand than usual, as happened last Monday. Best you practise living without electricity while you still can. So why not grab some blankets and flick your switch tonight. It’ll be fun.

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