What About the Thousand-Year Freeze?

February 09, 1994|By ROBERT BURRUSS

KENSINGTON — Kensington.--During the recent cold snap, the utility industries did what the Soviet empire couldn't do in 40 years of Cold War: They closed down the United States federal government in another kind of cold war.

The electrical generating capacity of the eastern part of the United States was running at full capacity. Pipelines that carry natural gas to the eastern states were too small to supply the demand, and some people went cold. Demand for coal, which the electric companies burn to produce half of our electricity, probably surpassed the capacity of trains to deliver it, and on-site stockpiles were being drawn down fast.

When the Mississippi flooded last year, we heard about 100-year floods and 500-year floods, which happen about that often, once each 100 or 500 years. What about a 100-year freeze, or even a 1,000-year freeze?

If the electric utilities were to run out of coal during an extended cold spell, or if a large part of the energy-supply network were to fail or the generating machinery to break down, how many buildings would be ruined by burst pipes, and what would we do for water if none could be pumped? One long, deep freeze could take 10 years or more to recover from.

My gas bill arrived the day before the government shut down. It doesn't include the energy I used that same night. The gas bill says I used 109 ''therms'' during the previous 31 days, which is the same as 2.5 million calories of the same kind that add pounds to the body.

Over 31 days, 109 therms averages out to six horsepower. At the current price of gas energy, for 2 cents I can buy one nominal horse's energy for an hour, and for 12 cents I can hire six horses to work at heating my house for one hour.

Essential, however, to the operation of a gas furnace is electricity. It ignites the gas and drives the fan that flows the heated air through the house.

What if some large, urbanized part of our country suffered a long and unusually deep cold spell? A 500-year freeze, or even a 1,000-year freeze?

The dinosaurs possibly died out in a 50-million-year freeze. These things happen.

Nearly 60 percent of electric energy comes from coal. How big are the fuel reserves at electric power plants? Is that why the utilities got the government to shut down? Were the fuel reserves in question?

Having electricity is like having a slave, but without the moral concerns or the practical hassles of having to feed people. Thomas Edison's idea for centralized electric power generation was and is nifty; it's been a terrific asset to the physical plant and moral foundation of society. And it makes us more physically comfortable in the seasonal extremes, especially in winter.

The development of indoor plumbing must certainly have followed closely that of reliable residential heating. Indoor plumbing in the mid and northern latitudes has always been dependent upon efficient heating.

As the temperature dropped the other night, I considered how to survive until spring if the electricity should be off that long. I got a flashlight to keep at hand as I thought of ways to minimize damage from frozen pipes and toilets and sink traps.

If the electricity failed, I would set up my tent in the living room and load into it a five-gallon supply of water plus all the blankets in the house. Then I would cut off the main water inlet and drain as much of the plumbing as possible, and pour antifreeze into the toilets and basins.

Except for the fear of damage from frozen pipes, I could be comfortable for weeks without electricity -- as long as I could get water and food.

A ''thousand-year event'' -- flood, freeze or whatever -- happens, on average, once every thousand years. In 1815 a mountain named Tambora in Indonesia exploded and blew several cubic miles of dust into the stratosphere. The year 1816 was ''the year without a summer'' in New England, and likely in many other places. The following winter was probably rough.

Suppose another volcano were to affect the planetary climate for a year or two. A significant part of our species lives in the mid and northern latitudes. Are we prepared to mine and move coal fast enough to our power plants to keep our houses warm? What if several major generators were to break down?

A reliable supply of electricity will help us survive the inevitable next 1,000-year freeze. Nuclear fuel has the advantage over other fuels of not having to be carried constantly into the power plant. Were our nuclear power plants to be freshly fueled each fall, we would have reliable electric power through periods of extended cold. And a few extra nuclear power plants would be low-cost insurance for when the inevitable freeze comes.

The many 1,000-year freezes that our species has already weathered came before we had electricity and indoor plumbing and electrically pumped water. The next 1000-year freeze -- which could happen any time -- we are not ready for.

Robert Burruss is an engineer and free-lance writer.

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