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Power outages in Northern California and Northeast India

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There are two places I have lived on planet Earth where power outages are a common occurrence: Northeast India and Northern California. More specifically, outages are common in the East Garo Hills (now North Garo Hills) district of Meghalaya, where I spent a year as a volunteer schoolteacher eleven years ago, and the hills of Napa County, where I live now. Although outages are common in both places, the reason for and character of the outages are different for each.

When I refer to power outages, I am not talking about emergency outages caused by, say, a tree limb falling on a powerline (or for that matter, powerlines burning down in a cataclysmic wildfire). Emergency outages are definitely more common in the Garo Hills and Napa County than other places I’ve lived, but they happen everywhere. The outages I’m talking about here are planned outages, when the electric utility turns the power off on purpose.

In Meghalaya, the state electric utility isn’t always able to generate enough power to supply all of its customers. This is especially the case in the hot months, when reservoir levels of the hydroelectric projects are low and power demand is high because everyone is running their electric fans at full-blast. In times like this, the state electric utility will selectively turn off power to certain areas based on a predetermined schedule. This is known as load shedding. The power will go off for a couple of hours in the morning and a couple more hours in the afternoon, say from 10:00 AM to noon and again from 2:00 to 5:00 PM. Load shedding is annoying and inconvenient to be sure, but it’s not the worst that can happen. Since the individual outages are not very long and are predictable, it isn’t too hard to adapt to load shedding.

In California, not having enough capacity is almost never the issue. Only very rarely (and I mean once in every twenty years rarely) does the electric utility PG&E not have enough electricity to supply all of its customers. Instead, what makes PG&E turn power off is a red flag warning, or fire weather.

Fire season in California strikes in the late summer and fall. The most dangerous weather pattern in fire season is a windstorm with very low humidity. In these conditions, any fire that starts can spread uncontrollably. When this type of weather is in the forecast, the National Weather Service issues a red flag warning. Since power transmission equipment is a risk factor for starting fires, PG&E has taken to shutting off power preemptively during red flag warnings in order to avoid setting a fire and being held responsible for it.

I should point out here that while power transmission equipment has started several fires in recent years, PG&E is not the only starter of fires. Other ignition sources include fireworks, ill-advised campfires, and something that is legally considered an act of God: lightning. Most notoriously, PG&E equipment started the Camp Fire two years ago, which destroyed the town of Paradise in Butte County and killed 85 people. Although it seems to me that a poor alert system is partly to blame for the tragedy, PG&E has taken all the blame for it. Thus, when PG&E shuts off the power during red flag warnings, it does so as much for legal reasons as for humanitarian reasons of protecting lives and property.

Enter the PSPS, the Public Safety Power Shutoff. After the weather service issues a red flag warning, PG&E will announce a potential PSPS, giving details on the affected area and expected times for power shutoff and restoration. And then we are on our own to prep for the coming mini-apocalypse. We get out our flashlights, candles, and oil lamps. We take hasty showers and fill up jugs of water, because no electricity means there will be no power for the pump on the well. Those of us who have generators make sure they have enough gasoline. We wolf down leftovers from the fridge and get out dried food. And we wait for the lights to go out.

When the power goes out, the lights flicker off and the hum of the refrigerator dies down, to be replaced in short order by the rumble of the neighbors’ generators.

The average PSPS lasts about 48 hours, give or take. The power goes out in the evening before the windstorm strikes, and all that night the wind howls through the trees. The next morning, fallen leaves and branches are everywhere, and the neighborhood is a-rumble with the sound of generators. The power is off for the entire day, and it remains off throughout the night and into the morning and afternoon of the third day. The power comes back on in the late afternoon or early evening of the third day, as much as two full days after it went off.

Everyone who lives in a PSPS-affected area has learned tricks for how to survive the outages. I bake bread before outages and set aside backpacking food to eat for supper. Before the power goes out, I fill up a bucket of water to use for a bucket-bath on the day without any power at all. I’m lucky that my gas stove works without power (I just have to light it manually), and the thermostat in the gas furnace has a battery, so it works as well. I also have an office that gets power from an on-campus generator and cogeneration plant.

Despite the tricks, every PSPS is an ordeal. A two-day PSPS in Napa County is so much harder to manage than a load-shedding event of a couple hours’ duration in the Garo Hills. The interminable length of every PSPS is of course a factor, as is the stress of wondering where the next fire will start and when you will have to evacuate your house. Probably the most serious factor, though, is the industrialized culture of productivity in the United States. We set very high expectations for ourselves, and in order to meet them we have to be productive all the time. Thus it is stressful or infuriating when the power is out at night and we can’t catch up on emails or grading or whatever else we have to do. A culture less obsessed with productivity would make PSPS events more tolerable.

Fire season in California ends in November when the rains come. It is always a relief when the rain arrives at last.

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The streams of Shillong

Four years ago, when I was researching my dissertation, I spent a week in Shillong, capital of the Indian state of Meghalaya and formerly capital of Assam. Shillong is located at an elevation of 4,900 feet in the Khasi Hills, a part of the Meghalaya Plateau that rises between the flatlands of Bengal (Bangladesh) to the south and Assam to the north.

I spent time in Shillong because it is close to a dam I was studying, Umiam Dam. I was primarily studying the dam from a technological perspective, but since I was writing my dissertation, I wanted to consider it from every possible angle. This led me to think about the dam from an environmental perspective, which in turn got me thinking about the streams of Shillong.

Umiam Dam impounds a reservoir with a surface area of about four square miles, named alternately Umiam Lake or Barapani Lake. (Umiam is a Khasi word meaning “Weeping River”; Barapani is Hindi for “Big Water.”) The reservoir receives drainage from a catchment area of 85.5 square miles in the Khasi highlands. The city of Shillong is located within this catchment area.

I spent some of my week in Shillong walking around the city, trying to get a sense of the lay of the land. Two rivers flow through Shillong, the Umkhrah and Umshyrpi, both joined on their way by innumerable smaller tributaries and drains. I made it a point to see both rivers.

The Umkhrah River is on the northern edge of the city. I had vague memories of walking by it on my first visit to Shillong, five years earlier, but I didn’t pay much attention to it, and I didn’t even know its name. On this visit, I spent plenty of time walking along the river.

Houses right next to the Umkhrah River.

Houses right next to the Umkhrah River.

A bridge over the Umkhrah River in Shillong.

A bridge over the Umkhrah River in Shillong.

A still section of the Umkhrah.

A still section of the Umkhrah.

One of the countless storm drains that empties into the Umkhrah.

One of the countless storm drains that empties into the Umkhrah.

The Umshyrpi River to the south is separated from the Umkhrah by a ridge atop which the main bazaars and government buildings are located.

A tributary of the Umshyrpi on the south side of Shillong.

A tributary of the Umshyrpi River on the south side of Shillong.

The Umshyrpi proper.

The Umshyrpi proper.

West of Shillong, the Umkhrah and Umshirpi join to form the Roro River, which subsequently flows into the Umiam River.

Both the Umkhrah and the Umshyrpi are quite polluted, and this pollution washes down into Umiam Lake. You might have noticed trash in some of my pictures of the rivers. What you can’t see in the pictures, but is there, is untreated sewage. The town’s hilly geography and patchwork of tribal lands have mitigated against the construction of a municipal sanitary sewer. Septic tanks collect sewage from homes and businesses, and municipal workers or contractors carry the waste away in trucks for treatment. But when tanks leak or overflow, the sewage finds its way into the Umshyrpi or Umkhrah Rivers, and thence into Umiam Lake.

Apart from Shillong, another significant source of pollution for Umiam Lake is the practice of jhum (slash-and-burn) cultivation, which removes vegetation cover on hillsides and thus leads to erosion.

A central government study of the lake in the early 1980s concluded that the water was of class C quality, which meant that it would need to be both conventionally treated and disinfected before being used as a potable water source.

Umiam Lake is a beautiful place, as it is ringed by misty, pine-forested hills. But knowing what I knew about the seemingly intractable problems of water pollution in the lake, I didn’t go into the lake much past my ankles.

Your blogger standing in Umiam Lake.

Your blogger standing in Umiam Lake.

View of Shillong with Shillong Peak in the background.

The restless records of Assam

On January 21, 1972, the Indian state of Assam lost its capital Shillong to a new state, Meghalaya. Shillong had been the capital of Assam since colonial times, and the Assamese were proud of their capital, a charming hill station at 4,900 feet above sea level. A cosmopolitan, polyglot town, Shillong was surrounded by tribal land where the dominant language was Khasi rather than Assamese.

The location of Shillong became an issue after the state legislative assembly passed the Assam Official Language Bill, 1960, which declared:

Assamese and English … shall be used for all or any of the official purposes of the State of Assam.1

The tribal population of the Khasi Hills felt marginalized by the elevation of Assamese over their own language. Khasi tribal leaders joined leaders from the Garo and Jaintia Hills from to form the Hill State Movement, agitating for separation of the tribal areas of the Meghalaya Plateau from Assam. In 1970, Meghalaya became and autonomous state in Assam, and in 1972 it became a full-fledged state within the Indian union.

The capital of Assam moved from the hills down to Dispur, a suburb of Gauhati (Guwahati) in the Brahmaputra River Valley. (Dispur has since been swallowed up in Guwahati’s urban sprawl.) Assam government offices and institutions moved down to Dispur. In 1980, the records of Assam shifted from Shillong and were set up in the Assam State Archives in Dispur. Meanwhile, the Government of Meghalaya set up its own State Records Room in Shillong. The records kept there were about the period after the split with Assam, because the records from before had moved down to Dispur.

This is something I wish I had understood before going to Guwahati and Shillong for research: most of the pre-1972 records are in Guwahati, even if they pertain directly to Shillong. After spending a week in Guwahati, I headed up to Shillong and went on some wild-goose chases looking for things that were back in Guwahati.

I spent two days in Shillong looking for the Shillong Times from the 1960s. I had already looked for the newspaper in the Library of Congress, which has practically everything. Although the LoC does have master copies of the paper from the time period I was interested in, there were no copies that patrons could read. No matter, I thought; I would look for Shillong Times in India. It seemed reasonable to assume that I would be able to find the newspaper in the city where it was published—but I couldn’t.

I started my wild-goose chase at the Central Library, but the head librarian told me that they only had post-1978 issues in Shillong; everything earlier was down in Guwahati. She suggested that I try Sacred Heart College Library and NEHU (North-Eastern Hill University) Library. I spent the afternoon visiting the two institutions, but the helpful staff at both failed to turn up anything. The next day, I went looking for the Shillong Times office, which a librarian at NEHU had assured me would have what I needed. It took me a while to find the office, as it was tucked away in a residential neighborhood in the Rilbong area south of the city center. In Rilbong, I had to ask a couple of people before I found the newspaper’s office, housed in a yellow Anglo-Assamese bungalow. There was no sign out front, just two brass medallions on the gate, one that said “S” and the other “T.” I inquired in the office about the newspaper from the 1960s. An employee went into the back and returned with the oldest issue they had, from 1986.

The mini-partition of Assam imposed an archival amnesia on Shillong. The Central Library does not even have archives of the city’s newspaper before the split—and neither does the head office of the paper.

A southern magnolia in front of the State Central Library Shillong.

A southern magnolia in front of the State Central Library Shillong.

The NEHU Library is in a grove of tall, skinny pines that could almost be in Alabama.

The NEHU Library is in a grove of tall, skinny pines that could almost be in Alabama.

Compound wall of the Assam State Archives, Guwahati.

Compound wall of the Assam State Archives, Guwahati.

Links

  • Assam State Archives have an interesting and informative website, including a virtual tour as well as more practical information about the collection.
  • NEHU Library
  • Shillong Times
  1. The full quotation is: “Without prejudice to the provisions of Articles 346 and 347 of the Constitution of India and subject as hereinafter provided, Assamese and English, and when the latter is replaced under Article 343 of the Constitution of India, Hindi in place of English shall be used for all or any of the official purposes of the State of Assam.” The Assam Gazette, October 10, 1960, pp. 623-25. []

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