5 jigawatts

Doc Brown needed 1.21 jigawatts to charge his flux capacitor and travel through time. What can you do with 5 jigawatts?

With 5 jigawatts, you can provide power for 1.4 million people in southern California! The yellow line shows available power statewide for Thursday, September 8 2011 as reported by Cal-ISO (California Independent Service Operator, which manages the statewide power grid). Look what happens to the graph between 3 PM and 4 PM — a huge 5 jigawatt plunge after that 500 kV line from Arizona was diverted to Doc Brown’s DeLorean as he tried to flee from Libyan terrorists.

California statewide power use

Besides lights and Internet, electricity makes modern transportation and other modern life conveniences possible. Many areas lost water pressure after pumps went off line. Gas stations closed because they can’t process payment and pump gas. Airports lost traffic control and shut down. Without power, traffic lights go dark and electric light rail trains grind to a halt. The diesel heavy commuter trains – Coaster, Sprinter and Amtrak — ran until the battery operated rail signals ran out of juice.

I’ve been meaning to review and update my family’s emergency preparedness plan. The specific disaster we have in mind is earthquakes, but a regional power outage like this involves many of the same issues we’d deal with in the aftermath of a large quake. My transportation plan involves grabbing a few sodas from the vending machine at the office (I’ll need the sugar) and carefully biking home from there.

If you’re a cyclist in San Diego, did you bike home Thursday evening? If so, I’d love to hear how it went for you.


  1. I was in Bonita, heading back to La Mesa – an asy ride, but unfortunately, I had the car. 🙁
    However, looking at the traffic from a cyclist’s perspective, it looked like all the intersections that were backed up could create 2 problems for cyclists; the reduction in speed, due to required caution around so many drivers looking for an alternate route & making ‘squirely’ decisions, and finding a way through the intersections that had no signals. Some of the larger intersections got pretty hairy. Oh, and the fact that after dark, it was SO dark…

  2. I biked home leaving a few folks behind who were debating whether they should leave now, or read a book and leave after 2 hours.  The roads were a parking lot.  I have to admit I felt immeasurably smug and sorry for them at the same time!  The coolers weren’t working, and I’m not sure of the water in our taps at work, so I filled my water bottle with a couple of sodas, which are thankfully available in a free swing-door cooler at work.  As Michael said, if the power is down, the vending machines are off, so if you need sodas from a vending machine you’re out of luck.

    This morning, some traffic lights were still blinking red, so a part of my commute was biking past another parking lot.  I heard times from 1.5 hours to 3 hours (accident on the freeway) to get home.  Those would normally be 20-30 minute commutes.  My regular commute is 20 minutes; yesterday it took me 20 minutes!  It took a little longer getting through intersections, having to be careful to not get run over by irritated and irrational cars.  On the other hand, I didn’t have to wait at any stop light.

  3. Haven’t you gotten the memo about California? We all drive sports cars and convertibles on gold paved streets, we spend our lunch breaks at the beach, life is easy, and we drink all the free soda we can stomach.

    Seriously: Refrigerators with free soda, bottled water, juices etc are de rigueur for high tech employers in Silicon Valley.  Vending machines are for you proles out on the other coast.

  4. I have a 3.5 mile bike ride to a vanpool spot, and a fifty-mile van commute from there. We left work approximately 20 minutes before the power went out, so the drive didn’t turn nasty until the usual spots into Carmel Valley / La Jolla. Traffic’s tough there most days and I didn’t think much of it other than that cars seemed to be blowing past the on-ramp metering lights, making it hard to exit the freeway.

    After dropping the other commuters off (at the Park-n-Ride at Governor & I-805) I had to drive into Clairemont Mesa (near Balboa Ave & Clairemont Dr) and my first inkling that things were wrong was turning on the radio and hearing static … 89.5, 100.7, etc. There were a few stations that were on but I suspect they were broadcasting from Tijuana. Since I had vanpool duty yesterday with slumbering passengers I didn’t turn the radio on in the afternoon until after I’d dropped folks off. Exiting at Balboa I saw the stop lights were off but I thought that maybe it was a localized problem — it was a hot day after all — but the more lights I passed that were off, and finally the police officers out directing traffic convinced me that I needed to get off the road as soon as possible.

    Note that unless you’ve got the police officer waving you through, the default action at a light-controlled intersection when the power’s out is a four-way stop. That snarled things up as people couldn’t figure out who’d gotten there first, or when to yield to left-turning traffic, and on a bike if I’d blown through the light-controlled intersections blithely I’m pretty sure I would have gotten run down, fluorescent vest or not.

    Getting from Genesee to Claremont on Balboa typically takes a minute or two on a reasonable day; yesterday, driving, it took twenty. People were pretty desperate and resorted to measures like cutting into the bike lane on Balboa to get ahead so I think heading west on Balboa would have been pretty dicey on a bike.

    For my bike portion, eastbound Balboa was very light, and there was a police officer at Balboa and Genesee directing traffic, so making the left there onto northbound Genesee was easy enough; from there it was all local, non-light-controlled roads back home so very little drama, bike-wise.

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