© 2022 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.
Those of us living in the developed world take a number of basic things for granted, and one of them is the stable availability of electrical power. It usually isn't until we have a power outage that lasts for more than a few hours that we are reminded of how much of our lives relies on being able to simply "plug something in!"
I was raised in rural South Australia, and up until age seven, I lived in houses without electricity. We used kerosine to fuel lamps and a refrigerator. The wood stove had a hot-water tank attached, and we also heated water on top of that stove in a large kettle, as needed. Bath water was heated by a wood-fired contraption, which was only operated on a weekly basis. Perhaps you've heard the old saying, "I bath every Saturday, whether I need to or not!" Been there, done that!
In 1961, we moved to a farm on which we had a 32-volt DC generator, the standard for rural properties at that time. However, the 16 2-volt batteries could only hold enough charge to drive lighting, or very low-current appliances. Our house certainly did not have any power outlets! Rural electrification came through the area during my five years on that farm, but the farm's owner declined to pay for the hookup, the cost of which was based on the number of poles needed to divert the line to the property. About that time, several television signals started broadcasting to our area, and we got a TV set. That needed an inverter to go from 32-volt DC to 240-volt AC, and it required the generator to be running, so TV watching certainly was not available on-demand! Regarding clothes washing, Mom progressed from doing it all by hand to a gasoline-operated washer that, like a motorcycle, was started with a kick starter pedal.
In early 1966, when I was 12, I moved to a house with mains electricity. [In fact, the back half of the house was still wired for 32-volt DC, and we had a generator for that too, although we had no real use for it.] We got our first freezer and electric stove. And hot water in the kitchen and bathroom sinks, on-demand; how decadent!
In this essay, I'll compare electrical-related things in various places around the world. And we know how normal is relative, right?
The electrical system is 240 volts, 50 HZ, with power outlets using a 3-pin plug/socket where the top two blades are flat and slanted, and the third flat blade serves as the earth/ground. The cables on some appliances omit the ground blade. For safety, power points (US: outlets) have switches. Outlet and light switches go down to switch on, and up to switch off. Light bulbs have a bayonet connection. To allow multiple devices to be hooked to a single plug, a double adapter is used. This is a large plastic brick that has two outlets on one side and one plug on the other; it is quite different from a power strip.
Initially, like many facilities in Australia, electricity generation was the responsibility of state governments, and in my state, that fell to the Electricity Trust of South Australia (ETSA). [ETSA was privatized in 1999.] The steam turbines were driven by burning coal, which initially came from another state. However, a huge, open-cut mine was created in my state at Leigh Creek, and being the mine's biggest customer, ETSA took over the town as well. According to Wikipedia, "the current town is 13 km further south than the original town—it was moved in 1982 to allow for the expansion of the mine."
Unique to South Australia and an invention by a local man, James Stobie, was the stobie pole, "a power line pole made of two steel joists held apart by a slab of concrete."
The Snowy Mountains scheme is a huge complex for generating hydroelectric power (as well as irrigation), built in the mountains of the southern-eastern states between 1949 and 1974.
Australian power is still generated mostly from coal, oil, and natural gas. According to the World Nuclear Association, "Much of the energy exported from Australia is used for generating electricity overseas; three times as much thermal black coal is exported as is used in Australia, and all of the uranium production is exported."
Given Australia's geographical location, solar power is a fast-growing industry.
According to Wikipedia, "The prospect of nuclear power in Australia has been a topic of public debate since the 1950s. Australia has never had a nuclear power station. Australia hosts 33% of the world's uranium deposits and is the world's third largest producer of uranium."
The World Nuclear Association stated, "New Zealand is one of the few developed countries not using electricity from nuclear energy. As hydro-electric potential was progressively utilized, nuclear power featured in national power plans from 1969 to 1976." See "New Zealand nuclear-free zone" for details about NZ's ban on nuclear-powered or armed ships, and the impact that has had on the ANZUS treaty. As I've often stated, "Principles belong to those who can afford them!" Fortunately, New Zealand has plenty of hydroelectric, geothermal, and wind power.
North and Central America
The system is 110 volts, 60 HZ, with power outlets using a 3-pin plug/socket where the top two blades are flat and parallel, and the third circular pin serves as the earth/ground. The cables on some appliances omit the ground pin. In general, power outlets do not have switches. Light switches go up to switch on, and down to switch off. Light bulbs have a screw-in connection. [Going back 100 years, 40-HZ power was common.]
The US is the land of the private enterprise, so it should be no surprise that what are public utilities in many other countries are privately-owned in the US. (My power comes from Dominion Energy, formerly Virginia Electric & Power Company [VEPCO].)
One of the biggest power projects in the US was the TVA project. According to Wikipedia, "The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) is a federally owned corporation in the United States created by congressional charter on May 18, 1933, to provide navigation, flood control, electricity generation, fertilizer manufacturing, and economic development to the Tennessee Valley, a region particularly affected by the Great Depression."
Another project built during the Great Depression, which supplies electricity, was Hoover Dam, not far from Las Vegas. The dam spans a canyon on the Colorado River, and at the base on each side is a power station, one of which is part of the public tour. I've visited it more than a few times when passing through with guests. It surely is impressive, especially for something built in the 1930s. The dams along the Columbia River in the North-West US and Canada are also major suppliers of power.
Although Niagara Falls isn't very high, it is very wide, and a huge amount of water passes over. However, a great deal of it no longer does; instead, it is diverted! On the Canadian side, pipelines take water downstream some distance to a hydro power station. A major player in the development of hydro power in Canada was Henry Pellatt. He was also known for his 100-room château in Toronto, called Casa Loma, which was the biggest private residence ever constructed in Canada. If you are in the Toronto area, do go see it; it is impressive! (There, steam pipes ran through the soil of the indoor gardens to keep plants from freezing.)
On a business trip to the Livermore area of Northern California, I came across Altamont Pass wind farm, which has more than 5,000 turbines, of all shapes and sizes. I pulled over to the side of the road in several places just to watch them. Many of them were not the traditional up-right fan-style.
In June 1999, I left Australia to move to the US. In March of that year, there was a meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear facility. As I was going to start out in the greater Washington DC area, I thought I'd see just where that disaster took place. And lo and behold, it was only 150-odd miles away!
The United Kingdom
The system is 240 volts, 50 HZ, with power outlets using a 3-pin plug/socket where the top two blades are flat, and the third flat pin serves as the earth/ground. The cables on some appliances omit the ground pin. The plug is large and contains a fuse. In general, power outlets have switches. Outlet and light switches go down to switch on, and up switch off. Light bulbs have a screw-in connection. The system is common in many current and former Commonwealth countries.
During a family vacation to Wales, we stayed with a host family in a small village. It was the year after the Chernobyl nuclear reactor meltdown in the Ukraine. A group of children from the Chernobyl area had come to the village for a physical and mental respite and were staying with local families. Our hosts had a swimming pool, which proved very popular with those kids.
The system is 220–240 volts, 50 HZ, with power outlets using a 3-pin plug/socket where the top two blades are pins, and the third pin serves as the earth/ground. The cables on many appliances omit the ground pin. In general, power outlets have switches. Forty years ago, I ran into places having the same configuration, but with thinner pins instead, or as well.
Countries having a strong connection with the US—such as Japan and South Korea—use the US system. My hotels in Beijing, China had US and Aussie plugs. Of course, you are bound to find colonial connections in former British, French, and Dutch territories.
Travelling with Electrical Gadgets
When I left Australia in 1979 and travelled for five-plus weeks in Asia and Europe on my way to the US, I started shaving with a hand razor, as I knew that taking electric appliances to different countries would be a challenge. Some twenty years later, I travelled to Europe with my first video camera. I plugged it into a brick that changed voltage and frequency, and sometimes the brick hummed, and it certainly got warm.
Later, as laptop computers became common, there was the issue of accessing a local dial-up network for email. For US$100, I bought a kit that contained some 30-odd phone and power adaptors for most countries. I've found that there really are only three needed these days: US, UK, and European. (Although the Aussie socket is different to that of the US, I have an adaptor that allows the top blades to be swiveled to satisfy both.)
These days, lots of devices come with a USB plug, which allows them to be charged in a great many places without having to have a local power plug adaptor.
Ten years ago, I had a colleague from South Africa, and I was surprised to find that country had its own idea of an electric plug.
Power Generation Methods
We have the traditional approaches—coal, hydro, natural gas, geothermal, and nuclear—but alternate ones such as water-waves, wind, and solar are becoming more popular.
Over an 18-year period, I commuted to Maine to work on a power-related project. A network of minicomputers monitored and controlled a set of six hydroelectric dams and monitored (but did not control) two steam plants that burned wood chips and chemicals that were extracted from wood by a digester. [See my essay, "My Time in Maine" from January 2019, in which I discussed that as well as reporting on my adventure of a snow survey, measuring how much power was lying on the ground as snow.]
When it comes to wind power, Denmark is a world leader in the manufacture and use of wind turbines. On one stay with my friend Keld near Copenhagen, we toured a wind farm where one turbine had been shut down for maintenance. (Its blades had been struck by lightning, which had burned holes right through some of the carbon-fiber material.) We took the opportunity to climb up the ladder inside the 40-meter tower and stood out on the platform at the top by the huge generator. The view, as well as the equipment, was impressive. At that time, they were starting to ship 100-meter towers, which could be installed in the forest, but be high above the trees. Separately, on several visits to friend Belinda's town in northeast Germany, I have been enchanted by the many clusters of turbines, all turning ever so gently, often looking like choreographed dancers. And at night, when they have static and/or flashing lights on, they can look like a large convoy of UFOs approaching.
Of course, one can always generate one's own electricity! In fact, in many parts of the US, if a private individual generates more power than they need, the local utility is obliged to buy it from them.
A few years ago, a large tree came down in my neighborhood and brought down the power lines. As such, I was without power for more than 24 hours. When it looked like being longer than a few hours, I went in search of a generator. Initially, all the ones I found cost at least US$1,000, and had way more capability than I needed. However, soon after, I found an entry-level one for only $200. Back home, I sat it on some old towels on my small front verandah, fired it up, ran a cable through the window, and hooked up my two fridges/freezers and some lights. The unit was not powerful enough, however, to run my microwave oven, so I resorted to a gas camping stove. Being in the IT industry, I also hooked up a computer, so I could work. And then I discovered that when I powered up my internet gear, I had my usual strong signal. The fiber optic cable for that was quite separate from the power lines and was not affected by the outage. Basically, I was camping in my house, in comfort!
While electric vehicles (EVs) are becoming popular and the US tax system provides generous incentives, they are a long way from becoming ubiquitous. However, battery technology is improving all the time, and with longer-lasting charges, people can drive further without the need to recharge. At the start of 2021, one of my local supermarkets added a charging station. General Motors' recent announcement that it was moving completely to EVs was a welcome thing. However, as I don't drive many miles a year, and I only buy cheap, used vehicles, it's unlikely I'll ever own one.
Now electric vehicles are not new. From Wikipedia, "EVs first came into existence in the mid-19th century, when electricity was among the preferred methods for motor vehicle propulsion, providing a level of comfort and ease of operation that could not be achieved by the gasoline cars of the time. Modern internal combustion engines have been the dominant propulsion method for motor vehicles for almost 100 years, but electric power has remained commonplace in other vehicle types, such as trains and smaller vehicles of all types." I had no idea about this until I came across a WWI-era electric truck on display in Germany.
My most unusual electric-powered mode of transport was a submarine. My family and I were on a Disney Cruise out of Florida through some of the Bahamian Islands, and this was one of the options we could chose for activities when we were anchored at a small island. I was lucky to get a seat right up front next to the pilot, so was able to shoot video out the front and to one side.
During various stays in business hotels in Japan and South Korea, I've had the dubious distinction of having a toilet that plugs into an electrical outlet. Not only does the power operate various fancy options, including water sprays, it also can heat the seat. In some hotels, as a power-saving measure, one must insert one's magnetic room keycard into a slot to activate the room's electrical appliances. At one place, this even included the toilet, so every time I came into the room and inserted my card, the microcomputer in the toilet went through its boot (start-up, that is) phase. Can you say, "overkill?" In any event, would you trust a computer with attached mechanical devices to conduct "its business" around your nether regions?
On an IT-related business trip to Montreux, Switzerland, after we broke for the day, some of us took a mountain railway up a steep ride to the 1,000-meter mark. There, we had drinks and took in the view. Someone reported that the public toilets there had a very high-tech mechanism, so quite a few of us computer-nerds just had to go in and watch it go through its motions, as it retracted the seat and put it through an extensive cleaning process. If you have never been mesmerized by a toilet with an electric brain, do add that to your list-of-things-to-do-before-you-die.
In 1966, while my family moved to a house that had mains electricity, it still had an outhouse (AU: dunny). A year or so later, my dad decided to go modern, and have a flush toilet installed, but, of course, that required a rather large hole to be dug in the back yard to accommodate the associated septic tank. As it happened, around that time, a crew from ETSA was working in the area, drilling holes for some new power poles. Apparently, my dad approached them (probably with the promise of some cash or several dozen bottles of beer) and asked them if they wouldn't mind dropping by the house with their truck-mounted drill and making some good-size holes as practice for their main job, which he'd then finish off with a shovel.
In case you were wondering, YES, I have been shocked by 240-volt and 110-volt systems, several times. However, I don't go making a habit out of it.
Almost certainly, the most impressive use of battery power I've ever seen was in the electric light parade, which was primarily held at Disney's theme parks in Florida and California, but no longer operates on a regular basis, if at all. Hundreds of performers and floats were lit up with many thousands of lights as they moved around the park; it was mesmerizing for both young and old!
On a flight from Frankfurt, Germany, to Washington, DC, as we entered New England airspace, there was a complete power outage in New York City and the greater surrounds, so air-traffic control for the region had minimal operating services. As such, our plane went for a tour of the New England countryside, but after an hour or so, we ran low on fuel and had to detour to Boston, where we waited some hours to get refueled. However, by the time we were done there, we had a clear flight path down to DC.
For many years, I lived in a planned city, Reston, Virginia. [See my essay, "Living in Utopia" from February 2012.] I used to joke that Reston had so many (sometimes anal) rules, that one could only breathe in on Mondays, and out again on Tuesdays! As such, to avoid "unpleasant-looking pylons and wires" around the residential areas, all local power lines were buried underground. Oh, and while one could put powered boats up to a certain size on the four man-made lakes, the power had to come from a small electric motor.
In the early 1970s, I played semipro Australian Rules Football. [See my essay, "Football, Aussie Style" from January 2020.] My club's arena, Norwood Oval, was one of the very few in the state capital with a great lighting system, and we trained there two nights a week each winter. (Games were played Saturday afternoons.) The Oval also hosted the city's baseball league games and an occasional international rugby test, all played at night. It takes some getting used to playing at night, especially when one has to look up to find and track a football. At some point, the game introduced yellow (and later, white) balls for night games, as the traditional, red/brown ones were hard to see.
For more information that you ever wanted to know about power in various countries, click here. And for AC power plugs and sockets, click here.
It is rare that the power goes out at my house. But when it does, as I turn to other activities, invariably almost all of them require power! It can be humbling to have to go back to the "good old days." That said, I always have a pencil and paper nearby!
As I get ready to publish this, we're more than two years into the coronavirus pandemic, and when people complain about how bad things are, I reply, "It could be much worse; we could be without power as well!" And in my case, having my own underground water well, no power means no water either.
When I wrote this in February 2021, some 100 million here in the US had been hit by extreme winter weather with several million having no power for days. Fortunately, those storms largely bypassed my area. More recently, Hurricane Ian hit Florida, causing major and extended power outages.