Oh boy. It appears that in addition to high energy prices and rolling blackouts, the summer of 2001 may be remembered for suburban blackout parties.

In an effort to make “a poetic and direct response to the irresponsible behavior of energy suppliers, utilities, and government officials,” some grassroots political groups held what amounts to blackout parties from 7 to 10 p.m. on the first day of summer, June 21. One group in upstate New York even organized a “Blackout Pot Luck.”

How much sense does that make? The first day of summer is the longest day of the year, so by 10 p.m. the sun will have hardly set. There’s not much need for lights, so who would have noticed a blackout?

Maybe it was quieter, since a blackout would mean no TV, CDs, or air conditioners humming. But it’s a safe bet that participants didn’t unplug their refrigerators, clocks, and VCRs for those three hours.

Harsh Reality

Kevin Heslin, editor ofThe News’sister publication Energy User News, pointed out that such “parties,” while they may intend to show solidarity to those who are suffering from actual power shortages and subsequent blackouts, do little justice to the unpleasant truth.

For starters, real blackouts aren’t planned weeks in advance. They do not occur at a time when it’s convenient. And, perhaps worst of all, you don’t know when the power is going to come back on.

The planned blackout events probably seemed like a good idea at the time. The mind’s eye would visualize intimate gatherings in the dark, without the noise and interference of our electrically powered society, and glowing in the light of citronella. Think of the kids running around outside with “mosquito chasers,” and the adults laughing and casually sipping cold beer. Maybe you’d even see a few fireflies. It might be hot, but heck, it’s only for one night.

Correction — that’s one evening. At 10 p.m., the a/c went right back on so you could get some sleep.

The reality is that blackouts are more likely to occur at the hottest time of day, mid-afternoon. Imagine coming home from work, frazzled by the commute, to find the house (which was shut tight all day) hot and stuffy, and the seal on the refrigerator not nearly as good as you thought it was.

The impromptu barbecue is less fun than you would think, from the knowledge that there’s a lot more meat in the freezer that could go bad if the power doesn’t come back on soon. (You might muster a smile if you recall the “I Love Lucy” episode that ended with, “Grab a fork and some ketchup and come to the biggest barbecue in the woooorld!”)

Don’t even think about the bored, whining kids.

Good for you

Frankly, I don’t think anyone in government or an executive utility position was concerned that a number of consumers decided to shut off the juice for three hours one day. They might even have appreciated it.

If you really want to make a difference, why not set aside a little time every week for a kind of blackout: Turn off the tube, pull the kids off the computer, and dust off a board game. Go play miniature golf, or walk to get an ice cream. It’s not as radical as it sounds.

Despite the skepticism of some journalists (ahem), there were real benefits to be gained from those voluntary blackouts. They may have gotten people thinking about really taking control of their energy consumption. And if consumers are interested enough to voluntarily turn off the power, they may also be open to buying a higher efficiency air conditioning system when it’s time for replacement — or at least they may be more open to getting the old system maintained regularly, so it won’t be as much of a power hog. Moreover, consumers who cared enough to participate in a voluntary blackout would probably fit the profile of consumers who would use setback thermostats to their best advantage.

Contractors, now is the time to move in with facts and figures on energy-saving opportunities.

In the meantime, conserve on your own, any day you want. Dial up your thermostat, shut unnecessary lights and appliances, and walk to the store. Remind your kids to shut off the TV when they leave the room.

It’ll give them something to remember you by.

Checket-Hanks is service/maintenance and troubleshooting editor. She may be reached at 313-368-5856; checket-hanksb@bnp.com (e-mail).

Publication date: 06/25/2001