Archive for May 7th, 2008

Break Up with Your Utility Companies – or Get Dumped!

Sharon May 7th, 2008

So I spent almost $2000 today – to fill up our oil tank.  We heat primarily with wood, but use oil as a back-up system to keep the pipes from freezing, and occasionally on days when we’re going to be out for an extended period.  Our hot water is also heated with oil.  For whatever reason, most oil heat in the US is in the Northeast, mostly in towns beyond gas lines like mine.  I suspect today’s purchase may well be the last tank of heating oil we ever buy.

Now at our comparatively low rate of use I can expect 400 gallons of oil (at $4.13 gallon) to last us at least three years.  Could we do without it entirely?  Absolutely – but it is a nice cushion – I’m fond of the occasional hot shower, and it means on occasional busy days when we’re out, we don’t have bank the stove for extended periods (and thus create more particulate emissions).  It acts as insurance so that the pipes don’t freeze when we’re away.  And it means my mother doesn’t have to dress up like the Michelin man to sleep in the back bedrooms the stove doesn’t reach when she’s visiting in the winter.  Although at these prices, Mom might have to suck it up, or we’ll move a futon in near the stove.

Since I don’t think oil prices are going down anytime soon, and various sources in the know including OPEC and Goldman-Sachs are predicting $200 barrel oil by the end of this year, this actually doesn’t look like a bad deal.  And as I said, there’s a good chance this is our last tank.

The combination of laying out such a huge sum and Gail the Actuary’s latest article on the frailties of the electric grid got me thinking more about an article I wrote a couple of years ago.  In “It isn’t Gridcrash that Makes the Lights Go Out.”  In it, I argued that most of us should prepare for life without electricity, not because of a fear of the loss of the grid  (although certainly that’s a possibility as Gail point out) but because of a real likelihood that we may not be able to afford the electric bill.  Unfortunately, I think this prediction is more true now than it was when I wrote the original essay.

Looking at my 2K oil bill, I can forsee what is going to happen to large numbers of my neighbors around their oil and gas bills.  It started this winter.  Around here, the minimum oil deliveries are 100-125 gallons – it isn’t worth their while to haul out the truck to give you 25 gallons.  But as 100 gallons starts to cost 300 or 350 dollars, it becomes less and less likely that low income families can come up with that amount, much less fill a large oil tank. 

And most of them don’t see a tank lasting 2 years – the average American household in my region (where our record low is -30) uses almost 600 gallons a year.  By fall, if oil prices continue to rise (and there’s no evidence whatsoever that demand will fall, and a good bit of evidence that producers can’t produce more), which seems extremely likely, heating oil is likely to rise to between $5 and $6 per gallon.  That would make even a bridge delivery of 100 gallons cost much of the monthly paycheck for a working class family.  Hell, it would pretty much all of our discretionary income.  And since most families use about $100 a month, that’s going to be a big deal.  Already, 16% of all Americans plan to use their tax rebates to pay utility bills.  Stephen B. reports over at ROE2 that 10% of all National Grid customers are presently more than 3 months behind on electric bills, and natural gas is in similar shape.

What that means is that the 8% of Americans who heat with oil are likely to be casting around for options to allow them to both eat and keep tolerably warm.  That probably means electric space heaters and wood heat.  But with wood up at $250 a cord or more in many areas, electric prices rising steadily as well, and capacity tight, tens of thousands of new high demand electric heaters are likely to present problems – both for the private users and for the electric infrastructure as a whole.   As Gail Tverberg’s article suggests, particularly in areas like the Northeast corridor where the grid is already vulnerable, the addition of these loads may represent a real threat to grid stability.  Any modernization or added capacity will likely bring prices higher.

The cost of natural gas has also risen over the last few years, with mild winters helping to keep this from entering a crisis situation.  But North American gas is already past its peak according to Julian Darley, author of _High Noon for Natural Gas_, and over the coming years, there are likely to be sharp price rises and competition with Canadians, who, not unreasonably, would like to use their gas for home heating too.   Trade requirements now have Canada selling most of its natural gas to the US – but one cold winter in which Canadian needs can’t be met is likely to lead to a change in that situation – and if Americans have to rely on their own natural gas, prices will be vastly higher and supply much lower.  It is also worth noting the vast rise in proposed new natural gas electric generating plants – we are building our electric capacity based on gas supplies that aren’t terribly secure.

Meanwhile, as people turn to other utilities, replacing their oil bills with natural gas or electric bills, the number of people who are struggle to get by is set to rise for a whole host of reasons – higher food prices, rising unemployment, the stripping of benefits from jobs, rising medical costs for aging baby boomers – the whole shebang. And that means less ability to pay new bills.  And that means indebtedness to utility companies.  And that means shut offs.  This is likely to be especially acute in cold climate areas, but the American South uses more energy than the North does, and is generally poorer, so this is pretty much an equal opportunity problem, with different periods of seasonal crisis.

Getting shut off is easy.  Getting put back on is hard – there are hefty fees from your utility company.  Some places charge interest on overdue accounts.   There are a whole host of ways that once you are in the hole, it is very, very hard to climb out.  Many of us will get into the hole, and some will come out, while others will be stuck there.

 What we are seeing is the beginning of the end of many American’s relationship to public utilities.  As the costs of food and gasoline rise, and as benefits disappear and medical costs overwhelm many families, people are about to come hard against the costs of their fossil fueled lifestyle.  At first, this will be the poor, as is already happening – I’ve reported on the “Heat or Eat” crisis several times.  But it isn’t just heat – that’s just one canary in the coalmine.  The thing is, people struggling to get by tend to pay their bills in rotation, trying never to get far enough behind on any one bill to have a crisis.  But that kind of juggling is often disrupted - unforseen expenses always arise –  and often there’s a cascade effect, since all the bills are growingly large and somewhat overdue…  It doesn’t take much to lose heat and power and gas.

If you listen to the news reports, it sounds as though the economy is stabilizing, like we’re near the bottom.  Don’t worry, we’re told.  But it is worth noting that almost everything that we’re seeing now represents, at one level or another, the selling off of things that have in the past had value, often at very low prices.  Last year, I suggested that the new economy was going to based on bottom feeding – scavenging off the leavings of our prior wealth. I see nothing in the news reports that suggests I was wrong – both the highest levels of finance and the lowest are showing the same things – the repackaging of increasingly worthless assets for sale at pennies on the dollar.   There are already reports coming in of people stripping their attics of prized possessions and selling off anything they have, just to pay for basic bills.  Pawnshops are doing a booming business. It seems mostly as though the economy is staggering along, but whether you are repackaging worthless commercial assets, worthless luxury vehicles or worthless tvs, they all add up to…worthless in the most literal sense.  The days of keeping the bills paid this way are numbered.  The days of home equity loans are pretty much over, as almost half of recent homebuyers now have no or negative equity.  There’s simply nothing left – and when there’s nothing left and the money doesn’t meet the end of the month, off go the lights, and the heat, and the gas.

For now, it is mostly the working poor leading the way.  But it won’t stay that way. Most Americans live beyond their means – statistically, we spend about 5% more than we make.  Middle class Americans aren’t going to be able to eat the food bill, the heating bill, the electric bill, the mortage that isn’t worth much… something will have to give.  Fuel subsidy programs are already stretched – and a winter’s worth of fuel subsidies available to any household out here is good for about 3 weeks of heating at these prices.  Many of us are about to face the reality that we’re not that middle class.

What gives will be different for different people.  Some people will leave their homes, and some will consolidate, moving in with family.  Lots of people will skip meals – and their kids will go hungry to school.  And many will lose the utilities and attempt to compensate – they’ll spend more eating out, because there’s no gas to cook with on the stove, or eat only microwave meals, or things in bags and cold cans of food.  A few will get desperate enough to do things like bring in the charcoal grill and asphyxiate themselves.  The same goes for heat and light – people will cobble together bad solutions, and some people’s solutions will be bad enough that they do real harm – to themselves, of course, but it won’t be limited to themselves.  The fires in urban rentals won’t just destroy the homes of the cold and hungry, but their neighbors too.  And the costs of dealing with disaster after disaster will eat up city budgets – there’s no such thing as a crisis without unintended consequences.

As more and more of us can’t afford our relationship with our utility companies, we’re going to break up like we’re on a bad date.  And since there’s no money in the budget for the mass reinsulation of 90 million homes, or the subsidizing of fuel and electricity on the scale that Americans use it, we have two choices.  We can break up with our utility companies only when we’re massively indebted and when we’ve already sacrificed dinner and home and other security to try and keep the lights on and the heat running, or we can do it wisely, and break up before the crisis gets acute.

That means adapting our homes to live without them.  It isn’t easy – but for the 2000 bucks I spent on oil, many people could get the basic framework of non-electric living in place.  And we could subsidize these things just as we subsidize solar or wind power – instead of giving people tax breaks for buying pv panels, we could give them tax breaks for buying things to enable them to live without them.  Because while PV is great, it is demonstrably far too expensive for anyone struggling to pay their utility bills – and a lot of people who aren’t. 

$2000 will get you a wood, corn or pellet stove, two solar powered battery chargers and batteries for flashlights and table lamps, and for your CD player or ipod.  It’ll get you cardboard and tinfoil enough to make a solar oven for warm weather, and  you can put stew on the back of the stove in winter.  Depending on the size of your house and your needs, you might have enough left over for long johns, or a couple of personal battery powered fans.  It isn’t ideal, but you’ll have light, heat and food.

Another $40 will get you a tiny washer that you can do easily by hand, but a bucket and plunger will do.  If you don’t have water, you’ll need money for a well pump, a cistern, lots of rain barrels or some other water solution – and this will probably cost more.  But maybe if money is tight you can work on making the water solution collective – most places around the world have central water, and everyone walks over, chats at the well, and carries their jugs back. 

Is $2000 out of the question?  Well, how about $300 in long johns, battery chargers, down comforters and a few small electric appliances – a tiny efficient space heater to take the edge off of the room you are in and a microwave to ensure copious hot tea?  You can live without heating or cooling - no one has to freeze or die of heat stroke.   The simple fact is that we’re not going to be able to afford even these preparations once we get further and further in debt to the purveyors of fossil fuels – the abrupt transfer to the low energy lifestyle, without any preparation, is what I’d like to see everyone avoid.

The grid may or may not be there.  There may or may not be imported heating oil, or Canadian natural gas coming through your pipes.  Your utilities company may or may not still be in business.  But what is almost certain is that the present trajectory means that more and more of us are going to have to reconsider our usage – and many of us aren’t going to be using any at all.   


Triage: If You Thought I was Over-reacting with the Food Storage Stuff…

Sharon May 7th, 2008

The idea that we might for an extended crisis be effectively on our own is something that gets you one of two reactions.  1. “OMG!  I’d better do something about this” or 2. “Yeah, it’ll never happen”.  Now not everyone has the same reaction time.  I completely ignored Y2K, never bought any plastic sheeting or duct tape after 9/11, and was too young for the duck and cover drills.  

 Now for a long time the “It’ll never happen” folks had the majority – but that may be coming to an end.  After all, there’s something about seeing your own military blocking people trying to walk out of New Orleans and folks screaming for help in the superdome while the government serenely ignores them that does point up the “maybe we should have a plan” idea. 

I’ve seen this myself, as people move from thinking “Sharon’s that whack-job apocalyptic nut” to “Well, she may be a whack-job apocalyptic nut, but she’s kinda right about some stuff…” ;-) .

Here’s a new bit of news on this subject.  From the Medical Journal _Chest_ comes a study that tries to deal with the hard questions of how to allocate scarce resources in a time of epidemic or other large scale medical crisis.  There’s an AP summary here as well.  And let’s just say that it didn’t precisely make my day to know that when there are difficulties with allocation of scarce resources, those with “severe mental impairment” (which is not clearly defined in the study or the article) will be on the list of people to be denied treatment, since my eldest son pretty clearly fits that definition.

There rest of the list includes:

_People older than 85.

_Those with severe trauma, which could include critical injuries from car crashes and shootings.

_Severely burned patients older than 60.

_Those with severe mental impairment, which could include advanced Alzheimer’s disease.

_Those with a severe chronic disease, such as advanced heart failure, lung disease or poorly controlled diabetes.

 Now first off, I’d like say that I think that the project of triage is necessary, and unpleasant, and it is probably good that guidelines are being established.   I’m not demonizing this one report, or the doctors that made it.  I’m also aware that Eli would have to be very sick and have a high likelihood of death before this protocol was even relevant…probably.  

Let’s be clear  – this report does not say they would deny treatment to anyone with the above conditions, but that a combination of these conditions and a high likelihood of death already would cause triaging.  The reason I am concerned here, besides my personal investment, is that triage sometimes has to move down the chain – that is, a plan that carefully limits rationing works only when there still remain substantial supplies.  If supply chains tighten further, then you have to ration more stringently – and a set of guidelines for rationing that starts the process are likely to continue being part of the reasoning as rationing gets tighter.  So, for example, if mid-way through a crisis supplies begin to be limited, the above parameters are implemented.  But when supplies get really tight there has to be a mechanism for deciding how what remains gets allocated – and if we’ve already downgraded the elderly, mentally disabled and chronically ill, that does point out the next move.

The unfortunate truth is that you end up triaging one way or another – that is, if you have a limited supply of medical resources and no certainty that you will be resupplied, you can use them all up on early arrivals, and thus triage by when you show up, or you can find some other way to ration.  Just because I’m fairly horrified by the idea that in a pandemic or other widespread medical crisis my kid might not be treated doesn’t mean that I think that the doctors doing this aren’t trying to address a difficult concern. 

All of us may be doing some ugly triage at some point or another, as we sort out what resources in our communities are salvageable.  There is no way not to sort things out when there are limits on resources - one way or another, when needed items are scarce, you make choices about how to use them.  We often imagine that unconsciously going forward and using things up until they run out isn’t a form of triage, but, of course it is – and usually an inequitable one.  The reality is that rationing of some sort is almost always a better solution than not rationing, when you run into absolute scarcity.  And sometimes, the choices will be bad – there will be no way to make one without hurting someone. 

So I don’t think that this report is fundamentally a bad thing.  We do need a triage plan.  But we also need to fill in some steps before triage, and make sure those who have to implement strategies know when to go to triage, and when not to.

 You see,  the problem with applications like this is that they do get complicated.  And in the heat of things, complexity tends to fall by the wayside.  Medical studies have suggested that this is quite common, for example, that thousands of medical deaths are caused each year simply because in the heat of things, it is difficult for doctors and nurses to remember to do every single necessary step to minimize risk.  Doctors and nurses are human beings, and make ordinary human errors.

So a fairly complex way of sorting people out (evaluating both their likelihood of death and their quality of life/lifespan, giving each a score and then having a designated person make a decision) has a solid chance of going wrong when the crisis occurs when the designated person is not there, the chart is buried in the wrong office and no one has the key and the person who went through the training once six years ago has to make the decisions.  And it would be pretty easy for those decisions to translate, in a crisis to: we don’t have any resources for the elderly, sick, disabled or mentally impaired, or for triage protocols to be implemented before they are necessary. 

 And, of course, because the poor are more likely to fall into many of  these categories, they are likely to be disproportionately allowed to die in  such a crisis.  This is largely because of our present system of health care rationing, which sorts us out by ability to pay.  That is, people who are already being rationed out of care will then be penalized for this. I think it is worth noting that those who are most likely to be victims don’t look just like my middle class, white kid.  Heck, I could probably fake it if he were sick enough, and lie about his situation.  But it is harder to lie to doctors about your diabetes, your cancer, your skin color or to conceal your or your child’s obvious severe disability. 

This protocol may or may not become part of the SOP at hospitals around the nation.  But there’s a good chance that at some point, some kind of triage protocol will be implemented, and some sad, horrible choices will be made. It is even possible that such a protocol will never be misused – that good choices always will be made honorably.  But it is also possible that they will not.  The truth is that we ration right now by ability to pay – and that the people we ration to tend not to be very politically powerful.  So maybe, just maybe we have to be very, very careful about the assumptions we are nurturing under the auspices of preparedness.

 This is also a reminder (in case we needed one) that rather than prepare and adapt for oncoming crises, our society tends to choose the easiest ways to mitigate potential harm, rather than the most comprehensive ones.  Despite years of awareness of the possibility of epidemics or widespread disaster, it is always easier to claim that no one could have forseen this, and to under-prepare.  It is always easier to let the most vulnerable people in a society slide – they don’t protest very loudly in many cases.  It is easier to let the levees crumble than to allocate money to protect mostly very poor and very black people.  It is easier to talk about rationing for the disabled and elderly in a crisis than to come up with a plan for ensuring their needs are met.

Thus Hurricane Katrina became the ultimate expression of who we value: “Own a private car, or die…oh, and it is just a coincidence that you aren’t white…”  In a sense, I give this report credit – it at least opens up discussion and analysis of who we value, rather than leaving it unspoken, but just as deadly.  But I also recognize the risk of sending messages about who we value that get twisted into much more explicit, even more troubling messages.  The triage protocol may be necessary - but it is also necessary to ask “are we doing everything we can to ensure that this protocol’s use will be minimized?”  In this case, we are not.  US preparedness for medical disaster is woefully inadequate.

I think this document represents another expression of who we value in a society.  For those of us who value lives differently, who do our own calculations in different ways, it is a reminder that again, we may be on our own.  There may be no point in rushing Grandma to a hospital in a crisis, if she will be refused treatment.  Those of us with vulnerable family and friends may need to do more to ensure that they don’t become sick in the first place, or that plans exist for their support.  We may need to create community structures for the care of those who would be turned away who don’t have family to care for them. 

More important, for all that it is necessary to have triage strategies, it is worth noting that the scale of the disaster depends on our prior expressions of what and who we value.  That is, it is far less likely that this kind of ugly triage will have to ever occur if we actually allocate adequate resources both to preventatives and to responses.  It is true, as the report notes, that the idea of unlimited resupply is impossible.  It is not true that hospitals couldn’t have a greater degree of preparedness, larger stockpiles and, perhaps, plans for hospice care and community based care of those they cannot serve. 

There is often a tendency in a crisis to jump far too rapidly to the idea of triaging.  And it certainly is a balancing act, a difficult set of choices, and waiting too long is potentially disastrous too.  But too often, I see people who understand the crisis we face assuming that we must give up on the hope of addressing injustices, or for caring for certain people.  The idea is that crisis comes and we’re immediately reduced to a world in which every choice is life or death – that is, we are immediately thrust into the world in which a bite of food shared condemns me to death, we are immediately transformed into a world where we are sered of such lofty goals as justice or the protection of the weak, and we enter into a blind struggle for survival. 

The problem is that even in great exigency, the world is more complicated than that.  And the problem of seeing a coming scarcity in a world of great abundance is that you sometimes miss the fact that there’s still enough abundance to allow for a less urgent, less scarce view of the world.  That is, we are, in the rich world, still a long way away from the struggle for survival.  To give up on our struggle to  protect the weak along with the strong would be premature – easier, yes, but wrong.  And it is still within our powers to create a low energy society that never requires much of that sort of ugly triage – if we choose to prioritize the resources.

But this is also an important reminder – the priorities of institutions and governments are not my priorities. If I want to be sure that my family and those I care about are cared for, I must rely on *my* priorities, allocating what resources I can as I see fit.  This is true on a personal level - that is, I should prepare specifically to care for my son at home in a crisis (actually, the point may be kind of moot, since  my local hospital would be completely overwhelmed  and I should prepare to care for all my family at home), and that I should be looking about my community for those who are likely to fall through the cracks.