A Flicker from the Past

Did your lights give you that sickening lurch that hints at a plunge into darkness at about 10:35 last night?

The footie match was well over and good little Kiwis should have been well on their way to being snuggled up in bed with the cat buzzing away happily at their feet.

But … ’twas not so.

As the lights did the disco version of the “watoosie” telling me that there was a momentary shortage of electrons and those that were there weren’t dancing to the usual beat of 50 Hertz, I was reminded of an event of yesteryear.

I was living in London at the time. Blockbuster movies were all the rage as the channels competed for the viewing audience. This was the 1980s – when we used to assiduously watch the weekly instalment of “V” and desperately hope that thoughts of alien abductions wouldn’t plague our dreams that night.

Rugged up in our flat in Twickenham with the boiler on overtime (it was cold enough to freeze the duvalakas off a brass monkey outside) we’d been watching a blockbuster movie release that was so memorable … that I’ve forgotten what it was.

In concert with several million Brits we were watching through to the final credits, eyes and bladders bulging. As those lines scrolled up the screen at the end, several million of us dealt to the bulging bladder problem, hoping that our bulging eyes would retreat as we got over what we’d just seen. Then there was that fateful moment…

Several million of the “great unwashed’s” hands reached for the button, lever or chain-pull and … pressed or hauled. Throughout Blighty millions of dunnies went “whoosh.” As per programming, several hundred thousand pumping stations leapt online to answer the sudden drop in water pressure as the toilet cisterns emptied. Seconds later, several thousand sewer pumps jumped online to whisk away a sudden deluge in subterranean chambers.

Back at home the lights suddenly played a silent rat-a-tat-tat as the filaments desperately looked for scant electrons. In several hundred electricity control stations, a new version of the bulging bladders and bulging eyes routine was suddenly played out by staff as load meters went “clonk” against their end-stops. Steady hands reached forth and thrust rods back into reactor piles and Old Mick was sent running to throw some coal into the furnace at the local coal-fired station.

The electrons burst forth, and the lights glowed brightly again to send us all off to bed, which we obligingly did.

Millions of now washed hands reached for light switches, turned off electric blankets (the lucky ones), switched off heaters, flicked back the thermostat on the boiler, and gratefully snuggled into nice warm beds as moggie settled down with a happy purr. Having done their job, thousands of pumping stations popped offline as cisterns stopped filling and sewer pumps completed their business. The nation’s wires practically bulged with an overabundance of electrons. Power grid operators’ eyes bulged again as they reached for controls to cut back generation that, if a cartoonist could’ve captured it, would’ve made a main fuse’s day and blasted the rust off a manky D-shackle.

A day or so later, the papers carried the story about the record load changes that had occurred within the space of about twenty minutes on a cold British night in the mid 1980s. Regrettably I didn’t note down the number of Squidly Watts that had been involved, but it was a large number – all because of a very cold night and a thoroughly successful marketing campaign for one TV channel.

So … What happened in Godzone at 10:35 last night to make the lights flicker so alarmingly? The footie teams had packed up and headed off to the pub for the post-match bash. Perhaps it was the caretaker turning off those bright lights at Wellington’s caketin. Or maybe it was several thousand Kiwis hitting that start button on the dishwasher after they’d cleared the flotsam and jetsam from the bench and shoved the pizza boxes into the wheelie bin.

Whatever it was, spare a thought for the folk in the electricity control centres who have to react to abrupt changes in load when a million Kiwis decide to do something at the same time. Those hydro turbines take a wee while to get up to speed and then have to be “synched” into the 50 Hz network, you know. They are quite fast to “feather” if load drops off, though.

And Old Mick who now works up at Huntly tossing coals into the hungry maws at the power station – he’s not as quick as he was back in Blighty in the 80s. We’re all getting a bit older and, it seems, the rust has set in…

3 Responses to “A Flicker from the Past”

  1. Chris M says:

    It was probably those reptilian aliens from V doing a low pass over some high tension lines on their way in for their next invasion 😉

  2. Chris says:

    very nicely written…

  3. Flying deldas says:

    Could it have been a million Kiwis, having finished their late supper of tea and toast post Rugby, settling in to watch The Silver Ferns thrash the Aussies yet again?

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