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Africa: We Feel Your Pain (Sometimes)

Power outages in the capital city of the United States are a surprisingly regular feature.

May 9, 2014

Credit: Menna -

The citizens of Washington, D.C. aren’t really great when it comes to engaging in any acts of solidarity, whether with the rest of America or the rest of the world.

No wonder. Washingtonians live on top of the world — at the very center of power of the center of power in the world.

And yet, there are vital exceptions. Yesterday was such a day. Were it not for battery power, I couldn’t have written this piece. The power went out here.

That was a remarkable coincidence, for two reasons. First, today, our latest Globalist Quiz aired on the Marketplace Morning Report on NPR. Our latest quiz edition asks a pertinent question: How many people in Africa live without any access to electricity?

As things stand, PEPCO, our local electricity provider, enforced some practical solidarity on my neighborhood. This power failure reminds all of us Washingtonians that, for much of humanity, power outages are a regular occurrence.

In fact, in Africa, if people are connected to the electricity grid at all, an outage is often a daily occurrence. To have a viable business there, firms depend on backup generators to ensure a steady flow of power.

Friendly advice from the police

We will get a generator soon, too. Soon after the power had gone out, some police cruisers appeared in our neighborhood. We asked the policemen whether they knew anything about the power outage.

They didn’t. In fact, they had arrived to check on a burglary alarm (a signal had been received because of the power outage, thus no break-in). The police didn’t leave us empty-handed, though.

In an act of true solidarity, one of the policemen filled us in on a handy practice in his household. Because of the frequency of power outages, his family had resorted to installing a very convenient — and, rare at that, environmentally reliable — power generator. It allows connecting the gas (heating) supply to provide electricity for the house.

A powerless center of world power

Mind you, when the power went out, no hurricane was in sight. Nor was there a rainstorm. The sun was shining brightly outside.

Power outages are a troublingly regular occurrence in the U.S. capital city. Outside the immediate downtown area, most power cables are still running above ground, usually amidst the trees lining our streets. They are thus very susceptible to falling trees and the like.

This event happened only a few weeks after PEPCO, our provider, had made a big ado about its customer service when it replaced all electricity poles in our neighborhood with higher poles. The purpose, we were told, was to reduce the probability of power outages. So much for the advertised cause.

But will they keep the promise?

The second reason that the power outage was a remarkable coincidence was recent news from the corporate world, which fits into this picture beautifully. It just so happens that it was announced earlier this week that PEPCO was being acquired by Exelon, a much larger utility company based in Chicago.

A key reason for the $6.8-billion transaction, according to news reports, was PEPCO’s prolonged struggle with making sufficient investments in its network structure and with providing for a better customer experience.

Truer words to justify an acquisition have never been spoken. Now, all that remains to be seen is whether the acquirer, unlike the acquired party, actually manages to follow through on that promise.

All we, the mighty consumers, can do, is to keep our fingers crossed.


Power outages are a troublingly regular occurrence in the U.S. capital city.

Power failures remind all Washingtonians that, for much of humanity, power outages are a regular occurrence.