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Musings of an Energy Nerd

When the Gas Pipeline Shuts Down

What would happen to urban residents if utilities stopped delivering natural gas and electricity?

For two or three winters in the early 1990s, natural gas deliveries to Armenian homes were mostly cut off. Many Armenian families purchased locally made wood stoves to stay warm. I took this photo of an Armenian apartment building in early 1992. If you look carefully, you can see stovepipes sticking out of some of the windows on the right-hand side of the photo.
Image Credit: All photos: Martin Holladay
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In the wake of the recent military crisis in Crimea, energy experts have been discussing whether Vladimir Putin will be tempted to gain political advantage by on the Russian natural gas pipelines that supply Ukraine and Western Europe. Regardless of whether this scenario is likely, such speculation raises the question: How would urban residents in a cold climate cope if the supply of natural gas were suddenly turned off?

Hollywood screenwriters have imagined various dystopic versions of a future economic collapse; these fictional accounts usually involve desperate citizens fighting over firewood and scraps of food. Most of these stories feature roving bands of armed, violent thugs. Unlike these screenwriters, however, I don’t believe that an energy crisis or economic collapse would necessarily lead to social anarchy.

Week-long electricity blackouts cause massive problems

Of course, many Americans have some familiarity with the consequences of short-term energy crises. We know what usually happens during electricity outages (for example, after an ice storm or a hurricane), and many of us remember the consequences of tight oil supplies during the 1970s.

During a blackout, many homes have no running water, no refrigeration, no air conditioning, and no heat; it can become quite unpleasant to live in such a home after just a few days without electricity. To limit suffering, authorities usually respond to these disasters by establishing emergency shelters, setting up gasoline-powered generators in public buildings, and distributing fresh drinking water.

In the U.S., these energy crises are usually solved in a matter of days or weeks. But what would happen to urban society if energy supplies were cut off for months or years?

The Armenian energy crisis of 1992

I lived and worked in Armenia for 18 months, off and on, between April 1990 and March 1992. I started as a volunteer with the American Friends Service Committee, as part of a six-month project to build medical clinics in villages devastated by the December 1988 earthquake. Once that project was complete, I returned to Armenia for another year, to build housing for earthquake victims in Stepanavan.

When I started my volunteer stint, Armenia was part of the Soviet Union. By the time I left in 1992, Armenia was an independent country. These were turbulent years. While trying to address the needs of 500,000 homeless earthquake victims, Armenia was engaged in an on-again, off-again war with its neighbor, Azerbaijan. The war created hundreds of thousands of refugees who fled from Azerbaijan to Armenia for safety.

During these years, the country also suffered a trade blockade by two of its neighbors, an economic collapse, rampant inflation, and a full-fledged energy crisis.

When I left the country in March 1992, Armenians were still struggling through the coldest winter in decades with very little access to electricity or natural gas.

Before the earthquake, life in Yerevan was good

Armenia is a landlocked country that borders Georgia, Turkey, Iran, and Azerbaijan. The climate of the capital city, Yerevan, is similar to the climate of Boston; winters can be cold and snowy.

Before the Armenian energy crisis of 1991-1993, the citizens of Yerevan lived a comfortable, middle-class existence. Most residents lived in multi-story apartment buildings served by elevators. Most families had a refrigerator, gas stove, and television. Apartments had regular electrical service and central heating. The city has a modern subway system, several art museums, and an impressive opera house.

Although the December 1988 earthquake devastated cities in the north of the country, the capital city was spared any significant damage.

During the winter of 1991-1992, the two major pipelines that delivered Russian natural gas to Armenia — one that passed through Azerbaijan, and one that passed through Georgia — were mostly cut off, due to the Azeri blockade and politically motivated sabotage. While gas was sometimes available from the pipeline through Georgia — a country that was undergoing its own political crisis — supplies were so limited that every Armenian suffered.

Electricity production was crippled that winter: the country’s nuclear power plant had been taken offline after the 1988 earthquake; hydroelectric production was almost halted when the water level in Lake Sevan dropped to record lows; and the disruption in natural gas delivery greatly reduced the output of gas-fired generators.

According to , Yerevan’s mayor declared in January 1992 that the city was in “a catastrophic situation.” The article noted, “As the temperature dipped to 10 degrees, … the supply of water to homes and power stations [was] interrupted overnight by frozen pumps and water mains. … Only 48 percent of public housing is being heated, and then only for a few hours each day. Hotels and restaurants are without heat or hot water. Hospitals have frequent power failures. … The mayor said only 2 million cubic meters of natural gas is coming in daily through neighboring Georgia, but Armenia needs 15 million cubic meters a day.”


Russian Natural Gas Exports

Russia is the world’s second largest producer of natural gas. Most of Russia’s exported natural gas is sent by pipeline to countries in the European Union, including Germany. In 2013, Russia supplied EU countries with 167 billion cubic meters of natural gas, equal to 34% of the countries’ natural gas usage.

According to a recent by Stacey Vanek Smith, “Europe (especially Germany, Europe’s biggest economy) is moving away from nuclear energy right now. The only viable alternatives are natural gas and coal, and coal comes with the greenhouse gas emissions issue. ‘That would tend to link Germany with Russian natural gas even more strongly,’ says Christopher Knittel, an energy economist at MIT. ‘That might be enough to give Russia the upper hand in terms of any negotiations.’”

The report continued, “But Russia isn’t the only country with natural gas. Why can’t Europe just get natural gas from someone else? Like the U.S., for example? Because, unlike oil, shipping natural gas is expensive and extremely labor intensive. It has to be liquified. ‘The reason that natural gas is primarily a continental market is because it’s pretty cheap to move it through pipelines, but it’s very expensive to liquefy it and ship it by tanker,’ explains James Bushnell, an economist at The University of California, Davis.”

Russia’s natural gas pipeline to Europe goes through Ukraine. ‘This is a high stakes game of poker and it does look like Vladimir Putin right now has a definite advantage,’ says Phil Flynn, senior markets analyst with the Price Futures Group in Chicago.”

During that difficult winter, the Armenian government was unable to provide much in the way of emergency aid to affected citizens. Most schools and factories remained closed.

No more space heat

I was building homes in Stepanavan, in northeast Armenia, that winter, as part of a relief project supported by the Armenian Diocese in the U.S. About twice a month, I would travel to Yerevan on weekends to visit my friends Susanna Galstian and Melik Karapetyan — as long as enough gasoline was available for the shared taxis to be operating.

Like everyone else in Yerevan, my friends were living in unheated apartments. If they were lucky, they had 4 or 6 hours of electricity a day. During that winter, the residents of Yerevan had three main energy-related concerns: obtaining water, staying warm, and cooking food.

Since many areas of Yerevan depended on electric pumps to pressurize the water mains, water supplies were irregular. For most residents, the solution to this problem was simple: whenever pipes delivered water, every available bottle, pot, and washtub in the apartment would be filled.

Staying warm was trickier. When pipelines stopped delivering natural gas to Yerevan, most buildings went cold. Indoor temperatures dropped (and in many buildings, water pipes froze). Of course, people dressed in multiple layers of clothing, and many people spent the day in bed.

Sheet-metal wood stoves

As the winter dragged on, sheet-metal workers began selling simple home-made wood stoves in outdoor markets. These stoves became common, and were even installed in 6th-floor apartments. The usual method of installation required a pane of glass to be removed from a window, so that a piece of sheet metal could be installed in its place. Then a horizontal stove pipe was extended through a hole in the sheet metal.

Many of these stoves included small fuel tanks to hold kerosene or used motor oil. The tanks were elevated, and connected to short lengths of small-diameter copper tubing controlled by a valve. The tubing terminated inside the stove’s firebox; the idea was to adjust the valve so that oil would drip slowly on the wood fuel in the firebox.

The main advantage of the oil-drip system is that the stove could burn all kinds of fuel, including cardboard, punky wood, or miscellaneous scraps.

For fuel, the citizens of Yerevan scrounged on the streets. At first they gathered twigs, boxes, and discarded packaging. As the crisis worsened, they went out at night with saws and began cutting limbs from street trees and the trees in Yerevan’s parks.

Another favorite fuel that winter was books, especially the inexpensive Marxist-Leninist school books that every Soviet citizen had acquired in high school. Tens of thousands of unread Marxist tomes were burned that winter in Yerevan, aided by the drip-drip-drip of used motor oil.

Cooking food became tricky

Apartment dwellers who had installed a wood stove were able to use the stove for limited space heating and cooking. But during the early months of that difficult winter, these wood stoves were rare, and many families had to use considerable ingenuity to cook their food.

Once gas service was cut off, kitchen ranges because useless. At that point, everyone went out and bought an electric hot plate. But electricity was supplied for only a few hours a day, and the service was totally unpredictable. On some days, the electricity might come on between 2:00 a.m. and 6:00 a.m.

The Armenian Earthquake

On December 7, 1988, northern Armenia was struck by a devastating earthquake that killed between 24,000 and 45,000 people. The worst-hit cities included Spitak, Leninakan (Gyumri), Stepanavan, and Kirovakan. After the earthquake, only about 25% of the buildings in these cities were still habitable. Over 500,000 Armenians were left homeless.

According to engineering teams who visited the country after the earthquake, the main reasons for the high death toll were inadequate local construction standards and the bitter winter weather.

After the earthquake, Armenian authorities worried that the earthquake might have affected the safety of the Metsamor nuclear power plant, and therefore ordered the facility to be shut down. The nuclear plant remained closed for six years, contributing to the country’s subsequent energy crisis.

Here’s the way most families coped: before they went to bed, they cut up their potatoes, cabbage, and onions, and perhaps a little meat if they were lucky, and put the uncooked food in a stew pot. Then they turned on every light in the house. (Of course, the entire neighborhood was dark.) When the electricity came on in the middle of the night, the lights would wake somebody up. At that point, it was important to rush to the kitchen and cook the stew, stirring as necessary. Once the stew was cooked, it was placed on top of the biggest pillow in the house, and then a pile of pillows and quilts was arranged around the stew pot as insulation. At that point, the cook could go back to bed.

The next day, the family ate stew. For the first meal of the day, the stew was warm; as the day wore on, of course, the stew gradually cooled off, making subsequent meals less satisfying than breakfast.

Navigating dark corridors

As energy supplies dwindled, public transportation became irregular. Buses were infrequent and overcrowded. When electricity supplies were short, the subway didn’t run.

We did a lot of walking that winter. When I visited my friends in Yerevan, I followed the local practice of always carrying a candle and matches. When I arrived at an apartment building, the entryway was always dark. Of course, elevators weren’t working. When you entered a building, you lit your candle and walked up the stairs (often to the fifth or sixth floor) by candlelight.

The social fabric stayed intact

During the winter of 1991-1992 (as well as the subsequent winter), there was a lot of suffering in Armenia. The weak and the elderly were most affected by the cold, and death rates rose. But there was no breakdown of the social fabric. There were no gangs of armed thugs breaking into homes and terrorizing the innocent.

Although the crime rate may have risen, I saw no disturbing signs of criminal activity, and I felt perfectly safe in Yerevan. It was clear from my conversations with Armenians that the typical response to hardship was the strengthening of existing networks of friends and family. Those who had a vegetable garden shared potatoes with those who lacked food. There were countless examples of cooperation and mutual aid.

My experiences that winter in Armenia left me with a hopeful outlook on how people respond to hard times. Here’s what I learned: when times get tough, you don’t want a bomb shelter and a rifle. What you want is to be surrounded by neighbors you know on a first-name basis.

Martin Holladay’s previous blog: “All About Washing Machines.”


  1. David Fay | | #1

    people in need
    A really interesting story with a moral that I really hope applies to this country, if it comes to that. And I think it does. For all their posturing, my Tea Party friends are some of the nicest people you'd ever want to meet; they'd give you the shirt off their back if you're in need. However, if you're one of those Other People in someplace far away, not so much.

    Speaking of people in need (Syria), did you see this horrifying UN photo of refugees in Syria?

  2. Jim Blodgett | | #2

    Thanks Martin.
    1990, '91? I remember it well. The picture you paint seems other worldly by comparison. Spooky, really. Not hard for me to imagine many other places around the globe in similar situations in the years since, while I stress about the price of gas or how my IRA is doing or where my kids are going to college.

    Thanks for the reality check.

  3. Flitch Plate | | #3

    a wake up call
    Martin … very moving and provoking with great photos. That must have been a highlight experience in your life. Thank you.

    Natural gas prices in Ontario, Canada were approved for a 40% hike yesterday.

    Vents-US, the first company to really explore and market what looks like a commercially viable single room, small, cost effective HRV/ERV is a Ukrainian company.

  4. Lucas Durand - 7A | | #4

    Uncertainties of culture...

    My experiences that winter in Armenia left me with a hopeful outlook on how people respond to hard times. Here’s what I learned: when times get tough, you don’t want a bomb shelter and a rifle. What you want is to be surrounded by neighbors you know on a first-name basis.

    Interesting story, thanks for sharing.
    I hope that your hopeful outlook proves itself over and over again in time.

    Seems like a large unknown in this regard is culture.
    Western culture, for example, has for so long cultivated very individualistic definitions of status and success...
    I wonder how easily those cultural ideals are put aside when the environment changes from a state of relative plenty to a state of relative scarcity.
    It is rational to realize that community is more resilient than the individual but I'm not sure rationality is a universal human response to "hard times"...
    And where the benefits of community are realized, it can be a fine line beetween "community" in a constructive sense and "community" in a more tribal and destructive sense.

    Certainly it would seem that there are now many people living in this world whose life experience has been almost completely devorced from the more ecological and primitive realities of life that can be imposed by "hard times".

  5. Brent Eubanks | | #5

    relevance to the US
    Outside of this community, I think that most people's reaction to this article would be something along the lines of "A great story but that could never happen here". How do you respond when you're confronted with that?

  6. Gordon Taylor | | #6

    Great story.
    I'm sharing this on FB with some of my Turkish contacts. Their government, of course, was partly responsible for the blockade.

  7. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #7

    Response to Brent Eubanks
    You suggested that many people might react to this story by saying, "A great story but that could never happen here." You didn't specify where you meant by "here," but I'm going to guess that you meant the United States.

    It's possible that people who have lived a privileged life in the U.S. will react as you have suggested. But there are many types of Americans.

    In addition to my Armenian-American friends, some of my friends are old hippies who have been growing their own food and making their own electricity for decades. Some of my friends remember the Great Depression, or the stories of their parents who knew hard times in the 1930s. Some of my friends are the children of Holocaust survivors. I have friends who emigrated from Vietnam on a leaky, overcrowded boat, and who were boarded by pirates and abandoned to drift for weeks until they reached Indonesia. All of these people are Americans, and many of them know that access to food and energy are not guaranteed.

  8. User avater
    Alex Wilson | | #8

    Thanks for sharing
    I really appreciate hearing about these first-person experiences, Martin. Providing an international perspective helps us consider vulnerabilities here at home. We have been very fortunate that some of our extended power outages in the Northeast haven't occurred during the coldest or hottest times of year. This is one reason we need to be creating buildings with much better insulated envelopes — to maintain habitable temperatures in the event of interruptions in heating fuel or power outages.

    Through the Resilient Design Institute, I've also begun focusing on the all-important social aspects of resilience. How do we design our communities and buildings to foster social interaction so that people — especially in urban communities — get to know their neighbors and can provide support during times of stress?

  9. User avater
    Paul Kuenn | | #9

    Great human interest story!
    Thanks Martin!

    The wealthy folks living in the east after Sandy, had no clue as most just moved to their "other houses" away from the shore. The less fortunate of course suffered. I certainly wouldn't mind if Hollywood disappeared in an earthquake. For those of us smart enough, our passive houses with solar and/or wind will stand the test of time. The little extra $s spent on building go a long way to comfort us. As a 30 year climbing guide, I spent my time in mud huts and tents in less fortunate countries and all those folks were happy with less. Thanks again for helping those in need.

  10. User avater
    Greg Labbe | | #10

    Thank you.

    Thank you for sharing and am so impressed that TPI would give you the license to speak so frankly. Living in Toronto, we are both privileged and unaware of what "could" happen. Though I hope this never happens here, it certainly happens "elsewhere" to "others." I certainly hope the picture of co-operation would emerge. Best to invest in community and good social bonds...

    More prescient, Russia holds a lot of clout on the supply of natural gas and yellow cake for nuclear reactors - which may reduce the west to mere sabre rattling as the Ukraine shivers.

  11. Jim Erdman | | #11

    We've had a hint of it here
    Within the last month or so, natural gas supplies in parts of Wisconsin were restricted for a few days and residential customers were requested to set their thermostats at 60 degrees, and some major industrial gas users shut down temporarily. This was only for a few days, but it was fairly cold out (this has been a very cold winter), and I would hope it made people think a bit--but I have my doubts. We have wood heat, a well -insulated older farmhouse, and PV and wind generated electricity with batteries, so it didn't affect us directly. A son who lives in town in a renovated older home really appreciated the re-insulation and air sealing they had done a few years ago after getting a energy audit that included a blower door test. His example really brought home what difference energy efficient housing could make.

  12. Greg Smith | | #12

    Thank you

    Thank you for your insight, for the story, and for the pictures.

    This is, in my opinion, one of the most interesting (as a "what-if" development) and one of the most concerning (from a “what-if” perspective) topics for discussion that you have posted here. A bit off the usual topics perhaps, but a very potentially meaningful topic as we look to the future.

    You mention early on in your blog that we consider the idea of a blackout or other disruption of energy production that doesn’t just last days or weeks but one that lasts months or even years.

    As you also mention, there has been at least some interest in Hollywood in presenting dystopian drama directly related to such a doom’s-day scenario ranging from the not-quite-horrible-with-a-few-good-ideas National Geographic Channel special presentation “American Blackout”, to the absolutely and painfully unwatchable TV series “Revolution”.

    Shows such as Doomsday Preppers offer an interesting mix between the almost stereotypical urban gorilla planning for “bug-out” day in his (or her) urban assault vehicle armed to the teeth to take on the hordes of frightened and hungry people that stand in the way of his (or her) true utopia, all the way to organic farmers, both country and city, with a sustainable food supply ranging from simple raised bed gardens to fully enclosed and functional aquaculture tanks with electrical needs supplied using renewable power.

    As much as we American’s like to think of ourselves as independent, rugged individualists, I would suggest that perhaps we are in many ways the most dependent society in the history of the world. Not just government dependent, but clock dependent, cell phone dependent, microwave dependent, grocery store dependent, technology dependent, CONVENIENCE dependent.

    Need a drink of water? Turn on the tap. Wait, sorry, change that to - open the plastic, disposable bottle in the refrigerator and drink the water that was bottled, stored, shipped a couple hundred miles, and sold in a store at a 1000% mark-up (the bottle cap cost more than the water did).

    We don’t just anticipate help when we have an emergency, we expect it. Heck, we demand it as a right of citizenship; and if it doesn’t come to us fast enough then we demand an accounting as to why not – we ask WHO was responsible? WHO was to blame for my discomfort? Because it certainly wasn’t MY fault that I didn’t have enough food, or water, or toilet paper to tide me over when things fell off the “normal” wagon.

    I think that your Armenian experience is telling. While I am not an expert by any means, I would suspect that “middle class standards” in late 1980’s Armenia were more akin to the US of the late 1940’s / early 1950’s timeframe than equivalent to the USA of the time? I also suspect that the people of Armenia pretty much knew that they weren’t going to be seeing convoys of National Guard troops coming to the rescue when things got rough. Perhaps also more akin to American’s in the 40’s and 50’s than American’s of the time. They were self-reliant. They knew how to survive without help. Not that they didn’t welcome help, but they understood that it was to assist their self-reliance, not to replace it.

    What if things really went bad? What if the sun hiccupped and we were to experience the big brother of the 1859 Carrington Event? What if a nation that wasn’t overly friendly with us decided to test EMP theory on us (Both Iran and North Korea (and probably China, Russia, USA and every other nuclear-capable country) consider the development of a “super EMP” warhead as part of their “defense” arsenal. Iran and North Korea write openly of a super EMP weapon as an "equalizer" when dealing with larger more powerful countries and both have commented openly about the vulnerabilty of a technologically depenent foe). What if someone unfriendly towards us was to engineer a real version of Y2K? What if ?

    I agree 100% that knowing your neighbors; that cooperating with friends and neighbors; that having a sufficient store of food and knowing how to grow more on your own; that having an available source of fresh water; that generating your own power, even if it’s just w wood stove that will keep you warm and alive in the cold. I understand that these are skills that we all need and that so many lack - or even realize that they do lack even basic coping skills. Why bother? If something happens the government will be there for us and they better be there quick because I vote!

    So what happens if the government doesn't show up to rescue?

    I am very much in agreement that self-reliance and cooperation is the best possible scenario, and frankly I am not really concerned about the prepper with his or her bug-out wagon and loads of guns and ammo, it’s the other 300,000,000 people that concern me.


  13. Mark Johnson | | #13

    Valuable story
    Thank you for telling a story that we seldom hear in America. I keep thinking about the many millions of people in other parts of the world, and have only a glimmer of understanding how they live. But nearly all I hear reminds me I am lucky to have been born "here" (many different places are "here" for many different readers).

  14. John Mattson | | #14

    Thanks for your good work.
    As a friend by convincement, I very much respect and value your service to the AFSC. Many thanks.

  15. Noah Manning | | #15

    I cannot help but wonder if this is a realistic prediction of how the US would react in a similar situations. Post-Katrina New Orleans, for example, had a lot more looting and violence than you describe Yerevan as having. Thoughts as to what the causes of these differences are?

  16. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #16

    Response to Noah Manning
    First of all, it's important to separate reports of post-Katrina looting from historical fact. As journalists and historians now realize, many looting reports were false or exaggerated. For example, the Wikipedia article on the notes, "The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina was characterized by extensive reporting of looting, violence, shooting against rescuers, murder and rape. While some criminal acts did occur, such as the emptying of an entire Wal Mart, many reports were also exaggerated, inflated, or simply fabricated. Several news organizations went on to issue retractions. There were reports of snipers taking potshots at rescue helicopters; these were false. Reports of gangs roving the city shooting police officers and survivors were also false, as only one policeman was shot in the aftermath of Katrina and no indictments were brought forward against the supposed gang members. In many cases, what was called 'looting' could be alternatively defined as 'appropriation of essential supplies by survivors who had received no assistance from the government.' In addition, several instances of actual looting were later found out to have been carried out by NOPD officers. The media reports did fuel a paranoid anxiety in many homeowners who decided to take up arms to defend their property. Investigations carried out in the years following the hurricane turned out evidence of violence by white vigilante groups against evacuees and survivors, usually young black men."

    Similarly, a New York Times article, "The narrative of those early, chaotic days — built largely on rumors and half-baked anecdotes — quickly hardened into a kind of ugly consensus: poor blacks and looters were murdering innocents and terrorizing whoever crossed their path in the dark, unprotected city. ... Today, a clearer picture is emerging, and it is an equally ugly one, including white vigilante violence, police killings, official cover-ups and a suffering population far more brutalized than many were willing to believe. Several police officers and a white civilian accused of racially motivated violence have recently been indicted in various cases, and more incidents are coming to light as the Justice Department has started several investigations into civil rights violations after the storm."

    Of course, even if early reports were exaggerated, the reality -- one that apparently included police violence directed at African-American survivors of the storm -- is disturbing.

    I am not an anthropologist or a sociologist. I don't think that there is a simple answer to your question. But it's probable that we are more likely to help our neighbors when we can see our common humanity. To the extent that racial divisions and class divisions in U.S. society make these simple connections difficult, we all suffer.

    Finally, I think that one of my conclusions -- that those who depend on the aid of neighbors they know on a first name basis are likely to fare better than those who depend on a rifle -- holds true in the U.S. just as in Armenia.

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