Preparing for the Zombie Apocalypse

18 07 2013

The beauty of the internet, is that you no longer need to read newspapers…….  If you’ve been surfing for a while read enough books, and know what information to look for to supplement what you think you already know, an amazing amount of information can come your way with very little effort.  For instance, years ago, before the internet became as entrenched as it is today, I was reading books (on energy, what else...) written by Amory Lovins and his then wife, and associates.  Whilst I don’t believe Lovins is right in everything he says, he does enough to be admired all the same – like refurbishing the whole Empire State Building to substantially reduce its electricity consumption….  And sometimes, merely through questioning some of the things someone like Lovins might be saying, you can even ‘meet’ other people who turn out to be fascinating in their own right…

Amory Lovins

Lovins, for instance, was years ago a great fan of Hydrogen and fuel cells.  He believed that one day all cars would be thus powered..  Because of his enthusiastic attitude towards such things, I too was infected with this techno hubris, until it was pointed out to me that Hydrogen was not an energy source… and one day on an internet forum, this obviously well informed person called Susan krumdieck piped up explaining why fuel cells were never going to make an impact.  Lovins’ hypercar is now no longer fuel cell driven, but electrically recharged by renewables.  Even he is able to see the light!

Lovins runs the Rocky Mountains Institute.  My only gripe with RMI and Lovins is that they are hell bent on keeping business as usual going.  Every now and again though, RMI comes out with surprises……  like this one.

Following a colourful introduction to Zombie-ism – “Scoff at your own peril, but consider this: Doomsday Preppers—a reality TV show about families who stock up on non-perishable food, ammunition, fuel, and more in preparation for a potential apocalypse, zombie-induced or otherwise—is the most popular series of all time on the National Geographic Channel, pulling in 1.3 million viewers for the season two premiere in November last year, RMI make a more or less astonishing observation;  the grid (particularly in the US I might point out) is very fragile……

No People, No Power: Human Operators Keep the U.S. Electricity System Running

Such apocalyptic scenarios make it illuminating to conduct a “war game” exercise with our national infrastructure, and especially our electricity grid. What would be the first thing to go wrong with our infrastructure if society were thrown into disarray by brains-hungry zombies? Without human beings around to perform certain routine tasks, the electricity system will quickly cease to function. In regions dependent on fossil fuels for electricity generation (i.e., the entire U.S.), power plants will shut down, or “trip,” within 24 hours (or less) without continuous fuel supply. As soon as one plant trips offline, voltage at various points along the transmission system will drop below preset thresholds, spurring a domino effect as automated protection devices kick in and disconnect additional sections of the network. This cascade of trips would bring the system to a standstill, and a blackout would ensue.

I’ve seen first hand how the grid is fossil fuel dependant.  In the valley below us there is a high tension power line – probably 110,000V.  Every few months or so, helicopters fly over the power lines, and I’m told, photograph all the insulators with heat sensitive cameras looking for high resistance breakdowns in the lines, and low resistance ones in the insulators.  Nothing lasts forever.  Then when problems are found, four wheel drive vehicles are sent along the easements where the pylons reside for men to fix things.  These repairs must be done before a problem starts, because searching for a fault after the event and while the power’s out is, hum, expensive and unpopular!

“In all seriousness, while walking dead may never roam our streets, catastrophic events can debilitate localized or even regional populations and leave our energy assets without sufficient operational personnel. However, the loss of operational personnel isn’t the only, and not even the most likely, threat to America’s electricity grids. Coordinated terrorist attacks on the grid (including cyber attacks) keep Department of Defense officials up at night; insurance markets worry about the impact of an intense geomagnetic storm on the electricity system, many communities have already experienced first-hand the havoc that Mother Nature can wreak on an unprepared power system (e.g., blackouts resulting from heat waves, superstorms such as Sandy), and just this week the North American Electric Reliability Corp. and some 110 utilities announced that later this year they’ll conduct a mock exercise to see how our power system could handle a coordinated physical and cyber attack on the high-voltage transmission grid. Zombies or not, it’s a cruel world out there, and our electricity grid is looking mighty frail.”

RMI’s solutions?   Microgrids…..

Many critical facilities (e.g., hospitals, military bases) have on-site diesel generators to provide emergency backup power. However, these generators have a 40 percent failure rate, are usually designed to run for 24 hours or less, and require an operator around to babysit them. With no one there to refill the fuel tanks, check the oil, and perform other basic maintenance, most of these generators will not last more than one or two days. Without backup generation, basic services like water and sewage treatment cannot function. During the Southern California Blackout, San Diego’s sewage pumps backed up after less than 12 hours without power, bringing the city dangerously close to a real health crisis.

Dr. Alexandra von Meier, Director of Electric Grid Research at the California Institute for Energy and Environment, points out that sewage may be the least of our problems in a prolonged blackout: “Your mention of sewage pumping is very important. I might say that besides your drains backing up, traffic signals being out (doesn’t matter because gas station pumps aren’t working), and food spoiling, the most immediately life-threatening thing about a widespread blackout is that you find you have no water pressure in your tap. No drinking water, and it’s hasta la vista, baby…”

Of course, no mention of the fact that cities are unsustainable, that sewerage is a 19th Century idea that has reached its use by date, nor that the real problem is centralisation and too many people…..  Nor is there mention that even micro grids need supervision by people who know what they are doing.  And of course, once the economy hits the fan, I want to know who’s going to pay for it….  and how.




5 responses

18 07 2013

Hi Mike,
I note that the news this morning says that Detroit has filed for bankruptcy ($15B)!

18 07 2013
18 07 2013

Scientific opinion changing based on new information?! B-b-b-b-b-but! Len will be horrified 😉

Seriously though, I am surprised at how fragile the US power grid appears to be. Having a hobby interest in diesel engines I was surprised at the number of US residents building/having home backup power and I’m not talking about Montana militiamen living up in the mountains either!

Apparently it is reasonably common for the power to be out for days after storms in many places. Time between blackouts is (for now anyway :)) measured in years where I live.

I got a cheap Chinese single cylinder diesel engine secondhand (see hobby interest), then realised I needed a load as it’s not a good idea to run them without one. So I bought a cheap Chinese (was there any doubt?) 3kW synchronous AC generator to couple up to it. Could run my house, not that I’d want to – if you think $0.31 per kW/h (what we pay) is dear then try generating your own!

I should stress that I didn’t buy this as a “prepper” item, rather the standard “stupid waste of money hobby” reason. The reason (I believe) that the prepper show was so popular is because people like to point and laugh at nutty preppers. I do anyway.

19 07 2013

Re-remembering the fragility of everything we count on, and its reliance on massive amounts of fossil fuel energy sends me into a panic every time. People discount this as “doomer” thinking, but that’s not exactly a counter-argument to the facts of fragility and dependence Mike’s outlining above, is it?

20 07 2013

The fictional book “One Second After” by William Forstchen, published 3 or so years back makes a good read. Set on the mid east coast of the US, it deals with the repercussions of a large scale EMP strike and the total breakdown of the electric grid. It is a very realistic non-sensational read and I thoroughly recommend it. Your library probably has it as the book made it to the NY Times best seller list and has been optioned for a movie.

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