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Jul 11, 2013

Preparing for the Zombie Apocalypse: Are Microgrids Our Only Chance?


The electricity industry’s been abuzz recently about the need for a more resilient grid. As a result, microgrids are quickly becoming the industry’s topic du jour—in fact, they’re the theme of the current July/August issue of IEEE’s Power & Energy magazine. However, nobody is talking about what is likely the most compelling reason to invest in microgrids: to prepare for the zombie apocalypse.

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. We love to speculate about (and for some of us, prepare for) our own theoretical doomsday. Witness the June release of the Brad Pitt feature film World War Z, not to mention the popularity of The Walking Dead, Night of the Living Dead, Resident Evil… need we go on?

If (or when) such a day arrives, communities with microgrids will stand the best chance for survival. Why? A well-designed microgrid—combining distributed, renewable resources such as solar PV and wind with smart auto-controls and energy storage—would continue to provide reliable power with little human control, keeping the lights on, even under chaotic circumstances.

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.

A Zombie Apocalypse Isn’t the Only Threat to the Electricity System

Sure, this whole ‘zombie apocalypse’ thing may sound a bit far fetched, and it is. (Then again, have you seen the CDC’s zombie apocalypse preparedness 101 information? Or the tropical fungus/parasite that takes over ants’ brains and turns them into real-life ant zombies?)

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.

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...”

No People, No Problem: Automated, Renewables-Fueled Microgrids are a Robust Solution

Let’s revisit our zombie apocalypse war game scenario. This time, imagine you’re in a community with a microgrid that integrates renewable energy systems such as solar PV or wind, energy storage (e.g., batteries), and smart grid controls. What happens when people (but hopefully not you or us) start turning into zombies? With the right combination assets, the community’s microgrid could run on its own for days, weeks, or possibly even years … all with technology that is commercially available today! In addition to electricity, if your community were to invest in electric vehicles, as Indianapolis recently has, you’d also have mobility. Combine this with Tesla’s planned network of renewables-powered interstate charging stations, which Elon Musk has claimed could survive the zombie apocalypse, and you’d be good to go, literally.

Zombies Aside, the Move to Microgrids Should Begin Now

The United States’ electricity grid is fragile, much more so than most people realize. Zombies or not, the reality is that the threats facing our nation’s infrastructure are no joke. As we’ve illustrated, numerous critical services are deeply dependent on our electricity system, and recent events like Superstorm Sandy, Hurricane Irene, and the 2011 Southern California Blackout have made this clear. Should we be scared? Probably a little, but let’s take this as a call to arms: the time to reinvent our electricity system is now! Shifting toward automated microgrids that incorporate distributed, renewable energy sources represents the best opportunity to bring resiliency to our nation’s electricity system for the 21st century and beyond.

Images courtesy of Shutterstock


Showing 1-9 of 9 comments

July 13, 2013


July 17, 2013

You bring up some interesting points in a very entertaining way and I just had a couple of things to add. One of the things that should probably be mentioned is what is meant by a micro-grid. How many homes, offices, hospitals, and physical area make up a “community”? I think that RMI indicated that micro-grids cover an area of 30-50km in radius and would have small power stations of 5-10MW.

Although you did not say as much, micro-grids should not be confused with Distributed Energy Resources (DER) that are typically deployed at a much smaller level. (Down to individual buildings) Yes you can have your own micro-grid on a home with generation resources, energy storage, and systems automation and it will help save you from the effects of zombified utility personnel. But it will only provide you with complete lifestyle security if you have a well and septic system.

Interestingly, what is a problem for the micro-grid home I mentioned above is a possible problem for a community micro-grid. Water. Unless the communities each have their own micro-grid powered water supply (and sewer system or septic if you want real comfort) then there will need to be coordination and independent micro-grid power to all water resources along that utility supply chain. All this is possible but I thought it should be mentioned. Thanks for the article.

July 18, 2013

@Jim F.
Thanks for adding that in.
Other things to consider.

July 18, 2013

LumenCache makes no warranties, neither expressed, nor implied, to prevent Zombie attacks. Nor have we tested against Zombie Apocalypse scenarios. Zombies may have been considered during Risk Based Analysis sessions (probably around 7:10pm when everyone wanted to go home), and while the product is inherently safer than traditional 110 AC power distribution, it may not provide sufficient warning of impending zombie attacks if the zombies are moving too slowly for the motion detectors to register them. While Zombies may chew on wires, this will not cause any system-wide destruction due to the modularity of the system architecture. Anyone not currently a Zombie may contact us for info.

July 18, 2013

July 19, 2013

Among the prepared 'Zombies' are what we call people who either refuse to take reasonable steps to prevent setback, or are too lazy to prepare against disaster themselves.
Not the movie monsters who eat brains, but those who simply lack intelligence. Sort of the way most of us feel about drivers who travel without insurance, seat-belts, a car jack, or spare tire.
Sure you can do that, but it is not wise.
As for 'micro-grids' that's a silly name for something that's just between a home generator and metropolitan power grids. Great idea, when you cannot rely upon either the local power monopoly or the government to make sure they do their job at a fair price.

July 20, 2013

July 20, 2013

Tens of thousands of islands and remote communities already have dumb, dirty diesel microgrids, We are helping them convert to clean, smart microgrids that use a lot less fossil fuel. The free software from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (www.homerenergy.com) can show you how different technologies can be combined in a microgrid to provide reliable power in different locations with different loads,

August 18, 2013

I do appreciate the entertainment value of the article as well as its truth. I'm currrently running a crowdfunding campaign to get a micro grid started in St. Louis while creating a Citizen Disaster Response Hub. Given the nasty storms that hit and continue to hit the midwest and some of the miserably hit summers we've had along with threatended cyberattacks and a steady migration of the population to urban centers, you would think this was an easy concept to get over. Not so. So far I've only raised $95.00. I am connected to people on LI w/money in our area, with connections to power people in our area, and have a significant green twitter population....this just isn't picking up steam. Anyone care to comment? Support the campaign? http://startsomegood.com/Venture/creating_a_disaster_response_hub/Campaigns/Show/creating_a_citizen_disaster_response_hub
I have gotten in touch with our region's utility company to write for a grant with them as well as connect them to the Rockefeller Foundation's 100 Resilient Cities Challenge so we could get a $1M grant (operated by the utility company) to create microgrids as one possible option to qualify for it. We shall see. I think people would rather be in denial, although that's not completely true. What the authoris say about Nat Geo's most popular series, Doomsday Preppers is true. I'm just not sure they've worked micro grids into their vernacular as part of the solution. If anyone knows anyone at Nat Geo, let them know about what I am doing so I can get some traction on this before time runs out. You all know this is a good idea!

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