Whether it’s a nuclear holocaust, a deadly plague, the perfect storm, or a large-scale terrorist attack, when a cataclysmic event goes down you can guarantee one thing: the power will go out. And while you don’t need electricity to be a hunter-gatherer for the rest of your life, if you want to help return human society to its former greatness—or just be able to have a James Bond movie marathon again—you’ll have to figure out how to generate your own power.
There are many options available, from the amateur to the extreme. Here are a few great ways to enjoy modern technology after the shit hits the fan. Note: In this article I don’t go into great detail on any of the methods. Rather, I’m just letting you know what your options are.
1. Hydroelectric Power
One of the most reliable ways to generate electricity is by harnessing the power of a river or stream. While this isn’t always the most practical means (if you live in rural Utah you might want to try a different option), hydroelectric power is a surefire way to have a steady stream of electricity without having to worry about storing surplus energy in battery cells. Hydroelectric options will require a little maintenance as well, considering its mechanisms will be constantly moving and getting wet.
The first thing you will need, obviously, is a source of flowing water. If you don’t have access to a river or stream, try a different option or consider uprooting your life and moving. If you do have this source of flowing water, locate the steepest point possible. Here you will build some kind of frame to hold your generator in place, unless you can find someone who will volunteer to hold it forever.
Of course, to build the actual generator you’ll need a water wheel, gears, coils of wire, and magnets. Since you can’t exactly find these growing in the backyard, it’s best to prepare and have these materials ahead of time. Consider also that some rivers and streams dry up in the hot season, making your hydroelectric source of energy just another great lawn ornament in the summer. If this happens, you’ll need to supplement your power with one of the following.
2. Solar Power
Solar power is generally a good option. Quiet, environmentally friendly, and not entirely able to be self-sufficient, it works great when the sun’s out, but not so much in cloudy weather or in the dark. Considering that most of the world is dark half the time, solar power probably won’t be your only source of electricity. It’s a great part of your power plan though, because at some point you’re guaranteed to have sunlight (unless the apocalypse starts because the sun imploded).
Solar power is another source of energy you’ll have to prep for; harnessing the energy from light isn’t something you can do with a couple of matches and some parachute cord. Purchase solar panels and rechargeable batteries ahead of time. You can spend anywhere from $500 to $1 million, depending on whether you’re powering your wilderness shanty or an entire village.
3. Wind Power
Wind power, like hydroelectric power, can provide an excellent, year-round solution to your energy needs. The process is practically the same, except wind powers the turbines instead of water. People have been harnessing the power of wind for centuries, using windmills to grind grain and spruce up the Dutch landscape. A great benefit to wind power is that there is no limit to how many wind turbines you can build. You could have a thousand of them, all side-by-side and generating enough power to last a lifetime.
As anyone who has been stranded and died in a sailboat will know, the drawback to wind is that it is less predictable than a flowing river. If the wind ceases, you’ll need an additional power option. On the bright side, building a wind turbine is easier than constructing say, a nuclear power plant.
Manpower will never go out of style. Even if you’re holed up in a place with no wind, no flowing water, no sunlight, and no materials to burn, you can use manpower to generate electricity—although at that point you should probably just make sure you can survive the night. If there is still breath in your body and energy to pedal a bicycle, you can generate your own electricity anytime, anywhere, and get some solid cardio in while you’re at it.
The method for harnessing manpower is the same as any other method: you’ll need a generator or the means to build one and you’ll probably want batteries to store that energy. The disadvantage of this type of energy is that there is only so much force a human body can generate. While a mighty river can power Las Vegas and then some, one guy can power only a couple dozen slot machines. If you’re on your own though, this might be a perfect option.
5. Steam Power
Steam power is a great way to use the elements around you, specifically wood and water, to supply your life’s electricity needs. The power of water-turned-to-steam is amazing and can generate tons of energy. Unfortunately, it is also hard to control. A boiler heated by wood has the capacity to explode and therefore has to be monitored 24/7. Unless that guy who volunteered to hold your hydroelectric generator is available to do this forever, you will probably want this only as a temporary solution.
Fortunately, in the event that the shit hits the fan, there’s a lot less you’ll have to buy ahead of time. Particularly if you have a few rudimentary metalworking skills, the scraps that a decimated society will leave in its wake can make for all the materials you’ll need, and steampunk fans everywhere will have their wildest dreams come true (if they live to see it).
Gasification is a cool way to harness the power of burning wood without having to use the unreliable steam method. Basically, burning wood or charcoal produces wood gas, which is a syngas that can be cooled and filtered to use in an internal combustion engine. If it seems too good to be true—burn some wood and make engine fuel?—it just might be unless you’re well-prepared.
Gasification requires some pretty technical know-how and some very specific pieces. You can’t exactly build one from bamboo and coconuts like the professor on Gilligan’s Island, but if you’ve prepared well and learned the ins and outs of the process, you may have yourself a lifetime of sustainable energy for you and your loved ones, provided all of you happen to be the tiny minority of people who will survive a worldwide zombie outbreak.
Last but not least, fuel based generators are another way to generate power after a disaster. I had to mention this one since this is what most people think of when they hear the phrase, “generate power.” Simply put, generators convert fuel into electrical power (usually AC, although many of them have DC which you can use for charging batteries).
Most generators run on gasoline, but there are some that run in diesel, bio-diesel, propane, and natural gas. Generators are very convenient and a great thing to have during a temporary disaster. The only downside is that unless you have a way to make your own fuel, you’ll have to stockpile an incredible amount if you want to have power for more than a few months.