Estimated reading time: 14 minutes
We may all be sitting in the dark, but there will always be some things that still work.
Most stories about a power grid failure assume a post-apocalyptic scenario that leaves civilization in the dark for centuries. The story usually leads to people living in caves surrounded by an arsenal of weapons waiting for the Mad Max gangs.
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But if you think about it, there is a wide range of scenarios that could result in a grid failure and a range of responses to getting through it. How long the grid remains down depends on the events leading up to it, but how someone responds has more to do with an assessment of what happened, what’s going on, and what should be done about it.
A Brief Recap of Why the Grid Could Go Down
Books have been written about how the grid could fail, but here are the most popular assumptions.
EMP (Electromagnetic Pulse)
An electromagnetic pulse can originate from nature as a result of an event in space originating from exploding stars or other phenomena that send waves of electromagnetic energy to Earth. It’s happened in the past in 1858, but there were fewer electronics and no grid, so few people noticed.
A nuclear detonation also emits an EMP and would have the same effect over a large area. The result of any EMP is the failure of electronics, particularly computers, and the assumption that it would ultimately lead to grid failure.
Keep watching the skies. The sun has a cycle of activity that peaks every 11 years. During those peaks, massive solar flares often erupt from the sun’s surface sending radiation out into space. If it hits the Earth, lots of things happen.
It’s the particularly large solar flares that cause the problem, and we had a near-miss in 2014 that could have taken down electronics and the grid. It didn’t happen but it was close.
A physical attack on power generation stations and substations could cause a cascade failure of the power grid. There were reports of an attack on a power station in 2013, but little has been said about it.
If history has any precedent, it’s that a terrorist attack can wreak havoc, and an attack on the grid would definitely fall in that category.
Cyber Terrorism or Cyberwarfare
More and more, everything is becoming dependent on computers, software, and programming to function. The power grid is no different, and more and more reports of hacking into government and business computer systems continue to show up.
A dedicated cyber attack on the systems operating the power grid could cause it to fail on a large scale.
Many reports indicate that the infrastructure in the United States is falling apart. Many of them point at things like bridges, levies, and water systems, but a few point to the antiquated and poorly maintained power grid that we still rely on for one of our most critical commodities: electricity.
It’s always a surprise to watch a bridge collapse into a river, but deteriorating infrastructure usually has that result. If the power grid infrastructure ultimately fails, it could be just as sudden and surprising.
And oh yeah…
Other events from nuclear power plant explosions to alien invasions have shown up as the cause for a grid failure, but those events would either be highly localized or absurdly impossible to assess. Regardless, if the grid goes down, everything gets complicated. But some things could still work–from the surprising to the obvious.
Some of the possibilities on this list assume that you have some means of generating power from things like car batteries, generators, and solar panels. Even a small, portable solar panel is enough to recharge a computer or cell phone.
Disasters May Vary
A lot of what happens after a disaster is a question of location. Some places may not be as affected as others. Some regions may be better prepared than others. If there’s one lesson that we can all take from Y2K, it’s that what we expect is sometimes very different than what actually occurs.
With that in mind, here are some things that could still work to varying degrees if the grid goes down.
1. The Internet
The origins of the Internet began with the U.S. Department of Defense through DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency). The design parameters were for an information exchange platform that would survive a global thermonuclear war. The RAND Corporation came up with the winning design using a HAM radio concept called “packet switching.”
The idea was to use the network or the spider “web” of phone lines across the country to automatically switch messages from one server to another across locations to allow a message to eventually “worm” its way through the web of wiring in spite of catastrophic damage and widespread failures of everything else.
It worked and was initially called ARPANET. It was originally run through servers at universities across the country and was the domain of graduate students and college professors for years until it slowly began to enter into the mainstream.
Today we know it as the Internet, and while it has become significantly more complex than its original design, there are fundamental aspects of the foundation concept that will still work in spite of thermonuclear war or–a grid failure.
Getting the Internet to Work after a Grid Failure
It may be incorrect to assume that plugging your computer and modem into a generator is going to get you back online through broadband cable after a grid failure, but it’s worth a try.
A more likely scenario is using the old and slow wired phone lines from the infancy of the Internet. You won’t be able to enjoy your favorite streaming videos, but fundamental text communication and even email will still transmit over standard phone lines.
This assumes you still have standard phone lines in your home and that you have the phone cables and a standard phone jack on your computer. The old phone lines are cheap, and a standard phone jack modem or connector can be easily hooked to many of today’s computers.
You’ll also need a connected and transmitting hard wire phone line. Many of us have walked away from hard wire phone lines in an age of cellular phone technology, but if you’re concerned about a grid failure, it may be worth the small monthly fee just to have the line working.
And yes, it will most likely work after a grid failure. If you ever experienced a temporary power outage in the distant past, you may have been surprised to find your phone still worked after the lights were out. That’s because standard phone lines don’t rely on the grid, although it’s fair to assume that the phone company is going to need some alternative way to generate power.
The big question is how much power the servers that power the Internet require to keep functioning and whether any plans are in place to keep them running. Regardless of the possibilities, it may surprise you to find the Internet may still be accessible over your old phone lines.
There are other ways as well, but you may also be able to use your cell phone to access the Internet.
2. Cell Phones (In Areas)
Anytime we endure a local power outage, the first thing many of us reach for is our cell phone. The first call is usually to a local family member asking the question, “Is your power out too?”
The next call is most likely to the local power utility to find out when the power will be back on. All of that works because the power outage is localized and there’s available power at other locations to keep the cell towers transmitting. But what if there’s a widespread grid failure?
Cell phones depend on the wireless transmission of radio waves. It takes some power (battery power) in any wireless device to receive radio transmissions, and it takes some power (grid or generator supplied) to send radio transmissions. It takes more power to send a radio wave any distance than it does to receive one.
The assumption is that wireless service providers have some ability to generate power without the grid. Hospitals have that capability to maintain power to their Intensive Care Units and surgical suites, and many wireless transmitters have the same backup capability with some even powered by solar. Legislation was drafted to require backup plans, but it was never passed.
In the case of receiving a wireless transmission, alternative power to recharge a battery from a solar recharger to plugging into a car’s cigarette lighter jack can do the trick. Here again, many of these sources assume some level of independent power generation, whether it’s a $30 solar phone recharger or industrial-strength generators at hospitals and wireless transmission stations.
If you really want to push the envelope, you can buy your own satellite receiver that connects you directly to communication satellites, although you may have to spend a little time with the instruction book.
Radios are similar to cell phones in the sense that they also depend on the transmission and reception of radio signals. There are solar/hand-cranked radios that receive AM and FM in addition to other transmissions including:
- NOAA Weather Alerts
- National and State Emergency Alert Systems
Amateur radio transmissions are the “go-to” communication platform of choice for disasters. Whether the communication is via Morse code or voice, HAM radio operators can send and receive using power derived from solar-powered batteries or generators and, they could be a primary communication resource in the event of a catastrophic grid failure.
If the Internet does in fact fail and cell phones simply don’t work, radios may be the last resort for electronic communication.
4. Natural Gas Appliances
This is another example of past experience many of us have had with power failures. The lights won’t turn on, but we’re able to light a gas range with a match and cook. That’s because the delivery of gas through gas lines is largely powered by the pressure of the gas.
Some argue that you can also manually light a furnace or water heater that’s gas-powered, but gas furnaces rely on forced-air powered by electric motors, although you might have a shot with a gas-fired water heater. Here’s how:
If you live in an area where your water pressure is delivered by a water tank you may have water, at least for a while. Water towers stand hundreds of feet in the air and use gravity to deliver water pressure to a municipal system.
They also rely on electric-powered pumps to refill the water tanks, but as long as there’s water in the tank, you may have water pressure and hot water from a manually lit pilot light on a gas hot water heater.
And the Obvious But worth Thinking About…
Yes I know, of course books will still work. We don’t have to plug in a book to read it, but if the grid is down and the Internet is either inaccessible or limited because of slow, standard phone line transmission, we’ll be at the mercy of the books we have on hand.
The post-apocalyptic movie, The Book of Eli, is all about the importance of books. In fact, the end of the movie is about a library slowly collecting books for future generations. To put it bluntly, we’ve been spoiled by the Internet, and not only book stores but personal book collections have started to diminish. After the grid goes down is a bad time to go shopping for anything in stores or online, including books.
Another book could be written about which books to stockpile for a post-disaster lifestyle. It might be a good idea for an article, but until then, think about books you would need after a grid failure. We’ve become so dependent on Googling anything that it might come as a rude surprise when we realize our bookshelves have little or none of the information we may suddenly need.
6. Cash and Coins
It’s possible that you still may be able to use debit and credit cards. Or not. It also may be impossible to pull some fast cash out of the ATM, and it’ll be interesting to see if and how banks would reopen.
It’s also fair to assume that cash may suddenly be in short supply. We’re currently experiencing a coin shortage due to the pandemic, and who’s to say that cash wouldn’t suffer the same fate after a power outage?
How much cash you choose to keep on hand is up to you. And speaking of coins, forget about conventional quarters and half-dollars. 1-ounce silver coins from the U.S. mint or 1/10-ounce gold coins may become the currency of choice for a while. Old coinage with some silver content would also have value, but modern coins may not be worth the trouble given they only have face value.
7. Solar Panels
It should come as no surprise that solar panels don’t need power to function and will even survive an EMP. At a minimum, buy some small solar pads or panels to recharge small items like cell phones, computers, batteries, flashlights, and other small tools and appliances that can plug into a solar panel’s USB port for a recharge. Some small panels can even recharge a car battery.
At the other end of the scale, rooftop solar panels can be used to recharge batteries that can be used to power various lights and appliances depending on the size of your solar setup. There are varying levels of tax deductions for most solar installations, and it may be worth at least investigating the idea of solar-powered solutions.
8. Hand Tools and Weapons
Another brilliant penetration of the realm of the obvious is the ability to use hand tools and weapons without electricity. But in the same way that some books may not be available after a grid failure, it’s a fair bet that critical hand tools for major tasks and weapons for self-defense will be in short supply.
Think about the electric tools you depend on and what hand tools you have as a backup. As far as weapons and ammo. That’s another one that’s up to you.
It also seems obvious that a car would start after a grid failure, but if the failure was the result of an EMP, it’s possible a car’s small onboard computer systems might fail. The good news is that cars are surrounded by a steel body that acts as built-in Faraday cages. However, how effective that will be could depend on how far the car is from ground zero.
A Faraday cage is any metal box or container (even a metal garbage can) that prevents the electromagnetic waves from frying the electronics. Most cars would survive an EMP, and not only would they have working radios, they could recharge some electronics.
Finding gas at a gas station when the pumps don’t work due to the power failure is another question, but at least the car will run before the gas runs out.
It’s All a Matter of Degree
Disaster scenarios vary. A grid failure could be local or widespread. It could last for months or years. It will definitely have broad and wide-ranging impacts on society and everything else around us.
If the pandemic has taught us one thing it’s that the unexpected happens from continuing struggles to figure out home-schooling to wondering how long we should wait before seeing a doctor or dentist again.
The good news is that we’re slowly finding solutions. The bad news is whether we’ll have half the resources we would need to find solutions without the grid. Fortunately, some of those resources could still work. We just have to remember what they are.
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