Thursday, June 7, 2012

The lights go out: What happens if the grid goes down?

There’s a show on National Geographic called “Doomsday Preppers”. I’ve never watched it. But I have read a number of blogs from people on the subject and I’ve become convinced that most people, even those into “prepping”, haven’t thought through what would be the likely, and even predictable, steps our society would take as it self-destructed.
The doomsday scenarios I have seen discussed revolve around one of the topics below:
  • Economic collapse
  • Nuclear attack
  • Stellar impact (comet/asteroid)
  • EMP attack
  • Solar EMP event (Carrington Event)
I don’t feel qualified to discuss the likelihood of any of those things. I do, however, feel sufficiently qualified to say that there is one general scenario that I think is likely enough that it bears discussing: The collapse of our electrical grid and the consequences of that collapse.
A few years ago, I started doing research for a project on was premised on the fall of our civilization.  What could cause it? Was it plausible? What would it look like?
What I discovered was that our own civilization was far more fragile than I ever imagined. What’s worse, unlike the dramatic scenarios I read about, the most likely series of events would instead of a horrifying, gradual descent in which people didn't even realize that civilization was collapsing even as it was occurring.
In essence, our civilization dies as if it were a frog in water that was slowly brought to a boil.
Why guessing the scenario is irrelevant
There are a lot of different scenarios that could cause the power grid to be taken out.  I remember the blackout of 2003. It affected 55 million people and the power was out for 2 days. This all happened because some power lines in Ohio came in contact with some overgrown trees. Seriously.
55 million people lost power for 2 days because of a cascading failure that boiled down to some power lines getting tangled up with trees.  Hence, the specific trigger for a power grid collapse is less important than knowing the consequences of it.
General parameters
For our purposes, let’s just assume that the power grid has been damaged by something that will take 90 days to repair. Cars still work. Anything that wasn’t connected to the grid still works (like gas generators). Let’s assume this whole thing happens in August -- that tends to be when the electrical grid is under the most stress anyway.
Week 1: No big deal
The first few days are a party. The food in the refrigerator is going to go bad anyway so there’s a lot of BBQ’s. People talk about how this event is helping restore a sense of community. It’s like an extended camping trip in some ways. If only they knew.
The only friction that comes up at this point is that everything has to be bought in cash. People running to the store to buy their own generators (which sell out on the first day) are having to buy them in cash because credit card processing is down. Inconvenient.
By the end of the first week, the stores have sold out of their inventory of food along with other items one would expect to need “just in case”. Every army surplus store gets cleared out. No looting. Cash and carry.
Week 2: Some people have run out of water
It’s in week 2 that things start to become widely unpleasant.  Personally, I think a lot of people would start to be seriously concerned after day 2 but for the sake of argument, let’s assume most people tough out that first week.
Every real television station is still broadcasting. They have backup generators that are hooked up via natural gas and the natural gas pipelines are working just fine, for now. The gas stations are still working too. They have backup generators that run off gasoline. So people who need gasoline or diesel for their generators are doing fine as long as people have cash to pay for it. That also means cars can still get gas.
So the good news is that people are still being informed on the status of the blackout. The bad news is that they don’t know how long it’s going to take to restore power because it turns out that most of the transformers on the grid were damaged.
If you live in a major city, things aren’t so good. There’s no running water for most people.  If you live in the suburbs, there’s no running water either but those with houses can tap into their hot water heaters or have some local pond or something that, if they’re smart, they’ll boil first.
The federal, state, and local governments are bringing in water but it’s slow going, chaotic, and tense. The government is setting up relief centers in urban areas to supply food and water. The problem, however, is that there are a finite number of generators and, for the time being, no new ones are being made. The ability to fix anything that breaks down is compromised.
In summary, the urban areas are a bit scary because no power means reduced security and no independence but at least there are relief areas to walk to.  Suburbs don’t have the relief centers but still, generally have access to water and “community” food stocks are still holding up. People can drive their cars to the relief centers to pick up dry food goods and water bottles.
The death toll is far less than it could be. People who need assisted living or are vulnerable to heat related stress are the worst off. It’s easy to forget that large swaths of the United States are only comfortable thanks to air conditioning.
Week 3: Fraying
If you live out in the country, none of this is that big of a deal yet. You have generators. You have water sources. Some people, mostly suburbanites that decided to move into the country, have run out of food but they’re probably being supported by their neighbors. At least, I like to think so.
The suburbs, however, are fraying. Most people are out of food and are now flooding into the cities to those relief centers. While water is not a problem there, food is.  That’s because our distribution system in 2012 is based on just in time delivery. It’s very power hungry and the lack of a power grid is creating a lot of holes that are not easily patched.
Put yourself in this itself in the situation for moment.  It’s been 15 days without electricity. You have no more cash on hand. You’re out of food. You have some gallon containers of boiled water. Your car still has gas but you no longer have a way to get any more. You’re only 5 miles from the nearest relief center but you hear from neighbors that they’re now handing out MREs instead of “normal” food.
What do you do? Well, a lot of people have just moved their families to camping out near one of these relief camps. Should you do that?
Week 4: The Unraveling begins
So 22 days into the black out the scale of the problem is well known. Thank goodness communication still works. In the various EMP scenarios, there’s no communication.
On the other hand, communication still works.
A lot of the electrical transformers are out. This in turn damaged a lot of the grid infrastructure. It’s all repairable except that some of the parts can’t easily be replaced and that the supply of spare parts is very finite. As a result, certain parts of the grid have been restored.

The US power grid
Since communications still works, assume that the government has directed that the limited spare parts be used to restore the power grid in the most populated areas. This means the major urban areas, the east coast and the west coast.
This creates some sub-scenarios.  Do people migrate to those zones? Do those zones act as logistical bases to send out supplies?
I think we can surmise a few things here:
First, a lot of the equipment, having been running 24/7 for the past month, is going to start to break down. Those relief centers are going to start running out of food to supply. Water deliveries will start to become a problem as the number of vehicles available start to dwindle. Absenteeism is going to start to become a serious problem throughout this logistical network. To make a long story short, the patch work of relief centers is going to start to break down. This also means the delivery of fuel to gas stations and other consumables that rely on our vast, electrically powered, logistical infrastructure will start to come to a halt.
Second, a lot of people are going to start dying. The ability to supply medication in a timely manner is gone. If 15,000 people in France can die from a heat wave, one can imagine what would be happening in the American south in late August with no air conditioning.
Third, security will have started to seriously break down. Those that recall the problems in the Superdome after Hurricane Katrina can probably imagine what will be happening in those vast camp grounds surrounding every relief center – especially as supplies begin to dwindle.
And we’re only 22 days into this…
And mind you, we’re only 22 days in.  If an event occurred that physically damaged the power grid, particularly some of the very expensive, hard to replace, hard to manufacture elements of it, we’d be looking at large swaths of the population being without power for months.
There are a lot of variables that come into play and the further we go out, the more speculative we have to become. Here are some of the questions that would have a lot to do with the outcome:
  1. Is this a worldwide issue? Just North America? Just the Eastern and Western Interconnect?
  2. How effective would the local/state/federal government be in delivering vital supplies to population centers and how long could it maintain those supplies?
  3. If transportation is still available, what would be the migration patterns? What percent would stay put versus move to where power is versus would camp out at a relief center?
  4. How quickly would violence arise on a scale to disrupt or event overwhelm local authority?
  5. How long would secondary elements of our infrastructure function without the grid (utility companies that rely on regular deliveries of supplies and components to function, communication grids that rely on power)
  6. What is the MTBF of various types of backup generators?
  7. To what level would people be able to obtain more cash and/or use credit cards if the grid went down?

Week 5: It Falls apart
Depending on the answers from above, it’s about week 5 that things start to go to hell. 
For our purposes we’re going to assume the following going forward:
  • It’s a worldwide issue
  • The government aid goes as well as it possibly can (i.e. benefit of the doubt)
  • Non-Cash payment is a significant issue where the grid remains down (not that it’ll matter much longer)
  • Best-case scenario regarding the rise of mobs, looting, and gangs (i.e. benefit of the doubt).

1 comment:

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