In Depth: Electricity in a zombie apocalpyse


This Halloween we take a look at the scarier side of energy. This is a companion piece to our Zombie Apocalypse Infographic, where we investigate how long energy will last once the dead rise.

It starts with a single bite.

5 hours later, you’re gone. In your place is a rabid, brain-hungry dead thing.

This is the scenario we imagined when creating our zombie infographic.

Of course, we all have zombie apocalypse contingency plans (or is that just us?) but we’d never really factored electricity into the equation.

Once we did, we got much more scared.

As if herds of hungry zombies weren’t bad enough, electricity would last a disturbingly short amount of time if the grid was left unmanaged. In fact, we hypothesised that it would last a week at most.

Here, we take a look at how the situation may play out in a little more detail.

How the UK energy grid works

First, some facts.

The UK energy grid generates electricity on an ‘as needed’ basis: energy can’t be efficiently stored.

We’re a net importer of energy – 60% of our fuel comes from countries such as Norway, Russia and Kazakhstan.

The National Grid is extraordinarily complex and requires minute by minute management to balance energy loads – under supply and over supply can both cause problems such as power outages or even explosions.

When there are energy surges, such as after football matches or soap cliffhangers, the National Grid will prepare for this, bringing power stations online or taking them offline to ensure the right amount of energy is going to the right places.

The UK energy mix is as follows: we get a small amount (under 10%) of our energy from coal and oil, roughly a quarter from renewables, 21% from nuclear, and 45% from gas. Renewable energy is primarily generated within the UK. 45% of the UK’s gas comes from UK production, with the rest coming from Norway, Europe and LNG Tankers.

Energy is distributed to homes by a vast network of cables and pylons. If these are damaged localised blackouts will occur. For example, earlier this year 2000 people in Norfolk, VA, were without power for half a day when two crows flew into power lines.

So, that’s three areas that are potentially vulnerable in a ‘zombies rising’ scenario:

– power plants themselves

– the national grid

– the distribution system.

Why would the grid fail?

You’ll notice in our infographic that we only talk about the National Grid failing – not about how long each energy source would last, or what would happen to the distribution network.  That’s because we think the National Grid that be first thing to go, and we don’t think people could get it back up and running.

We’ve also taken the judgement call that people would stop turning up to work when the scale of the disaster became apparent. On top of that, we’ve assumed that any emergency plans put in place by the government wouldn’t be focussed on electricity generation (surely they’d be fighting zombies instead).

But what if we managed to keep the grid up and running?

Let’s concentrate on our three main energy sources…

Natural Gas – We receive our natural gas through pipelines. If pressure within the pipelines stays high then our supply will be uninterrupted. However, experts have said that pressure may only last 1-3 days before dropping. Additionally, the controls of natural gas turbines are powered by electricity, so any failure of electricity elsewhere would affect pressure, causing the pipeline to fail.

Nuclear – Unlike coal plants, which need to be refuelled on a weekly basis, nuclear plants can last up to 500 days between fuelings. They also tend to be relatively stable. An unattended nuclear plant would last about a week before things started to go wrong. One of the most disturbing predictions in our infographic was the idea of explosions in nuclear plants. Once fuel runs out, or the grid goes down, spent nuclear rods will overheat as there will be no electricity to power the pools that cool them down. If this happens there will be explosions. These will not be nuclear explosions as such, but will cause radioactive waste to be released into the environment. This waste could be carried for miles by the wind, devastating the country.

Renewables – Renewable energy, such as wind power, solar power and hydro-electric, requires less intervention than traditional energy sources and could potentially last weeks, if not years. Eventually, renewable power sources would fall into disrepair due to natural wear and tear. We guess this would be after a year, or even sooner, assuming that trained people weren’t around to service them.

What would happen to the distribution network?

We think the Government would take a ‘scorched earth’ approach to zombies – isolating herds of the undead and bombing them into oblivion. This would cause large scale damage to the distribution network.

If the distribution network managed to survive unharmed, it would likely fall into disrepair within a year or so.

Where will you be safest?

With the potential of radioactive explosion debris, we’ve assumed that you’re likely to be safest in a country that doesn’t have any nuclear power at all. If you manage to get on a plane on time, our pick would be New Zealand, due to its remoteness and suitability for farming.

You might want to pick somewhere that makes most or all of its energy from renewable sources – such as Iceland, or Costa Rica. Assuming that the grid managed to stay online, these countries would be able to keep going for longer, as wind and solar energy will never ‘run out’ the way that traditional fuels can, and need comparatively less oversight than other types of energy sources. In fact, you could probably go for a couple of years with renewable energy before the natural wear and tear of wind turbines, solar powers and the distribution network caused power failures.

How would you go about making your own energy?

So, you’re in New Zealand or Iceland, you’ve found a nice little fort and you’re pretty confident you’re going to survive this thing. How will you go about generating your own electricity? We’re sidestepping the question of how you’d find solar panels and wind turbines (let’s assume you made a lucky discovery). The below energy sources can provide you with a supply of ‘off grid’ electricity:

Wind  If you end up somewhere with a decent breeze, wind power might work for you. You’d be looking for at least a 7 foot turbine if you wanted to power your whole house. Wind turbines have a maximum shelf life of around ten years, assuming they’re well maintained.

Solar – Solar power is one of the most common generators of renewable electricity, especially if you live in a sunny country. Of course, if you live in cloudier climes, you may find solar power more hassle than it’s worth. A solar panel will last up to around 25 years before needing to be replaced.

Microhydro  A lesser known energy generator, microhydro energy uses a river or stream to generate electricity. It’s more reliable than wind or solar, but of course you do need to be near flowing water. Hydro systems can last up to 100 years if they’re looked after.

Generators and batteries  Generators convert energy into electricity. You’ll need one to take advantage of all that renewable energy you’re generating. If you don’t just want to use energy when the sun is shining and the wind is blowing, you’ll also need to find a battery. This will allow you to ‘store’ your energy, using it when you want to.

What would you do if zombies rose? Do you think we’ve missed anything in our plans? Let us know on Twitter, and don’t have nightmares! 

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