Grid Down Survival

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By Joel Jefferson •  10 min read

A variety of natural and man-made disasters can impact your local or regional power grids.  Natural events like recent Hurricane Irene (that disrupted power to 4 million customers), along with earthquakes, tsunamis, tornadoes, snow storms, flooding, wildfires and lightning strikes cause major impacts.

Prepping for a Prolonged Lights Out Scenario

Human caused disruptions can include ground vehicle and aircraft accidents –hitting poles and lines – and acts of sabotage, terrorism and war.  A low yield nuclear explosion on the surface or as an airburst a couple miles up would generate a debilitating electro-magnetic pulse (EMP).  The EMP would literally fry most electronic devices and overload electrical distribution systems, knocking out power over a large scale area for miles.  But there is one threat in the center of our universe that most people are not aware of – our sun.

To be prepared, read our detailed guide on creating a blackout survival kit.

Too Dependent?

Solar Flare

Americans and most of the world are overly dependent upon electricity more so than oil, especially in large urban areas with mass transit systems.  Most folks never give it a second thought that electrical power could stop in a blink of an eye.  And if it did, how would it impact you?  How long could the “juice” be off before it was a major disruption to your life, your family, and your world?  (Read “Lights Out“) Could you go a week or more like many of the people impacted by Hurricane Irene?  Electricity is needed for nearly every aspect of our daily lives – from charging the batteries on our cell phones, laptops and mp3 players; to powering our coffee pots, elevators, subway cars, wireless and communications networks; to keeping the lights and TVs on, opening doors, controlling traffic lights, powering the local ATM machines, and running our water and gas pumps.

Grid Down Survival

There are three key components to the typical electrical system – generation, transmission and distribution – and a problem in any one component stops the flow of electricity.  Generation is the production of electricity from hydro-electric dams, wind turbines, steam generators (from nuclear, coal powered and geo-thermal systems), and gasoline and diesel powered generators.  Transmission is the movement of electricity from the production site on high voltage lines to substations.  Then distribution is the passage from substations on local power lines to the end users.  Usually it is in the distribution component that most disruptions occur.

Solar Threats

Grid Down Survival

The first recorded event of the sun causing a disruption to electrical systems on Earth was in 1859.  On September 1 at 11:18 a.m., British astronomer Richard Carrington was projecting an image of the sun on a screen and witnessed two brilliant threads of white light appear over sunspots he was studying at his observatory in England.  The next day before dawn, the skies over the Earth began to erupt with brilliant auroras in red, green and purple from the Arctic Circle down to lower latitudes near Hawaii, Cuba and the Bahamas.  The more significant phenomena that day was the effect upon the newly established telegraph systems in America and Europe.  The Earth received the equivalent of an EMP burst from the Sun that manifested as electrical overloads in telegraph lines and discharges from telegraph equipment shocking operators and setting paper and other materials on fire.

Carrington connected the observance of what was a coronal mass ejection (CME) or solar flare from the previous day and delayed impact electro-magnetic energy on the telegraph systems.  When a CME occurs, it is basically an eruption or ejection of a massive cloud of charged plasma from a sunspot on the surface outward into space.  On average, the distance between the sun and our planet is an estimated 93 million miles, or in light years about 8.3 light-minutes.  While the CME can be seen in about 8 minutes after it occurs, the ejected plasma particles travel at a slower speed of between 500,000 to one million miles per hour – hence the delay in the observed event and any resulting effect on Earth a day or two later.

Grid Down Survival

A large CME that is in the direction of the Earth can affect our planet’s magnetic field, as well as have a severe impact on any satellites and spacecraft in orbit, and possibly disrupt electrical and communication girds on the ground.  This is known as a “Carrington Event” and more information is available online from NASA, Wikipedia and other sources.  Much like earthquakes and hurricanes are measured in increasing scales of severity, CMEs have a correspondence scale of magnitude; with X class being the highest.

Recent Impacts

Grid Down Survival

In Carrington’s day, no one knew flares existed until that September morning when one super-flare produced enough light to reveal the explosive eruptions from the sun.  Recently, as in last 40 years, there are a number of recorded events that have caused limited disruptions on Earth.  On Aug. 4, 1972, a solar flare knocked out long distance telephone communications in Illinois, which caused AT&T to redesign its power system for transatlantic cables.  Another flare caused the Hydro Québec generating station in Canada to shutdown on March 13, 1989, disrupted electric power transmission for 9 hours to 6 million people and blacking out most of the province.  Geo-magnetic surges also caused melted power transformers in New Jersey.  In December 2005, X-rays from another solar storm disrupted satellite-to-ground communications and Global Positioning System (GPS) navigation signals for about 10 minutes.  Scientists know that solar flares can happen on a frequent basis during periods of solar sunspots maximum, which our sun is approaching in 2012 and 2013 as part of an 11-year cycle of peak flare activity.

Hopefully, this information gives you cause to consider the “what if” aspect of a massive CME triggering a SHTF or TEOTWAWKI situation to some portion of our planet.  What if a sizeable portion of North America was facing sunward when a CME solar wave reached Earth?  The good news is that several U.S. Government agencies in 2010 and 2011 have started taking an interest in Carrington Events.  The bad news is that most of our country – from the federal government down through state and local levels – is not adequately prepared to deal with the effects of wide-ranging power outages or have the necessary replacement stocks available to repair damages to transformers, generation and switching equipment, and monitoring systems.  So the preparedness burden falls back on the “prepper” to figure out his or her short and long-term strategies for dealing with the loss of electricity.

Planning Ahead

A good plan starts with considering what you consider as essential or critical requirements for your home or shelter to aid in your survival, safety and comfort.  Here are some basic categories to consider:

To be prepared, read our detailed guide on creating a blackout survival kit.

* Access to money

* Operation of medical and life support equipment.

* Refrigeration of food and medicines.

* Household septic systems and waste treatment.

* Food preparation and cooking

* Home or shelter security systems

* Hot water for hygiene, laundry, cleaning and sanitation.

* Air conditioning and heating

* Interior and exterior lighting.

* Communications

Replacing Grid Power

Grid Down Survival

There are several methods that can be used to produce electrical power if the gird goes down.  The simplest solution is to obtain a portable fuel-powered generator that runs on gasoline, diesel or propane. Make sure to have a plan for long-term gasolite storage as well.

Portable generators come in a variety sizes and the amount of wattage produced.  You’ll have to do your own homework to determine what type would be best suited to your specific needs.  Prices can run from a couple hundred dollars up to several thousand.  Other options are solar power systems, wind turbines, and water generated; however, cost-wise, they can be far more expensive for larger electrical requirements then fuel-powered generators.  If you use diesel, gas or propane powered generators, you’ll need to have an adequate supply of fuel on hand to fill your tank to keep the generator operational.  How long or how many hours a day will you run your generator?  How much fuel will you initially need on hand for a week, two-weeks or a month of operation?  How will your resupply our fuel stocks?  Do you have spare parts or the necessary accessories (i.e., oil, filters, spark plugs, spare cables) to conduct maintenance or service your equipment?

Solar panels are your best bet for easy-to-setup power systems. We reviewed the top solar panel systems on the market that will work perfectly in grid-down scenarios.

Light Options

Grid Down Survival

Generators are great for producing electricity for recharging batteries, running refrigerators and freezers, water pumps and septic systems, and powering other appliances.  However, they are not as cost efficient for providing lighting.  There are a variety of cost effective low tech and high tech options to provide light at night.  New high tech light emitting diode (LED) based flashlights and lanterns can provide over a hundred hours of light on a set of AA or AAA batteries.  Low tech options are kerosene fuel lamps and hurricane lamps, Coleman-type gas lamps, and long burning candles.  Each of these methods has their “pros and cons,” and what works best for you will depend on your situation.  However, these give you options to consider.

A Stash of Emergency Cash

ATM Out of Money

Financial guru Dave Ramsey stresses the importance of having a reserve of money – typically about 6 months worth of your salary – set aside in your bank account for emergencies.  As a prepper, you should take this same principle to the next level and have a reserve of cash on hand for any emergency (see SurvivalCache article “A Real Emergency Fund“).  In the event of any loss of electrical power, the hardest thing to get your hands on will be your money from your account.  Credit and debit cards, even checks, are worthless if there is no electricity to run verifications and process purchases.  Cash (hard currency) will generally be the first choice for payment by most merchants during a crisis and a rush for goods.  Do you a reserve of cash on hand if ATM machines are down and banks are closed?

It is just not possible to cover all contingency in a short article.  But hopefully this gives you something to think about, consider and include in your survival preparations.  While the probability of a CME impacting the Earth maybe relatively low, the possibility still exists.  Being aware of this threat should help you with your planning and preparedness.  Do your own research and get smart.

Other related links:

The video link here shows footage of a CME eruption on June 7, 2011 from the sun’s surface.  This is an incredible recorded solar flare and was broadcast via the internet within hours. Although this was only classified as a medium-sized solar flare, the explosion measured over a million kilometers across and blasted over a billion tons of material into space.  The charged particles and radiation from this particular event did not have any impact on the Earth.

Information and warnings from

Risk Management and Space Weather” article:

Life with no Electricity” article:

About the author: Bama Bull is an Army veteran and lives in southeastern Alabama.  His interest in survival preparedness are based on the threats associated with hurricanes, tornadoes, coronal mass ejections, pandemic diseases, and financial collapse.

Photos by:
Stef Thomas
Vincent Desjardins

Joel Jefferson

Joel is one of the original founders of After college, he joined the USMC where he served as an (0302) Marine Infantry Officer. Joel is an avid outdoorsman and spends much of his free time in the mountains. Joel’s hobby is researching survival gear & weapons as well as prepping. Read his full interview here.