A grid down scenario is one of the most likely extreme disaster scenario that we could face. It could have devastating effects on society as we know it. Grid down means the mains electrical supply has failed for an extended period of time or forever. A grid down scenario may last weeks, months or even years or longer. This is a very different scenario to a short term power cut, and requires more prepping to be able to survive. Our society relies very heavily on electrical power, and an extended grid down situation would be a major disaster.
In a grid down scenario, it is not just electricity that would fail; water and gas supplies would fail soon after too. This is because water and gas rely on electricity for pumping supplies to customers. A grid down scenario could last for months, years or even indefinitely.
We need to be prepared for both short term and long term survival to survive a grid down scenario. For most people, sheltering at home would be the safer option when the grid goes down. Transport networks will be affected and obtaining fuel will be impossible. Cars may not even work, depending on the cause of the grid down scenario.
In July 2012, a massive solar storm caused a huge coronal mass ejection (CME) to hit the earth’s orbit. Fortunately for us, the earth was 9 days away from that part of the orbit at the time. The CME missed us that time, but we might not be so lucky next time. If it had hit earth, the CME would have destroyed the power grid across huge parts of the earth. In 1859 a huge CME did hit the earth and knocked out the telegraph system across Europe and North America. These events demonstrate how real and possible grid down is.
What Would Cause A Grid Down Scenario?
We often take the power grid for granted, however it is a lot more fragile than we realise. There are many reasons that the grid could go down, both accidentally or intentionally.
Cyber attacks are becoming increasingly common, with many attempted cyber attacks happening around the world every day. A successful cyber attack against Colonial Pipeline in the USA recently showed how easily major infrastructure can fail. A cyber attack against the electricity network. could easily cause a huge grid down scenario
A physical attack on the electricity infrastructure could cause grid down. A large attack on critical parts of the infrastructure causing a major, long lasting grid down scenario. An electro-magnetic pulse (EMP), which can be caused by a nuclear attack or an EMP weapon, could also disable any electronic equipment in range.
Solar flares have the same effect on electrical equipment as an EMP. A large solar flare could destroy the power grid, not just in a country, but across continents.
A breakdown disabling major parts of the electricity production and distribution infrastructure is unlikely but still possible. Breakdowns can be caused by failing components, or by human error, and could potentially cause a grid down scenario.
Just as a breakdown could cause grid down, an accident could do so too. Major accidents could cause parts of the electricity infrastructure to be offline for extended periods of time.
Extreme weather has often damaged the electricity distribution network, but in the UK this has usually been relatively localised. Extreme weather is becoming more common, so it is possible in future that extreme weather events could cause larger grid down scenarios.
What Will Happen During Grid Down?
This scenario is an example based on the UK electricity grid failing completely. A complete national grid down scenario might seem like an extreme example of the scenario, but is very much a possibility. A large solar flare, for example, could destroy the power grid across continents. The examples would still apply in a smaller grid down scenario, although some elements may be less extreme.
The First Few Hours
It is likely that the first you will know about a grid down scenario is electrical equipment going off. This will of course be more obvious when it is dark and you had lights on. Soon after the electricity supply fails, it is likely that the water and gas supplies will also fail. Pumping stations and computer control systems all rely on electricity, and would switch off with a large scale power failure. The lack of water will not just affect drinking water; there will also be no water for sanitation, including water to flush the toilet.
The mobile phone network will stop working when the electricity supply fails. Although your phone may still have battery power, the phone masts will not have any power. The same applies to internet and landlines. Without power to the telephone exchanges, none of these services will work.
The transport network will be significantly affected very quickly, initially with electrical equipment such as traffic lights failing. Petrol stations will be unable to supply fuel, because the electrically powered pumps won’t work.
Many shops will close, because they use computerised systems for sales. Smaller shops may still be open, but requiring cash for purchases. The banking system relies totally on electricity, and so the only money available during grid down will be cash. Don’t rely on cash machines though, as they won’t be working.
Hospitals have backup generators, so they will be able to keep running at a reduced capacity. The priority will be emergency units and any critical life saving equipment. Buildings of other emergency services, some military and government departments, and some office buildings will also have backup generators.
It is unlikely that there will be any mass panic at first, because power cuts are relatively normal. The majority of people will expect power to be restored very quickly. Those people will not initially worry about the scale of the grid down situation. Lack of water will quickly become an urgent issue because most people do not keep stores of water at home.
24 to 48 Hours Later
Problems with the transport infrastructure mean that the supply of food and bottled water to shops will stop. Most supermarkets only have stock for 2 to 3 days of normal shopping. As people start to realise the magnitude of the grid down event, panic buying will start. Any remaining food and water available will go very quickly. It is likely that prices will rapidly increase for any available food, water and fuel.
The problems with the food supply will not just be because of the transport network. Modern food production also relies on machinery and electricity, and would therefore grind to a halt very quickly.
MI5, the British Security Service, believes that society is “four meals from anarchy”. A major disaster, such as a grid down event, could put this to the test very quickly. 24 hours after the start of the grid down, many people will be starting to run out of food. The majority of households only store enough food for a few days, relying on food being available in the shops. With food supplies in shops running out, panic will start to set in. Panic will lead to violence and looting at shops and food distribution depots. Soon there will be no food left in any of these places.
Buildings that have emergency generators to provide electricity will start to run out of fuel. Hospitals won’t be able to continue to operate, and life saving equipment will no longer have power.
Hygiene and sanitation will be the next issues to appear. With no water for sanitation and hygiene, it will be very difficult for people to maintain sanitary living conditions. For those that are able to survive the lack of food and water, disease caused by unsanitary living conditions will be the biggest danger.
The stark reality of a disaster scenario such as this is that people would die in huge numbers. Our society is not prepared to be able to cope without things we take for granted such as electrical power. People may have found sources of water to be able to avoid dying of thirst. Very few people store enough food for a disaster, or have the skills to be able to forage for food. After a few weeks, the numbers of people dying of starvation will be very high.
People will become desperate for food and water, and will do almost anything to get it. Those who have food and water will become a target for those who haven’t. People who have stocks of food and water will risk being attacked.
It is entirely possible that the government may impose martial law. This means that civilian functions of government come under direct military control. The military response would be hampered by the grid down scenario, but the military has equipment and supplies prepared to be able to continue to operate. This would eventually lead to an aid distribution network, but also give the military very strict control over civilians. The amount of time needed to organise a national aid distribution network would be very high. The scale of a national grid down scenario means that existing stocks of food and water that the military were able to supply would run out almost immediately.
Modern farming and food production rely on machines, fuel and electricity. Reverting to traditional methods of farming and food production that do not require these will take years. It will be a long time before any kind of national food production and distribution network begins running. Those who survive the initial grid down event will have to become self sufficient to survive longer term.
How Can I Prepare For Grid Down?
As with all disaster scenarios, your prepping starting point should be a plan. Plan what you will actually do in a grid down scenario. The plan should include:
- Meeting points for you and your family if you are not together when the grid goes down
- Whether you will shelter at home, or go to live somewhere else.
- For the majority of people, sheltering at home is the safer option during a grid down scenario. You will need to have a long term survival plan which is much easier to manage sheltering at home.
- If you intend to go somewhere else during a grid down scenario, you will need to leave very soon before fuel runs out and travel becomes impossible. It may be possible that cars will not work following a solar flare or EMP.
- Plan how you will survive in the short, medium and long term. Decide what you will need to have in your stores to be able to achieve this. This is covered in more detail below.
Prepping for grid down means being prepared to survive totally off-grid for a long period of time. You will be able to survive for the first few weeks or months with supplies you have stored. Surviving after your stores run out, however, will rely on becoming totally self-sufficient. Prepping for a major, society changing disaster such as grid down should include stores for at least several months as well as a plan for becoming self sufficient before your stores run out.
You may already have a black out box prepared, as discussed in our article about preparing for a power cut. Although this will help for the first one or two dark nights, it’s not intended to prepare you for a serious grid down scenario. The list of things to prepare below is a great starting point, however make sure to customise it for any specific needs that you or your family have.
Water is vital for survival. Once the mains water supply is unavailable you be dependant on any water you have stored and water you can collect and purify.
Storage: Water is difficult to store in large quantities because it is bulky. Most people simply don’t have the space to store more than a few days water supply. Store as much bottled water as you can, but be prepared for obtaining water by other means.
Collection and Purification: You need to have the means to be able to collect and purify water. This will allow you to continue to have a reliable source of drinking water after the bottled water has run out. Our article on water purification methods shows several different ways to make water safe for drinking.
Having water purification methods is only good if you actually know where to collect water from. Your prepping should include planning different ways to collect water. For example, find the nearest streams and rivers to where you live, because this knowledge may save your life in future. You need to find water sources as close to home as possible, because transporting water is difficult.
A water butt can be connected to drain pipes, allowing collection of rainwater. Install water butts so that you don’t waste rain water landing on your roof. During normal circumstances, the water collected in a water butt is useful for things like watering the garden. During a survival situation, however, this water could be purified to use as drinking water, or used for washing.
Add gutter guards to the top of the drain pipe that supplies the water butt to stop leaves and other debris from entering the water butt.
A solid water carrier such as this 10 litre water carrier is very useful as a sturdy container for transporting water short distances. Carrying water over large distances, however, is very tiring so you would want to make sure you have a source of water close to home.
A large water bag that is easy to transport, such as this wheelbarrow water bag, is a great way to transport water easily in larger quantities. Ideally you still don’t want to be having to travel any significant distance to be able to collect water, but this is certainly easier than several journeys carrying a water container. It is, however, more conspicuous, which isn’t great if you are trying to maintain a low profile. It is also more susceptible to damage, so would need to be looked after well.
The more long lasting food you have stored, the better. For any major disaster scenario such as grid down, we have to assume that there will be no shops selling food. This means that we will rely on the stores of food we have, food we can forage, and food we grow ourselves.
The food supplies need to be able to last long enough for you to develop other ways of obtaining food. If the grid goes down at the end of Autumn, it is going to be at least 6 months before most foods will grow. Having at least 6 months worth of food allows time to prepare for surviving from foraging and growing food.
Another consideration is cooking. With the grid down, you won’t be able to use electric or gas cookers in the house. If you have a wood fired stove in your house, you may be able to use that for doing some cooking, or you may have to revert to cooking over a fire outdoors. It would be sensible to prepare a store of firewood so that you don’t have to go searching for firewood when the grid goes down.
Heating and Shelter
Only off-grid heating will work after the grid goes down, for example, wood burning stoves. If it is possible to fit a wood burning stove in your home, it will be able to keep you warm after the grid goes down. Otherwise you will have to resort to warm clothing and blankets to keep warm during cold weather.
Telephones, internet and television will not be available following a grid down scenario. It is possible that some radio stations may have backup generators, and therefore might be able to continue to transmit information about the disaster event. A battery powered radio will allow you to tune in to any radio station nearby that is still transmitting to find out more information.
You may also want to have battery powered walkie talkies to be able to communicate between family members over short ranges, however unless you have solar power that can charge the batteries then they won’t be a long term solution.
After the grid goes down, the only possible payment method will be cash. Always keep some cash in the house in case you need it in the days after the grid goes down.
Water is important for hygiene, so the water that you store and collect will not just be used for drinking, but for washing and cleaning too. Make sure that your plan for collecting and storing water accounts for more than just enough for drinking. Your stores should also include soap for cleaning yourself, your clothes and your cooking and eating utensils. Make sure you also have plenty of toothpaste and toothbrushes, hand sanitiser and feminine hygiene products (if applicable of course).
First aid is likely to be your only means of treating and injuries and illnesses. Make sure that you have a comprehensive and well stocked first aid kit, but also the knowledge of how to use it for treating potential injuries and illness.
Stores of food and water will only last so long. When living totally off-grid, survival skills become very important. Even in a situation when you are sheltering at home, life will not be the same as it is now, and you will need to use many different survival skills.
Learning survival skills takes time and practice, so now is the time to start learning and practicing survival skills. Practicing now means that you will be ready when a situation happens where you need those skills.
Long term living off-grid means becoming totally self-sufficient. You will need to be able to grow your own food, and ensure that you have enough of it to survive all year round. The easiest way to prepare for this is to grow your own food now, with plans to scale up production if a disaster scenario hits. You can use your supplies of food to survive while increasing production from your garden.
You should at the very least have a supply of seeds to grow food. The seeds you use should be heirloom varieties. If you save the seeds from a heirloom plant to grow the next year, they will produce a plant with the same characteristics as the plant they came from. Many food plants used in modern gardening and farming are hybrids. These produce consistent crops, but the seeds may not produce the same characteristics when grown the next year.
This pack contains 30 varieties of heirloom vegetable and herb seeds, and is a great starting point for a self sustaining food garden. Ideally the seeds should be planted within a year, and you can then collect seeds from the plants that grow for the following year and so on. If you don’t have anywhere to plant them now though, as long as stored properly the seeds should last for a few years. Having some packs of seeds like this in your survival stores will give you more chance of survival in future.
In a long term disaster scenario, such as grid down, it may be possible that survivors will come together to grow food in a community. It is, however, difficult to predict how people will behave in a situation like this. Being able to grow your own food in a secure area means that there is less risk of food being stolen. You can also grow foods that people may not even recognise as food, hiding food crops in plain sight.
What To Do When The Grid Goes Down
Knowing what to do when the grid goes down will be much easier if you have already planned. Planning is a very important part of prepping. Below is my suggested plan for what to do when the grid goes down.
Meet Family Members
The first thing to do is go to your pre-arranged meeting point to meet up with your family members. You should plan to meet as soon as possible after any disaster occurs, because travel may become more and more difficult as time goes on.
Identify If It Really Is Grid Down
Identify whether it is just a power cut or a serious grid down scenario. This may at first not be obvious, however there are a few clues that will be able to help. Does the landline still work? If so it’s likely to be a fairly localised power cut. Try to tune in to radio stations with your battery powered radio. If they are still transmitting their normal programs, it’s probably just a localised power cut. If radio stations are not transmitting at all it is probably a much more major event. Radio stations with back up generators may also be transmitting information about a major disaster event, providing you with all the confirmation you need.
Don’t Immediately Use Equipment Or Food You Don’t Need
Although it may be tempting to immediately dive in to your bug out bag for survival equipment, unless you are bugging out, don’t use it! You never know when your bug out bag might be needed. Just because you’re in a disaster situation already doesn’t mean that nothing else is going to happen. Even if you’re sheltering at home, you may still have to bug out if something else goes wrong in future.
Don’t open the fridge or freezer immediately. The food in your freezer will stay frozen for a couple of days if you don’t open the door. Plan to use the food in the freezer within the first couple of days, and open the door only when you are ready to use it. Wasting food in a survival situation is something you really don’t want to do.
You may already have plenty of bottled water available, but you can never have too much water. It is likely that the water supply will shut down very soon after the grid goes down, so fill up containers from the tap. Tape over the plug in the bath and any sinks with duct tape, and fill them with water. This gives you a large amount of extra water to help through the first few days.
In the early stages of the grid down scenario, the majority of people may not have realised the severity of the event. If there are any food shops still open, now would be a good time to take your cash and stock up on some extra fresh food. Unless your garden is ready to harvest, it may be some time before you can eat fresh fruit and vegetables again.
Secure Your Home
Human nature is such that when people get desperate, they will do almost anything to get food and water. You do not want to make it obvious that you have supplies, otherwise you will become a target. Use the first day or two after the grid goes down to secure your supplies. Make sure that your stores of food and water are well hidden from the view of anyone passing by, and that your home is as secure as possible. You may want to have additional equipment to block doors, reinforce gates or cover windows.
Prepare For Long Term Survival
During the first few days of the grid down event, review your plan for long term survival. All the planning before the event is extremely useful, but it’s only when the grid goes down that we’ll know what it’s really like. Is there anything in your plan that you may want to change now?
Grid Down: Are You Ready?
In this article, we have covered the risk of the grid going down and the potential causes. Hopefully we will never have to deal with this, but the risk of the grid going down is relatively high. We have covered what a grid down scenario might be like, how to prep for it, and what to do when it happens.
Have you planned for the grid going down? What do you think it will be like when the grid goes down? Please feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments section below.