Islands in the Darkness: Some Local Power Utilities Have Prepared to Go It Alone

Many readers will recall that my 2011 novel “Survivors: A Novel of the Coming Collapse” was partly set in and near Farmington, New Mexico. I chose that region because it has a particularly resilient power grid. In the novel I described how Farmington Electric Utility System (FEUS) has made contingency plans to immediately reconstitute a local power grid, in the event of a western power grid collapse. This was not just literary license on my part. It was based on a face-to-face interview with a FEUS manager that I conducted in 2009, as I was researching locales for the novel. That manager told me that if the western grid collapsed, all FEUS customers could have their power restored in less than a minute. This capability is called “islanding” or “controlled system separation.” While not a secret, islanding capability is not well-known outside of the power industry. Islanding is also uncommon in most of the United States. (Most Americans live in areas where the majority of their power is imported from the larger grids. It is only in a few areas such as the Pacific Northwest and the Four Corners that are net power exporters. This zoomable map shows you the Big Picture for the US and parts of Canada.

America’s Three Power Grids

There are actually three main power grids in the United States: an eastern grid, a western grid, and a Texas grid. This map shows the dividing lines, and this map shows some planned changes. Within those three grids, there are distinct service areas. And within those service areas, there is a patchwork of large power companies, co-ops, and a few independent power producers.

The majority of Americans depend on power that comes from coal-fired or nuclear power plants. Both of these sources would be problematic in the event of major societal disruption. NERC regulations require shutdowns of nuclear plants for trivial reasons, and coal-fired plants require literally trainloads of coal to keep running. The most stable power in event of an economic disaster will be hydroelectric. The Pacific Northwest has the clear advantage in hydroelectric power and some of the most reliable and least expensive power in the country. Generally, where there are large dams there is plentiful hydro power, and the greatest potential for stable local islanding. (But note that potential does not necessarily mean planned. You will need to check on that with your local power company’s management to see if they have made the requisite arrangements for islanding.)

Where Will the Islands be?

Do some online research to find maps like this one: Map of Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) transmission lines. Then call you local utility and find out if they are power exporters or importers. If they are exporters, ask if they have an islanding plan.

Long Term?

In the event of a long term grid-down situation where the coal trains stop running there will just be a few areas that will have reliable power. Most of these will be in the Pacific Northwest, where hydroelectric power predominates.

Black Startup

In the event that one or all three American grids collapse because of something catastrophic such as a major solar flare, or an economic whammy that stops coal train traffic, getting the grids back up might be difficult. Typically a power plant requires lots of outside power to be re-started. The re-starts that done without functioning outside power–commonly called Black Startup or Dark Startup –are a challenge. Here is a quote from the sometimes useful LeftistAgendaPedia: “To provide a black start, some power stations have small diesel generators which can be used to start larger generators (of several megawatts capacity), which in turn can be used to start the main power station generators.” In the event of a nationwide collapse of the power grid, the best chance for power plants to be restarted and partial grid restoration will be in the Northwest, where hydro power will be available to feed the grid.

Off The Grid

Home generation is the sure way of knowing that you will have power. (Even if you are fortunate enough to live near a hydroelectric dam or geothermal power plant, you can’t assume that your power will be restored in the event of a power grid collapse.) Home power systems that are not grid tied will be the most resilient to solar storms or EMP. This is because grid power lines can act as unintentional antennas. To be fully prepared for a solar storm, it might be necessary to store spare charge controllers and perhaps even spare inverters, for a worst case. These spares should be stored disconnected, preferably in Faraday enclosures.

If you are planning to strategically relocate your family to a safe region, I recommend that power utility islanding be part of your criteria for choosing locales. Places with plentiful hydroelectric power are your best bet. But again, don’t just assume that they are ready for islanding. Take the time to call the local power company or co-op, and ask them if they have contingency plans for islanding, and if so what would be the geographic boundaries for their planned island. This could make a huge difference for the quality of life that you will have in the dark times to come. – J.W.R.