Black Outs and Talking Apes: Electricity and Sci-Fi Movies

The plague has struck. The apes are taking over. And to add disaster on top of calamity, the lights are going out….

A completely powerless society — it’s a common plot device in post-apocalyptic movies, including the summer’s newest blockbuster, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. In it, the humans want to restore electricity to their city after all the power plants have gone dark. But how difficult would that be, realistically?

The short answer is very difficult. Power grid operators, including those at the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, maintain detailed contingency plans to restore power after a total outage, which are exceedingly rare. But they say the better strategy is to prevent such a calamity in the first place.

In utility parlance, restoring system-wide power after a total blackout is known as a black start. It’s the most difficult sort of outage response, and one only rarely experienced in the United States. The Texas grid operator has endured several rolling outages over the years, but never a black-start outage.

In the new Planet of the Apes movie the entire grid is down, and the humans see the restoration of a broken-down hydroelectric plant as their ticket back to a more civilized existence. The humans send a team of workers into the heart of ape kingdom to make repairs.

But when a generation system goes completely off-line, as is depicted in the movie, the electricity plants themselves will lack even the minimum capacity to begin basic operations. For instance generating plants with steam turbines couldn’t bring their water pumps back online without a backup diesel generator.ERCOT Black Start

Many power plants will have back-up generators — including those designated as black-start units — but the generators only will operate if they’ve been maintained and they’re undamaged. That would probably be the case with most foreseeable circumstances faced by ERCOT, but not so much if gorillas or zombies took over. A total collapse of the grid may also mean a loss of telecommunications, which would make the grid operator’s job much more difficult.

Although it’s fun to speculate about Hollywood scenarios, disaster preparation is not an issue taken lightly by the grid operator, said ERCOT spokeswoman Robbie Searcy. She said engineers have plans in place to bring back “islands” of power in the case of a black-start scenario, with service gradually expanding until the entire grid is restored. She said worst-case contingencies, such as the loss of telecommunications, are also included in their planning.

“We train our operators and those for all transmission and generation entities within ERCOT to ensure they know what their role would be,” she said.

Emergency grid response is also a serious nationwide issue, especially after a 2013 Congressional report found that sophisticated hackers may already be probing the nation’s electricity systems for vulnerabilities. Government and utility officials have conducted massive drills that simulate physical attacks and cyber-assaults on the electric system. Thousands of utility workers, business executives, National Guard officers, FBI anti-terrorism experts, and even ERCOT officials have taken part.

Experts also have contemplated other sorts of real-life threats to power grids, such as those posed by solar flares. Even a solar storm of moderate intensity can disrupt an electricity system, as was the case in 1989 when millions of customers in northeastern Canada lost power after a solar storm. The U.S. Congress also has examined the implications of more far-fetched threats, such as that posed by an electromagnetic pulse attack.

Searcy, of ERCOT, says the organization focuses on prevention — although at the end of the day it will be up to the individual transmission and distribution providers to restore their own systems. She said ERCOT’s role would be to coordinate those efforts and that the organization is prepared for a multitude of contingencies up to and including, indirectly, the weirder ones.

“Our black start preparedness plans could apply to any contingency that could cause problems on the grid — even a gorilla apocalypse if that (were to occur) in the real world,” she said.

– R.A. Dyer