43

I've been wondering this for a while. Why is there no electricity in the post apocalyptic world?

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    In Woodbury, there was electricity. The governor had solar panels outside on the streets. – Neffer_23 Nov 22 '14 at 20:11
113

As the documentary series Life After People showed so eloquently, without people manning the equipment power plants break down and stop working very quickly. Even the powerful hydro-electric Hoover Dam would stop providing power after just a year or two due to requiring constant maintenance to keep the turbines spinning. I think you seriously underestimate the amount of work required to operate even a small power plant.

My uncle is an electrician who is paid a ridiculous amount of money to repair electricity-producing wind-turbines in southeastern Australia. His job consists of spending 10 hours a day on-site, just in case repairs are needed. The reason for this is that while the turbines could spin for 100 years without fail in ideal circumstances, circumstances are never ideal. The biggest issue is birdstrike; Shannon often laments that his job isn't repairing electrical faults, but scraping dead birds off the turbines and doing a quick check that no wires were broken after the steelworkers - who are also on-site 10 hours a day - hammer the turbines back into place. And wind-farms are considered Australia's least labour-intensive power-producing facilities.

This page from the American Bureau of Labor Statistics states that in 2012 there were 60,700 people working in power plants in the United States. That includes supervisors, management staff, and grunts on the floor like my uncle. The site also points out that power distribution is the sort of job that requires long term on-the-job training, even if you have a university degree in the subject. How many of those 60,700 people survived the outbreak, and the roaming bands afterwards? And that's just people working in the plants themselves. What about the people that repair the power lines between the plants and the residences, commercial and industrial areas that rely on those plants for power? How about the many power lines which actually run underground? How about the divers who clean molluscs and freshwater kelp off the water turbines in hydroelectric dams? They're not counted, and I would be surprised if they didn't amount to at least double the number of people the Bureau does count in their statistics.

Since we now know that power generation and distribution is actually considerably more labour and time intensive than you originally thought, we can understand why there aren't very many sources of electricity in the post-apocalyptic world of The Walking Dead. This is something which was handled very well in the latter two films in the Mad Max trilogy, most notably in Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, where the only person left alive in central Australia with the training and skills to actually run a bio-mass fueled power plant, Master (one half of Master-Blaster), was able to essentially set himself up as a dictator for a short period of time, due to the fact that none of the post-apocalyptic survivors were willing to go without their newly-regained electricity and running water. There are actually very few people out there who possess the necessary skills to run power plants, and those who have those skills would be in relatively short-supply, and able to command a high price for their skills, in a post-apocalyptic scenario.

This is not to say that there will be no electricity whatsoever. I myself possess the requisite skills to run a small generator, as do most of my family. But most commercially-available generators that anyone who is not an expert in the field can operate require petrol. And one thing Mad Max - and most other post-apocalyptic programs - gets wrong is that, as this old Cracked article states, gasoline goes bad very quickly. So in addition to not being able to drive in their magically never dirty car, the protagonists of The Walking Dead would also not be able to use most available generators to produce electricity.

With electricity gone, cell towers are obviously not operational. The satellites are probably in orbit, but with no Umbrella Corporation buried deep underground to communicate with they're essentially useless. Searching for tips on how to survive the zombie apocalypse online won't be possible - and after doing a quick search for that Cracked article I wouldn't recommend most of the available online advice anyway - and even landlines would be rendered useless quickly by the lack of people turning up to work at the switching stations. Your local petrol station or mall would likely still have power from their back-up generator for a short time, but roving bandits will probably steal them without any real idea how to use them very quickly.

In short, electricity goes bye-bye in any situation in which law and order break down. Zombies simply speed up the process by eating the staff.

  • 16
    In short, just because you don't notice infrastructure until and unless it breaks down doesn't mean it comes for free or that it can be taken for granted. – Shadur Nov 18 '14 at 9:06
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    @Shadur: So, in terms most modern kids can understand; #first-world-problems? – James Sheridan Nov 18 '14 at 10:28
  • That'd be the short short version – Shadur Nov 18 '14 at 10:30
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    That'd be the abbreviated short short version. – Shadur Nov 18 '14 at 11:00
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    Also, there is a lot more going on with power being delivered to your house than it just being generated. Generation is about making money. If a power plant is not making money, they do not run (in most cases). The reliability of the grid is generally controlled by an RTO or ISO at the requirement of FERC. See more here: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Regional_transmission_organization. There are thousands of people involved everyday to keep the lights on. – Kik Nov 18 '14 at 23:09
29

Electricity in modern society is a byproduct of a number of other industries completely interrupted by the "Walker Apocalypse". Without this complex network of services and infrastructure, the electrical grid will grind to a halt rather quickly.

Here's why the power grid we take for granted and which appears ubiquitous would quickly grind to a halt during a natural (or unnatural, in this case) disaster.

enter image description here

Electricity generation requires:

  • A source of power: You need either a fuel to burn or harness (coal, natural gas or solar energy) or a kinetic energy source (such as wind or water in motion).

  • A power plant or facility to generate the electrical energy: For example, there are an estimated 600 coal power plants across the United States,

  • A supply of resources: In the case of resources to burn, even a modest amount of energy required a significant amount of fuel which must be found, refined and moved to the power plant from its source location.

Calculation examples using these two formulas and the assumptions below:

Amount of fuel used to generate one kilowatthour (kWh):

  • Coal = 0.00054 short tons or 1.09 pounds
  • Natural gas = 0.00786 Mcf (1,000 cubic feet)
  • Petroleum = 0.00188 barrels (or 0.08 gallons)

Kilowatthour generated per unit of fuel used:

  • 1,842 kWh per ton of Coal or 0.9 kWh per pound of Coal
  • 127 kWh per Mcf (1,000 cubic feet) of Natural gas
  • 533 kWh per barrel of Petroleum, or 12.7 kWh per gallon

Lastly and most importantly: Skilled workers are needed for every step of this process.

  • Miners are needed for coal, oil drillers for natural gas and oil. Truckers or pipeline workers are needed to move the resource to where it can be refined for relatively clean and safe use.

  • Then more truckers or pipeline workers are needed to move the resource to the power plant. Then workers who know how to maintain the powerplant and use it effectively must be available to monitor the process.

  • Power plants are very complex machines requiring a significant and learned staff be available for every hour of operation. Breakdowns in power generation are more frequent than we are aware of because if a power plant knows its going offline, a request for another plant to be made ready to offload its power output is placed hours ahead of schedule. Users of the power never even know they are drawing power from a different source, most of the time.

This shows only the simplest ideas that are required to be dealt with regarding the generation of electrical power. This does not deal with the other important aspect of electricity, the distribution of power which requires people to maintain electrical substations and bulk electrical power transmission lines.

enter image description here

  • This does not mean there couldn't be electrical capacities found. As the image above shows, it might be possible to find low-voltage power generation in the form of solar or wind farms which might continue to generate power at far lower voltages than high capacity, high voltage power plants.

  • With the reduced load on the distribution network, if an area is connected to such a facility, it might be possible to draw power if the transmission lines to the area are still viable. Unfortunately if such lines are above ground, they are subject to vagaries of weather and rarely survive more than a year or two before they need repair.


In Summary

  • Despite its seemingly effortless generation to most modern societies, high voltage, high capacity power used by modern civilization is generated from high capacity power plants.

  • These plants need significant infrastructure in terms of outside resources to move through society and internal training, repair and maintenance of said power facilities. In addition, distribution of such power depends on high maintenance facilities such as power substations and power transmission lines.

  • With all of this work being done by highly trained and skilled professionals and often requiring significant travel as well as resource gathering expertise, large scale power is not likely to return to the world of The Walking Dead any time soon, unless someone had the foresight to gather a number of different types of electrical workers and miners, and refinery operators and pack them up for a rainy day...

  • As far as cell phones, sewer systems and other infrastructure services, most of them are dependent on electricity from the primary power grid. Without power, cellular towers will go offline and sewage processing plants shut down. Cities will soon be silent at every level.

  • No electricity means no cell phones, no television, no cable, no sewage, and no water, in short order. Water from wells won't be affected. Battery-powered technologies and small generators may still function though their fuels unless stored in airtight containers will soon evaporate. There shouldn't be cars with gasoline still sitting around because gasoline is volatile and slowly evaporates. But we are forced to let this one slide lest our heroes never have the opportunity to drive again.

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    Wow. Brilliant!!! – Fabricio Araujo Nov 18 '14 at 21:22
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    Great answer. That said, I'm surprised that everyone here mentions electricity as the big factor to being able to use cell phones. Unless I can pay my bill every month, my cell isn't going to be doing a whole lot. – MiniRagnarok Nov 20 '14 at 14:12
19

This question was answered by The Straight Dope back in 2004. I won't reprint the whole article, but to summarize it, electrical power plants are pretty complex. Without human intervention something will cause a shutdown within hours (probably fuel depletion for fossil-fuel plants) or at most a week or so (automatic fail-safe shutdown for nuclear plants). Hydroelectric plants (dams) can keep producing electricity for months, but there's still the problem with the rest of the electrical grid (switching stations, power lines, transformers, etc.). Without regular maintenance of the infrastructure the juice isn't going to go anywhere. It's worth noting for our overseas friends that in the U.S. most local power lines are above ground, making them very vulnerable to the elements.

13

You are of the opinion that the electricity grid is incredibly robust?

It is not, it is made of glass and capable of self destructing extremely quickly.

If there is more electrical demand than supply, the grid frequency drops from its usual 50 hz (country specific). If there is more supply than demand, the frequency increases.

However, electrical equipment and power plants can be broken by high or low frequencies. This can lead to cascade failures. If there is too much demand, the frequency drops, which breaks a power plant, which drops the frequency further, which breaks another power plant and continue the pattern until the entire grid is down.

In order to stop this happening, grid operators employ a variety of techniques, some of which are automated, many of which are manual. This can include control of both loads and generators, each of which can be turned up or down to maintain balance.

The loss of a transmission line can also lead to over/under frequency problems. In New Zealand, the North Island has all the power consumption, the South Island has all the power generation. If the transmission line between them breaks, the South has overfrequency and the North has under.

It is not necessarily a matter of power plants running out of fuel, or coolant, and it certainly won't be due to them missing their scheduled repairs. If people aren't actively monitoring the grid at all times, it can be broken by too much wind/sun, not enough wind/sun, a generator or transmission line breaking, everyone turning their kettles on in the ad breaks of a popular tv show, lightning strikes on wires, everyone turning their equipment off at the same time.

Stock up on batteries. The grid would be down within hours-days.

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    Are you sure the frequency changes? I've never heard of increased load causing a frequency change in an AC power supply system. The voltage definitely sags in an overloaded system (and spikes in an underloaded system,) but I was under the impression that the frequency would remain roughly constant. – reirab Nov 18 '14 at 2:47
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    The frequency change is fairly small as a percent, but it can still be very damaging. In one of the programs I work on, the frequency is meant to be 50 hz, and action is taken if it drops below 49.2 hz. There are other programs on the same grid that respond to much smaller changes in frequency. – Scott Nov 19 '14 at 6:36
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    Yes, the frequency changes. AC generators are not like batteries. Increasing load makes the generator more difficult to turn, so if input torque remains constant the generator will turn more slowly (frequency will decrease) as load increases. See physics.stackexchange.com/questions/2641/…. Frequency regulation (exactly matching supply to demand) is a critical part of power grid operation. – Andrew Medico Nov 20 '14 at 17:04
10

The straight dope gave a really good answer to exactly this question a while ago

http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/2165/when-the-zombies-take-over-how-long-till-the-electricity-fails

Well worth a read

As SJuan recommended, a summary of the article:

If the zombie takeover is sudden, you'll notice the unstable power grid within 4-6 hours and most of the US and Canada will be out of power within 24 hours. If the workers have time to prepare and stock pile fuel, and isolate grids, you'll get a few days from a nearby coal power plant and up to a year if nothing goes wrong from Nuclear.

In the Walking Dead it's not clear which scenario it was.

As they find out at the end of season one, everyone is already infected and the zombification only occurs after they die. This suggests it was a sudden outbreak, and once news like that breaks it's hard to imagine power station workers putting in extra shift hours to stockpile fuel rather than rushing home to help barricade their families in their home.

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    You should write down a summary of the linked article so it is available if the link goes missing. – SJuan76 Nov 17 '14 at 13:29
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    Hmm. Actually, I can imagine at least some powerplant staff deciding to fetch their families and fortify the powerplant. – Dronz Nov 17 '14 at 21:33
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    @Dronz: That's what happens in Lucifer's Hammer. Though the apocalypse is different - comet strike instead of zombies. The last operational nuclear powerplant became sort of a fortress. – slebetman Nov 17 '14 at 23:39
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    Dronz: Yeah, me too, especially considering that electricity is an excellent tool for survival. It can keep you warm in winter, freeze your food for long-term storage, do work for you, etc, etc, etc. And while the grid is kind of fragile and needs regular maintenance, that doesn't mean you can't feed all the houses within a 15 block radius with little to no maintenance. Nevermind the fact that electricity is important enough to oh, I don't know, motivate people to organize and fight to protect it. – Ernie Jun 25 '15 at 18:52
5

Based on the way in which California's rolling blackouts happened in the early 2000s, when one part of the grid fails, another supplier (from another part of the grid) can be tasked with taking up the slack. If there isn't enough supply or if no-one presses the correct switch, the grid simply goes black with no electricity supply.

Since coal-fired power supplies the lion's share of electricity in America (almost 40% of the total) and since these stations require coal to be dumped into the burners by operatives on a 24/7 basis, the reality is that you would have a grid shutdown within hours of a zombie apocalypse.

Nuclear stations would almost certainly shut down within a similar timespan as automatic cutoffs are in place to recognise that there are no operators (e.g in the event of everyone dying of radiation sickness) and failsafes kick in.

Geothermal, Hydro and Solar stations would continue to manufacture power for prolonged periods of time but when the grid systems recognise that there's almost no consumption, these would also shut down to prevent overload.

  • Small correction: coal supplies a lot of U.S. power, but not most. www.eia.gov/tools/faqs/faq.cfm?id=427&t=3 – user1786 Nov 21 '14 at 1:24
  • @JonofAllTrades - Nice one. Don't forget that if you see a factual inaccuracy, you can make these edits yourself. – Valorum Nov 21 '14 at 1:30
1

I am unaware of canonical explanations so answer is surmise

in universe

The simplest explanation is to generate power a plant has to burn some kind of fuel which will eventually run out without someone trucking it in or throwing it in the boilers so to speak. Lack of power from nuke or hydro plants can be explained by zombies being attracted to the noise generated by the power substations and destroying the equipment, the technicians shutting the reactor down before evacuating or Atlanta and its surrounding areas not having hydro power plants

Cell phones most likely would work the problem is without power you cant charge them.

Why no one seems to be fixing it is fairly simple it is not a requirement for survival and the risk reward ratio is fairly low (also I doubt anyone we have seen is an electrical engineer)

out of universe

If everyone had an easy way to communicate they wouldnt be able to do these lovely tangent episodes where everyone is going off doing their own things and wondering whats happening with the other characters

  • 1
    I must admit, I don't watch this show, but even children's walkie-talkies are capable of communicating over a decent range with very little electricity required. In fact, most of them use batteries. I used to run mine off the electricity produced by a potato when I was a kid. Surey some idiot has thought of building a crystal radio or a potato generator on ths show at some point? Basic kits are on sale in most toy stores over here in the Land of Oz. – James Sheridan Nov 17 '14 at 14:02
  • I'd have to disagree with the "it's not a requirement for survival" statement as electricity provides heat when it's cold. Yes, fire does the same thing, but as has been shown, large fires are generally a bad idea in this world. Not to mention, people in the modern world, even in TWD universe, are not suited to deal with the elements. – Robert Nov 17 '14 at 14:03
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    @Robert: Hobos tend to have very little access to space heaters, yet very few die of exposure when compared to the number on the street. Newspaper is a great insulator, and with so many dead people there will be no shortage of clothing and blankets floating around. – James Sheridan Nov 17 '14 at 14:04
  • @JamesSheridan They have used walkie talkies in the show. Rick and Morgan make a point that they will turn them on every day to check for each other, but it's never really mentioned again after that. Additionally, they never seem to find new ones (though, it would make sense that the prison would have had some laying around). Since over a year has taken place since the first episode, it's likely/possible that the batteries have died by now if people had been trying to use them. – phantom42 Nov 17 '14 at 14:07
  • @phantom42: I don't live under a big enough rock to have missed that they lived in an abandoned prison. I would think that a prison or police station would have the radios taken fairly quickly once the walkers left. It's trucks and toy stores that I think would be good sources of abandoned walkie-talkies. Batteries are something that people really should make an effort to steal large numbers of in the event of any apocalypse. You can probably get them simply from searching minor electronic equipment such as torches, but still. I thought plot points were made to be forgotten? That's television. – James Sheridan Nov 17 '14 at 14:20
1

However the I was wondering about the question itself. There have been enclaves in Walking Dead that had power. And yes the medical station power plant was dying but it was working at the time of the party visiting it. The 'Governor' had established enough infrastructure to have electricity for a community, and he did. Granted not the constant power we have, measured and used as the expensive commodity it is.

With the implication of other enclaves and even government bodies still existing one could assume they have established power generation if they are large enough to have the manpower and/or technical expertise. And although power plant maintenance is a difficult task, most electricians could rig up smaller generators from a flowing water source and a motor.

Now as to why the main characters don't have electricity, they have not remained in a single place long enough with enough people to establish the infrastructure needed.

But to imply that there is no electricity in the Walking Dead, might be a little off as there are groups using electricity in show.

So it seems there is an agreement that there is electricity in the Walking Dead . . . .

  • They make mention in at least one episode that Woodbury uses generators for electricity (they were used to cool drinks for the picnic, and Milton mentions that he needs the power for his experiments). The prison also at least temporarily had working generators when they first arrived (they powered the alarms). – phantom42 Nov 20 '14 at 15:01
  • I believe that in the comic Woodbury got it's power from solar panels. Once manufactured, they will last quite some time and the excess power they produce can be used to charge batteries; some will hold their charge for a long time too. Solar panels take very little skill to set up and virtually none to maintain (except if they -really- break; in that case, you better have spares). – Clearer Nov 21 '14 at 2:01

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