The US Electric Grid Just Went Down. Now What Do You Do?

By: | November 12th, 2013

Could I power my laptop computer, cellphone, refrigerator and freezer with my bicycle? Sounds crazy, but losing contact with Facebook and Twitter and seeing the food in my refrigerator and freezer go bad might provide me with powerful motivation. But losing electricity would not just affect my very limited corner of the world, the entire country and everyone we trade with would suffer for days, weeks and perhaps months.

According to US Homeland Security, there are 16 critical infrastructure sectors that would be “brought to their knees” in the United States by a massive solar “flare out”: chemicals, communications, dams, emergency services, financial services, government facilities, information technology, transportation systems, commercial facilities, critical manufacturing, defense industrial, energy, food and agriculture, healthcare and public health, nuclear reactors, water and wastewater systems.

While many would never imagine losing energy on such a mass scale, the much-dreaded Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) produced a “Carrington Super Flare” in 1859 and this past summer the Earth “dodged a bullet,” according to the Washington Examiner:

“The earth barely missed taking a massive solar punch in the teeth two weeks ago, an ‘electromagnetic pulse’ so big that it could have knocked out power, cars and iPhones throughout the United States.”

Luckily, the EMP crossed the path of the earth’s orbit but narrowly missed our planet, according to former director of the CIA Jim Woolsey.

In a video featuring Woolsey, the existential threat posed by “solar flares” is real and serious. Highlights include:

  • In 1989, Hydro-Quebec experienced a geomagnetic storm that blacked out eastern Canada causing billions in economic losses.
  • Lloyd’s Of London estimates a similar event affecting the eastern coast of the United States could knock out electricity to 20-40 million Americans for up to two years.
  • An EMP event on the scale of the 1859 “Carrington Super Flare” would knock electric grids and critical infrastructure everywhere on earth, affecting billions. 

Using Bicycles to Power Our Lives

While we hire politicians to think about and prepare for worst-case scenarios, like solar flareouts, is there anything we can do as individuals?

Experienced bike riders can generate anywhere from 400 to 450 watts at top speed but the rider would get tired quickly. Current desktop computers, including monitors and television sets, consume about 200 watts.

One horsepower is equal to 746 watts. To power a 200 watt computer, a person would have to generate about .35 horsepower. Pedaling for one hour, for example, would produce about 100 watt-hours of electricity or one tenth of a kilowatt hour.

The cost for electricity for a local utility is about 10 cents per kilowatt hour. For an hour of strenuous exercise, then, our rider would produce one penny’s worth of electricity. Not very encouraging.

If we are lucky to avoid “super solar storms” for the foreseeable future, bicycle produced electricity could, nevertheless, help people in “advanced” economies get in shape, lose weight and, if they own a gym, make some spare change.

David Russell Schilling

David enjoys writing about high technology and its potential to make life better for all who inhabit planet earth.

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