EMP-Hardened Power Systems

Note: This article was revised on 8/7/15.

The best system for a post-Pulse world – solar photoelectric – would be destroyed by an EMP weapon. The high frequency E1 wave would burn out the solar panels, the inverter, and the charge controller. The E3 wave (which is equivalent to that generated by a geomagnetic storm) might damage some of these components as well, if the system is tied into the grid as most systems are. This means that the components of a photoelectric system should be protected in a Faraday Cage until after the Pulse, then brought out and assembled. The wiring, batteries, and panel support system can be put into place ahead of time to minimize later assembly work. The batteries can handle the Pulse, but since they might be sitting around unused for years, they should be purchased dry, if possible. The sulfuric acid should be added only when the system is assembled. Otherwise, the batteries will go bad in a few years even if they are unused. (I was unable to find dry batteries for my own system and ended up using a trickle charge to extend battery life)

The best rainy-day backup for the photoelectric system, and one that can be activated quickly, is a propane-fueled electric generator. Propane, unlike gasoline and even diesel fuel, can be stored indefinitely without going bad. Modern fixed generator sets are controlled by microelectronics, and so most fixed residential generators would have to be encased in a Faraday Cage, with no penetrations (power out cord and propane tubing would have to be by a quick connect pigtail folded inside the cage). Most of these generators are started by a battery which is normally kept charged by a connection to the grid. This means the generator has to occasionally be connected to the grid, or it has to be periodically run such that part of its output is directed back to the unit to recharge the battery.

Portable generators are much less expensive than fixed generators, can be started by hand, and have fewer EMP-sensitive components. It is cheap to buy backup rectifiers, diodes, and voltage regulators and store them in Faraday bags. If you happen to have a room outfitted as a Faraday cage, you can even store a portable generator in the room and roll it out when you need it. Or, you can wrap foil around the box it comes in (to shield it from EMP) and add oil and wheels after an EMP event. I bought a 7kw portable dual fuel (propane/gasoline) generator from Costco for $650. A Kohler fixed residential generator that size costs thousands of dollars (a backup replacement part for the Kohler digital controller alone costs $600).

Generators are noisy, and the high rpm ones don’t last too long. Though propane doesn’t degrade, there is no guarantee that you will be able to find more when your tank runs dry. For these reasons, the photoelectric system is the more important one. Still, portable generators are relatively cheap, and if they are run just an hour at a time to pump water and recharge batteries, they can be valuable.

During the pre-Pulse period be glad you can tap any amount of power at any time by simply connecting to your local electrical grid. But put in a transfer switch and an alternative system if you want to be prepared for hard times.

The Improvident

After an EMP disaster, looting is likely to be one of your greatest concerns, and respect for private property in your locale becomes of prime importance. Only if you know you can eat what food you have grown or stockpiled will you build up a stockpile in the first place. Respect for private property implies laws against stealing, but it goes beyond law; it includes upholding the moral right to what you have earned and a moral condemnation of those who expect others to feed them.

Part of the reason we do not prepare for disasters is we are afraid the government will not protect our food stockpiles from thieves, and indeed may confiscate them. Our politicians do not respect private property, and neither do many of our neighbors. People are used to getting things free from the government, and many in fact think it is their moral right to do so. They imagine that if there is a disaster, the government should and will take care of them. So why should they do anything to prepare? They occupy the moral high ground, or so they believe.

The brutal truth is, there is no practical alternative to each family setting aside its own stores for a rainy day. In a major crisis, most people who don’t do so are going to starve, and there is nothing to be done about that. What is doable is protecting the provident from the improvident, the makers from the takers, so at least those who are virtuous can survive. As things stand, government cannot be counted on to protect the provident; it doesn’t even admit the danger exists, and it will fall apart or turn predatory when disaster strikes.  What is needed is a coming together of neighbors (or friends sharing a house) who agree not to steal or beg from one another, but instead for each home to stock its own larder, and for the neighborhood to mount a common defense against the improvident.

What I’ve seen instead is the mindset that “we’re all in this together, so we should share. From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” This mindset provides no incentive (beyond vague social approbation) to save, to be provident. It works only in a society where there is plenty of food.

When you look for partners in your efforts toward emergency preparedness, look for those with a well-stocked pantry. Try to pick companions who favor justice over mercy. Enshrine respect for private property as a leading moral principle in the hard reality that follows a catastrophe.

International Relations

If Europe or Asia were hit with an EMP attack, within weeks Americans would mount a massive rescue effort. So if America were nuked (and Europeans and Asians weren’t), would they soon arrive with food?

The US is the world’s leading agricultural exporter, in particular of the critical commodities wheat, corn, and soybeans. A disaster hitting any of the major food-exporting nations – US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand – would trigger such high prices for food that people in many countries would starve. So however much Europeans and Asians might want to help, they are unlikely to have significant food surpluses they could send – certainly not enough to feed 300 million people.

In the event of an attack on the US, America’s foreign military personnel would likely redeploy to the continental US. This could be helpful; they could work to impose order in farm country and around fuel and power infrastructure, and help to funnel whatever international aid becomes available to these areas. Yet in many parts of the world, it is US forces that maintain the peace, so without these forces in place, war is likely to break out overseas. This too will impede foreign food production, trade, and the willingness of our friends overseas to help us.

If anything saves the US from a nuclear HEMP, it will be the realization by our enemies that if they attack us, they will starve. Of course, that won’t protect us from a powerful geomagnetic storm.

Just Sail Away

Someone who lives on the coast could own a boat and simply sail away to a foreign land if an EMP disaster strikes.

One of the hardest parts could be getting to the boat before thieves hijacked it. If you were lucky, you would have a brief period of opportunity before thieves realized (along with everyone else) the severity of the crisis, but I think that period could be short – perhaps a few hours. Security people at a marina would likely desert their post if they realized the seriousness of the disaster, and they are not equipped to do much more than call the police in any case. I suppose one thing you could do is lock the wheel or disable the motor when you are not aboard (e.g., remove and hide some electrical cabling). You could also put up an “Out of service for repairs” sign so a thief would steal a different boat.

The safest thing would be to live on the boat, or to have it docked right outside or near your house. If some of the crew was there and some wasn’t, it might be necessary to leave the dock and let the remainder of the crew row out to you, or even swim out. For crew members living far away, you might have a pickup point and time prearranged, perhaps at night somewhere far from any marina.

Another danger of sailing off in your own boat is piracy. You would want your boat to be well armed (and armored in places?). It would be impossible to outrun a fast pirate motorboat , even with a motor yacht, most of which have a range of only a few hundred miles and so could not get you to Europe or S. America anyway. In desperate times you would have to keep a watch day and night, and never take the boat out with fewer than two crew members aboard (one to steer and one to repel boarders).

Your destination would be an area not directly affected by the EMP, ideally one that is both civilized and does not import much of its food from the US. You could bring gold with you in your boat, and it might be good to have gold stashed in a bank at your destination as well. South America and Europe are possibilities.

This is only a solution for small numbers of people, since only super yachts are designed for more than eight on board.

Operational Security

Ensuring operational security (OPSEC – preparing for an emergency secretly so no one will later seize your supplies) is usually at odds with other objectives in emergency preparedness. So you don’t want to do more of it than necessary – and it isn’t always necessary. For example, in an EMP crisis, all threats become local, so it doesn’t matter that an online food supplier knows you stockpiled lots of food. On the other hand, it matters a great deal whether the local police chief knows you stockpiled food.

The government is monitoring the lives of the citizenry ever more closely, and the best hope for quietly preparing for an emergency is that officials will continue to discount the possibility of a really serious crisis. If instead officials saw a crisis coming, they might require everyone to disclose how much food they have stored. For example, if a terrorist nation releases a nuclear EMP over Europe, then local US officials might require everyone to disclose any stockpiles beyond what officials consider adequate. Once an EMP crisis has already occurred in an area, communications breakdowns make it too late for such threats to be effective there.

From the outside, a house with a basement full of emergency supplies doesn’t look any different from a house without such supplies. What is hard to hide is preparations for defending those supplies. Modern houses are not designed for defense, and would be shredded in a firefight. A defensive perimeter has to be established outside the house, and to meet the demands of operational security, it cannot look like a medieval city wall. It has to look like the raised planting bed for a garden, perhaps only a few feet high – high enough to shelter prone defenders with rifles. Ideally it would be faced with masonry, or steep enough that a vehicle couldn’t plow its way over it. The shrubbery on the raised bed would not stop a bullet from hitting the house, but if dense enough, would make it hard for an attacker to see the house and target anyone. Breaks in the planting bed (for a driveway, or to the sidewalk) could be plugged with vehicles once a crisis has begun.

If you have enough land, and some part of it is obscured by trees, you can build a special-purpose retreat in the middle of the forest. Even then, it is important to make it look unlike a medieval castle. If no one else, at least the Planning Department personnel who approve the building permit and the construction workers who build it will tell all their friends about the fascinating project they are working on.

If you are a farmer, your cover is already blown. Everybody expects you to have food, and in a crisis will be headed your way. Your best hope is to make a deal with someone such as the local National Guard unit. They will take what they want, but are likely to spare you because they need you to grow food for them. If you have a smaller farm (or simply don’t want to depend on the National Guard), you may need to stockpile supplies and “harden” your farm in order to convince others to help defend you.

Protecting the Grid is Not Enough

It would be comforting to believe that if the government began a program to harden our critical infrastructures, that would solve all our problems. Yet it would take years before such hardening was complete, and meanwhile, we would be vulnerable. Actually, even after that we would be vulnerable. An EMP attack would destroy all the computers and control systems that produce our food and allow our banks to function. Home appliances would not work, even if there was power available. Companies could not operate, and would close. Everyone would be out of work. Communications would be down, and there would be massive confusion.

For this reason, it is necessary to harden critical infrastructures AND to build up inventories of food and critical electrical components. Better yet, work towards communications and control technologies which are highly resistant to EMP. Fiber optics should be used for all critical communications and to power control equipment (via photovoltaic cells) which is enclosed in Faraday cages. If your washing machine stops working, you can wash by hand. If your well pump or your neighbor’s farm equipment stops working, that’s a serious problem.

Survival Communities

Your chance of surviving an EMP disaster rises dramatically when disaster preparations include a larger community. The larger that community, the better its chances of successfully defending itself and rebuilding. The trouble is, it is hard to convince people of the danger to the point that they are willing to spend what it takes to prepare. If only one person in a hundred is willing to do so, it is hard to gather these scattered few. Even if they found one another, there is the difficulty of coordinating their efforts. Who would do the work? Who would pay for things? How would decisions be made?

It seems to me that the best solution is for wealthy entrepreneurs to set up survival communities organized as companies. Let us call such a person John. Before a crisis, John gives offers of employment to people he wishes to recruit into his community. The recruits start work at the moment an EMP occurs, and are paid in food which John has stored in hidden, defensible warehouses. The jobs the employees do are related to survival and rebuilding: defense, farming, infrastructure repair. Since the employees pay for nothing and have no obligations prior to a disaster, it is easy to recruit them. Since no money changes hands, the company is an abstraction until an EMP occurs. The fortified warehouse and the food and supplies inside it are John’s personal property.

Let us call the company the Corps, and call the employees “corpsmen.” John recruits corpsmen living near his warehouse to serve as hosts for other corpsmen (who live in the hosts’ houses or camp out in their fields), so in a disaster the corpsmen move to and defend a well-defined neighborhood. Ideally this neighborhood is rural, so it is easier to defend and provides plenty of land for growing crops.

The well-insulated warehouse (perhaps 6,000 ft2 with 15 feet of headroom) is fortified by an 8-foot high encircling berm which protects not only the warehouse but also the compound from small arms fire. One or two hundred corpsmen live in the warehouse or in tents in the compound in order to safeguard it, should raiders breach the neighborhood defensive perimeter. The warehouse uses solar energy for refrigeration to extend the shelf life of stored foods. It also stores seed and includes a Faraday cage room to store solar panels and other sensitive electronic supplies.

I imagine such a community sized to employ and feed up to 600 people, including 150 children (age 0-12). The 450 adults would be split into three or more groups that would be engaged in farming or providing neighborhood security. There is nothing magic about this number, but for any one group to exceed 150 adults might weaken group cohesion and allow strangers to infiltrate.

Apocalypse Unknown

Apocalypse Unknown is a new book by Dr. Peter Vincent Pry. It’s a big, heavy, expensive ($50) volume with the front cover showing a tiny Earth alongside a huge sun in the process of throwing off a coronal mass ejection.

When I buy a new book, I always worry it will be a complete rehash of what I’ve already read. That wasn’t the case here. The Department of Homeland Security asked Dr. Pry to suggest some National Planning Scenarios involving EMP threats, and he has included four of these. Some aspects of these threats were new to me. For example, low altitude nuclear detonations release Source Region EMP (SREMP) which can propagate through power lines to destroy transformers well outside the region affected by the blast. Weather balloons can lift nuclear weapons to 30 kilometers, high enough to create an EMP-affected region 1,200 kilometers in diameter. The region encompassed by a coronal mass ejection can be much larger than the Earth, so a solar storm like the Carrington Event could easily knock out power worldwide. Prolonged loss of power due to any of these events would probably lead to the Fukushima syndrome at some of the 104 nuclear power plants in the US, with burning of fuel rods and widespread radioactive fallout.

On the bright side, Dr. Pry lays out three independent, affordable proposals for hardening the grid to EMP. He points out that China and Russia have already hardened their systems, and several other countries have started to do so. He feels that with Homeland Security’s heightened interest in the EMP threat, there is a good chance that we will finally be able to move ahead in dealing with an EMP.

Of course, those who consider us the Great Satan may regard our increased efforts towards self protection as a reason to speed up their own timetables.

Be the Governor’s Friend

I used to assume that, in an emergency, governments would seize food stockpiles and distribute them equitably among the populace. Yet if it is clear that the emergency is severe and long term, political leaders will probably choose to seize supplies and hoard them for themselves and their friends. All the political talk we’ve heard about the needs of common folk (not to mention the disadvantaged) may be insincere, a way of persuading voters to fork out more in taxes. Perhaps the reason EMP is not discussed by government is because our leaders know they can use the police and military to secure food for themselves, and feel it is too expensive to try to save everyone else. The governor probably already has a list of private food warehouses and a plan to send the National Guard out to secure them. We can expect that in a serious emergency the police and National Guard will be used by local warlords (often former politicians) to monopolize supplies and restrict their distribution.

This is not all bad. At least somebody will survive. Yet for those of us outside the government coterie, neither friends of the governor nor members of the National Guard, it highlights the need to be able to hide or defend your own supplies from large invading forces. You won’t be able to keep them secret indefinitely, since by simply staying alive you are advertising the fact that you have stockpiles.

Good News on Geomagnetic Storms

A NERC report issued in February 2012 and now referred to in the Wikipedia entry for “geomagnetic storm” downplays the impact of solar coronal mass ejections on the grid:

According to [an earlier] study by Metatech corporation, a storm with a strength comparative to that of 1921 would destroy more than 300 transformers and leave over 130 million people without power, with a cost totaling several trillion dollars. A massive solar flare could knock out electric power for months. These predictions are contradicted by a NERC report that concludes that a geomagnetic storm would cause temporary grid instability but no widespread destruction of high-voltage transformers. The report points out that the widely quoted Quebec grid collapse was not caused by overheating transformers but by the near-simultaneous tripping of seven relays.

If NERC is right, then our primary concern should not be EMPs caused by the sun, but EMPs caused by high altitude nuclear blasts. So if you trust the good intentions of the leaders of Iran, North Korea, and Pakistan,you can rest easy.