When it comes to gore, I am a really big baby—my weak stomach and low startle point have kept me far away from The Walking Dead for the decade it’s been on TV. But after a year and a half of mostly staying inside and binge-watching everything else worth watching, the arrival of the comic book adaptation on Netflix this summer seemed like the time to start watching. Armed with Wikipedia summaries of each episode that I could read ahead to know when the scary parts were coming, I jumped in—and immediately got hooked.
Part of what drew me into those first few seasons was the almost video game aspect of watching Rick Grimes and his ragtag group of friends, family, and strangers try and scavenge for precious resources in a crumbling world. But because my brain has been broken from thinking about climate change day in, day out, I couldn’t help but wonder if renewables could have helped. Every time Rick and his gang scavenged abandoned cars to siphon gas or flicked on a flashlight and used precious batteries to try and see what was going on, I kept wondering: Would they have been less screwed in a world that had only used renewable energy before the zombie apocalypse? Would grids powered not by fossil fuels but by wind and solar have helped humanity survive—or even thrive—surrounded by the living dead?
My musings were vindicated during the last few episodes of the first season. Everyone has probably seen it by now but I still won’t spoil it too much here. In this narrative arc, the main group of survivors find their way to a big facility that still has power; they have their first hot showers in weeks, enjoy hot meals and overhead lighting, and are safe behind locked doors and steel walls from the zombie hordes outside. After a few days, they learn that the facility has—surprise!—reached the end of its emergency fuel reserves. “The world runs on fossil fuels,” one character exclaims sardonically. “I mean, how stupid is that?”
I was even further vindicated when I got on the phone with Cameron Carlson, a doctor of public health with a specialization in epidemiology and a managing member of the Zombie Research Society, a group of academics and experts who basically love to think about the zombie apocalypse. (Yes, they exist, and yes, their website rules.) “Infrastructure can only last so long with automation, and 100% automation will never happen—you always need someone to do maintenance,” he said. “You’re talking maybe two, two-and-a-half weeks, depending on who is still around to run these things. From that standpoint, sustainability is a futile effort. It’s going to run out, it’s going to break, shipments of gasoline are going to stop coming.”
But renewables, Carlson said, could change that equation. “Would the human race be able to sustain themselves during an apocalypse using purely renewable and sustainable energies? The answer is yes,” he said.
There’s some complexity to this claim. In talking to Carlson, it became pretty clear that hypothetically, if zombies take over the Earth, there are different stages of the resulting apocalypse. There are also different techniques and modes of survival that remaining humans will need to tap into at different times—something that The Walking Dead also depicts. Those first couple weeks after the initial outbreak, Carlson said, are basically all about keeping your shirt as the world melts down and everyone you know suddenly develops a taste for brains. An all-renewable grid wouldn’t matter that much during this phase: If a zombie busts down your door and starts gnawing on your leg, it won’t matter if the lights are on because solar panels are operating at peak efficiency.
In the next phase of survival, however, having a power source could prove most crucial for something that is needed to keep living: your mental health. “The first two weeks of chaos are one thing,” Carlson said. “But when you’re past that, and if the lights are still on, it becomes a waiting game. When is [the power] going to cut off? What am I going to lose? It really starts to toy with your mentality.”
Carlson said taking a hot shower or charging an iPhone to listen to music would be “huge benefits” in helping survivors keep up their will to live. “It comes down to the fact that you have to wrap your head around the fact that nothing will ever be the same—which sucks, but it’s a fact—and then you have to wrap your head around survival and sustainment,” he said. “How can I maintain a slight amount of comfort and still be able to get by?”
Unfortunately, if your house is on a big grid, it probably won’t matter too much if that grid is connected to coal-fired power or a big solar field. Fossil fuel plants require people to supply coal, oil, or gas, and keep the plants themselves running. While most wind and solar projects are pretty low maintenance, they are connected to high-voltage transmission grids, which do need manpower.
“The day-to-day of a transmission operator is a lot more active than it is for a power plant operator,” Mark Dyson, a principal with the carbon-free electricity practice at Rocky Mountain Institute, told me. “Things need to be balanced at the microsecond level, and that requires constant adjustment for a lot of different things in the system.” So unless you can train a zombie to run a transmission network—or somehow keep your region’s transmission operator alive during those first weeks of terror—bigger grids are probably toast.
A basic rooftop solar setup, Dyson said, doesn’t need any management beyond routine repairs—you can set it up and run for decades. So, too, can microgrids and other forms of community power that can help pool resources. Dyson added that the closer power sources are to towns and communities—and the smaller those grids are—the less of a chance they’ll need for people to run them, and the more they’d be able to provide pretty maintenance-free power to survivors. “Solar located closer to customers, on rooftops or garages, or at the community level where sections of the local distribution network may be able to cut themselves off from the main grid in the event of any contingency—those local systems are basically labor-free on a day-to-day basis,” he said.
Dyson pointed to the Colorado neighborhood of Basalt Vista, where 27 smart homes share energy generated via rooftop solar panels and store it in batteries, as a good example of a resilient grid that doesn’t need fuel or an outside operator to keep the power on. It sounds like a great place to ride out a zombie apocalypse, particularly smack in the middle of the mountains. Sure, growing food may become a slight issue, but reliable power and isolation would be big pluses. (And I’m sure the views are great.)
It’s those types of smaller, self-sufficient grids that are key to the next phase of the apocalypse: rebuilding society. “Let’s talk farming, let’s talk community sustainment and resources, let’s talk how to get water or power into a place that may need it in order to run basic and simple machines,” Carlson said. “Once you deal with your immediate needs and your creature comforts, you have to turn around and say, ‘how do we all survive?’”
We see this in The Walking Dead in later seasons—survivors learn to get more and more advanced. They begin to power up towns with solar panels (Woodbury, anyone?) or move into self-sustaining communities (Alexandria even looks like it has a windmill).
While I initially pitched this article in a fit of stupidity (I have, after all, been watching so much of this show that my brain feels like it’s leaking out of my ears), it’s actually a pretty useful question to imagine how the electric grid would weather an apocalypse, zombie or otherwise. It’s one that energy nerds spend a lot of time thinking about, and it’s taking on added importance in recent years. “The risks that we have in this country and globally, that could break the grid in the way that the zombie apocalypse could, are real and very important,” Dyson said. “All the vulnerabilities of fossil fuel-based systems that we rely on we’ve had that on display just in the last year.”
Recent preemptive blackouts in California, the massive and deadly grid failure in Texas, and the hacking of the Colonial Pipeline all prove that point, to say nothing of the catastrophic collapse of Puerto Rico’s grid after Maria and other fossil fuel failures that have left the most vulnerable exposed to dangerous and even deadly consequences. “These events share the same risk profiles as a zombie apocalypse would,” Dyson said. “The solutions are the same: generation that doesn’t require fuel, located closer to customers.”
And in the course of reporting this piece, there’s already one person who’s newly on board with renewables: Carlson, who said that in all his years of planning for the undead takeover, he’d never thought about how renewable energy could come in handy while zombies are running around.
“Now that I think about it, I’m like, it’s clutch,” he said. “If you could find multiple solar panels to fit in a backpack or a box you could throw in the car, that’s the difference between you having a really bad time, or a time that you go, ‘well, this sucks, but I can deal with it.’”