31st Jan 2022
How Can You Generate Power In A Survival Situation?
How you answer that depends on how you answer several more basic questions:
- What power-generation resources do you have ready access to?
- How much luxury do you want to enjoy in said “situation”?
- Which survival situation?
- How long will the “situation” last?
In a nutshell: Imagine the emergencies you might be exposed to, and frugally define the amount (and duration) of power you really will need. Select and buy products that match the property and resources at your disposal.
You can answer the first two questions fairly quickly.
The last two? Get out your crystal ball, especially for the fourth - A plan for a 4-week blackout necessarily must be more robust than one for a 4-hour blackout. All four questions are nevertheless worth asking now - they enable you to map out a plan of (re)action.
Here are some further ideas that will help you map that plan.
There is no one-size-fits-all answer to power generation
Everyone has access to different resources.
Everyone lives somewhere different. No two people will have the same power needs or expectations in a survival situation.
Most people in western countries live in urban areas.
They don’t control large amounts of land, and what they have is relatively flat. So there’s not much space for erecting a photovoltaic array farm or wind turbine, and probably no brook or waterfall. But there probably is enough space for a gas- or diesel-powered generator, some batteries, and perhaps some small solar- or wind-powered devices.
In rural areas, people typically live on larger plots of land.
The kinetic energy of a running stream can be captured by a hydroelectric turbine. If it flows over uneven land, there’s potential energy in the water that can be captured by a bucket-wheel generator. And larger-capacity solar arrays and wind turbines can be installed.
So take stock of the resources you do have.
Be prepared for multiple survival situations
Most emergencies leave a door open for you.
Earthquakes cause things to fall over and take out power grids but don’t stop the sun from shining.
Blizzards and thunderstorms aren’t the time to run a wind turbine and don’t let much sunlight in. But you can run a diesel generator.
Take stock of the possible scenarios and plan accordingly.
Know how much power you’ll really need
Despite our modern technological addictions … most of us really can live without wifi and television for extended periods.
But maybe you can’t.
If, for example, you’re a first-responder of some kind, wifi access might be essential to your job. Especially in a situation like the ones we’re considering in this article.
The biggest appliances in most people’s homes are the fridge and freezer. Do you really need them on? If it’s winter and you have a cold cellar … can you move all your cold and frozen food there and leave the appliances off?
All that said … here are some options open to you:
1. Human-generated power
Bicycle power - Crazy, but it’s quite possible (and simple) to connect your bike to a car alternator and battery, and generate enough juice to allow your teenagers to watch The Big Bang Theory. It’s been done - see here.
Hand-crank flashlights - Only useful for generating power for said flashlight, and you have to manually shake the flashlight back and forth every few minutes. But it’s cheap and easy.
- You have to feed the biker! (This assumes food isn’t in low supply.)
- Not the most exciting of exercises for the biker.
- Manually cranking the flashlight gets tiring after a while, so it’s not viable if you need the light for long periods.
- And hand-crank flashlights only generate a small amount of light.
2. Small hydro turbine
That brook running across the corner of your property?
A hydro turbine, left in the brook, or a water wheel under falling water, will charge a car battery.
And once charged, it can be swapped with a depleted one that charges while you use the full one.
- Green energy.
- Evergreen energy - Streams flow reliably and consistently unless there’s a drought.
- You have to position the turbine in the brook where the water speed, or water drop, is greatest. Not easy to do, especially after the survival situation has begun.
3. Solar panels
The bigger these are, the more power they generate.
But if your power needs are frugal, you might not need a big one. Here are some we like.
- Green energy.
- No moving parts, so low-maintenance.
- Not terribly efficient, although technology development is improving this all the time.
- Only really effective in direct sunlight.
- Must be pointed directly at the sun to be optimally effective.
- Unless you buy a generator kit (which comes with a battery for storing excess power generated), the sun must be shining brightly just when you need it.
4. Wind turbines
Same as with solar - the bigger they are, the more power they generate.
These don’t care about the direction of the wind, as they’re usually self-directing. They do, unfortunately, care about altitude, wind speed and location. Windless air contains no energy for a turbine to harvest.
Hence wind turbines have to be mounted up high and ideally away from any objects (natural or man-made) that might shelter it from the wind.
- Green energy.
- They need a minimum wind speed to generate any power at all, and can’t be operated safely when the wind speed is too high. This means that, unlike solar, they generate power less frequently and less predictably.
- If adjacent to the house, it is noisy for occupants.
- Hazardous to birdlife.
5. Gas/Diesel Generators
Simple - a gas- or diesel-fuelled motor driving a generator, connected to a battery.
Of these, there are dozens of makes, models and sizes. The smaller ones can be carried about by one person; the bigger ones take two or more people.
- Simple, known technology.
- Most are quite efficient, and can generate large amounts of power.
- Larger ones can power an entire house operating frugally.
- Fuel must be stored and replenished.
- Must be maintained and serviced.
- Generator life is not infinite - they are not designed to run for prolonged situations.
6. Biogas/Syngas Generators
Similar in concept to Gas/Diesel, except … the fuel is biomass (peat, biowaste) or wood that you burn in a stove in the house.
- You get to benefit from the heat kicked out by the stove AND generate useful electrical power. (Can’t do that with the Gas/Diesel generator.)
- Connecting the stove to the generator requires careful (and expensive) plumbing.
7. Backup batteries (or Power stations)
Power stations aren’t really power generators. They’re power (or energy) storage devices.
The battery is connected to your house electrical network when there’s no blackout. The bigger and fancier ones take advantage of marine battery technology, which stores for much longer than auto batteries, and switches seamlessly between main grid and backup battery, so that you barely notice a problem.
- No moving parts.
- Most are compact enough to be stored out of the way.
- Not generators - You have to be connected to the main grid to charge.
- Not an infinite source of power - if you have no other power generator available, when the battery depletes … your power is gone.
- Not necessarily Green; if your grid power is largely fossil-fuel-based, so is your Battery power.
- Not an infinite source of power in another way - Batteries have finite lives. They can be charged and depleted only so often before they cease to be useful.
8. Solar Generator Kits
These are a superb hybrid solution - a Solar Array combined with a Power Station. As such, they combine the best of the two. See here for examples.
- Can be charged from either main grid OR solar array.
- No moving parts.
- Green energy when charged from solar.
- Not Green when connected to a fossil-fuel-bsed main grid.
- Still suffer from the finite battery life problem. (Although the life is typically much longer because of charging from the Solar arrays.
Incredibly, a simple wire running between high-and cold- adjacent temperature zones … will generate an electrical current.
The bigger the temperature difference, the more power gets generated. This concept is actually applied to generate power in orbiting satellites and space stations (where the temperature differences are high).
- No moving parts.
- No maintenance.
- Because large adjacent temperature differences are rare on earth, power generated is low. (Enough to charge a wet battery in a few hours. No more.)
Great places to learn more
The best places to learn more are RV shops, yachting marinas, and the mechanical shops that service them.
Everyone living out of an RV or boat has the problem of portable power generators all the time. So they know the latest technology and products on the market better than anyone.