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One of the main premises of my story is that two or three times a year, everyone on modern day Earth over the age of 13 has a magical rule or change to the laws of physics, hereafter referred to as a "trial", imposed on them for a week. Things along the lines of being incapable of speaking, turning 12 inches tall, or falling west instead of down. I quickly realized that a lot of these trials could do catastrophic damage to society by rendering most people physically incapable of doing their jobs for a whole week. Given how much upkeep our infrastructure requires to stay standing, that could be absolutely disastrous. The problem is that I want several trials to happen over the course of the series, and I don't want them to end in an apocalypse every single time.

So a few days ago I posted a question about what would happen to the infrastructure of America if every adult on Earth turned into a ghost for a week. I did this in an effort to double-check how badly the more disruptive trials would ruin the country. It's become apparent from the answers that the answer is "very, very badly", as I feared. However, a lot of comments suggested that, as long as the very first trial's impact on human productivity is relatively tame, it might be possible to make changes to our infrastructure to make it so that society could withstand the next one.

So that's what I'd like to ask about today, once again sticking to focusing on the USA, and starting with the power grid. Here are the ground rules:

1: Humanity just dodged a bullet. The first trial humanity was subjected to, while dangerous in many ways, did very little to keep people from doing their jobs. But they know another, even worse trial could be just around the corner. The goal is to create a contingency plan, modifying the nation's power grid if necessary, to ensure that the next time something like this happens, even if it renders every adult on Earth completely incapable of doing their jobs or even going outside, the power grid will still be standing and usable when the week is over.

2: All trials always begin on a Saturday at 12:00 PM EST. They never happen on any other day or at any other time. Everyone knows this, even when they only have a sample size of one trial, because the various other supernatural elements of the story's lore also only happen in that specific timeslot.

3: The first trial was a big enough scare that the initiative to create this contingency plan is considered a high priority and all efforts to fund it have succeeded without pushback.

4: As long as the grid remains usable after the trial has ended, how the grid functions during the trial is basically irrelevant, though keeping it operational during the trial as well would be a plus.

How can the US government devise a way to make the American power grid capable of surviving a week without anyone working on it or maintaining it? The best answer will be the one that offers a method of neglect-proofing the nation's power grid that can be put into effect in the quickest timeframe on a realistic budget for the US government.

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  • $\begingroup$ You must shut down the grid. (And the natural gas distribution network. Do not forget it.) Shutting down the grid takes about a day at least. Some industries, for example, iron or aluminium smelting, must be moved to another country or abandoned completely. Restarting the grid from zero takes about half a day. Restarting petroleum pipelines, oil refineries and chemical plants takes quite a few days, and they won't survive too many such cycles. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Sep 15 at 5:12
  • $\begingroup$ You can't! Entropy ALWAYS wins. $\endgroup$ – nzaman Sep 15 at 15:09
  • $\begingroup$ "The goal is to create a contingency plan" In how much time, a month? Create and enact it? With current bureaucracy in any modern country? Can't be done. $\endgroup$ – Mast Sep 15 at 17:42
  • $\begingroup$ @Mast However long it takes, though the faster the better as long as it works. There's no specific time limit, they just need it done as soon as possible. $\endgroup$ – Jason Clyde Sep 15 at 17:44
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Train the kids.

everyone on modern day Earth over the age of 13 has a magical rule or change to the laws of physics, hereafter referred to as a "trial", imposed on them for a week

That leaves everyone under the age of 13 unaffected. These kids will need to keep things running. Industries which need human maintenance will train a corps of kids. The mechanism to do this will be made simple so the kids can do it. Then they actually need to do it. The kids report to work each day, so they do not forget how to do what they need to do. They need to be able to get to work themselves; if kids are running the trains kids can take the train. They can drive or ride motorbikes. They might need to live close.

I am less sure about other first world countries, but in the US, kids are expected to be total incompetent blunderers and many live up to the expectation, because they are never expected to have any responsibility or deal real work. But for millennia, kids aged 7-12 held civilization together. Grown women had babies and toddler to take care of and men were away fighting or hunting or farming. The kids took care of the house, the animals, the younger kids, prepared the food, did the wash and a lot of other things.

Kids will be as competent as they are expected to be. Your civilization will survive at its current tech level by training kids to help it survive.

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    $\begingroup$ That's certainly an interesting option, though one wonders how difficult an adjustment it's going to be. First world people do in some cases tacitly condone child labor by buying products made using it, but that's generally when it's not right in their face, not in their country, and not their kids. And there are very good reasons we outlawed it. Even given the stakes it would be a hard sell. $\endgroup$ – Jason Clyde Sep 15 at 23:39
  • $\begingroup$ @JasonClyde When your society faces an existential threat, you mobilize all resources at your disposal to avoid it. If nothing else, the kids are going to have to take care of the little kids and babies who otherwise will have a high mortality while adults are incapacitated. Kids might as well take on the whole project. $\endgroup$ – Willk Sep 15 at 23:50
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Have you heard the proposal of the Unified National Smart Grid?

It's a proposal to stick a bunch of IoT (Internet of Things) chips in power stations, relays, outlets and load balancers so that a series of computer systems can monitor, manage and predict problems across the national grid. This could actually be achieved today by using some fancy maths called data mining. You analyse failure data, points of weakness and generally look at places your grid keeps getting issues. If you take in enough factors, it's easy to design a deep neural network that can tell you (every Saturday) what's likely to go wrong over the week and what therefore needs immediate attention to minimise damage.

Artificial intelligence gets a lot of hype these days, and deservedly so- it really is incredible what it can already do. Such a system is perfectly within the realms of reality even today. If you're told that your lab in Hawkins, Indiana has a faulty transformer that could fail next week with no human input, you can totally be on top of grid maintenance.

Just a final note (as I'm curious): is it possible for your story's supernatural elements to lend a hand in keeping everything up and running?

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    $\begingroup$ As to your bolded question, I'm assuming the answer is yes, in some way I haven't thought of, but they'd take a while to fully explain, too much info to put in a question, so for now I'm checking if it can be done without them. $\endgroup$ – Jason Clyde Sep 15 at 10:14
  • $\begingroup$ Can a smart grid be implemented? Yes. Do you happen to know how long this would take and what the cost would be? There's a reason no country has one yet. $\endgroup$ – Mast Sep 15 at 17:45
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    $\begingroup$ Suggest you read the question- specifically Point 3. $\endgroup$ – mcRobusta Sep 15 at 22:38
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Presumably, nuclear reactors all somehow survived the last incident. They all were shut down and did not restart. At this point, they have been reconfigured for refueling. The top of the reactor pressure vessel is situated in the bottom of a 40-foot-deep pool, which is dry. The pool also connects to the nearby spent fuel pool. During refueling, this pool is flooded, so the cranes can move fuel assemblies to/from the spent fuel pools whilst handling them entirely underwater. This pool is enormous and it would take decades for decay heat to boil it all away. (And it doesn't hurt it at all to boil, it's designed to be inside a boiler!) Wild overkill; welcome to nuclear.

Nuclear ships and subs stopped sailing after the last incident, and their builders are hard at work on modifications that will let them cool passively if suddenly unattended. Once these happen, all ships will just down their reactors at 9am every Saturday, and place them in passive cooling mode. This works here because the reactors are situated below the waterline.

All dams have looked at their weather and snow-melt forecasts, and spilled (subject to capacity of the downstream river) to create enough reserve space for >4 weeks of expected water. The dam will not overtop. By 9am on Saturday, they'll have opened their simplest, most passive discharge valve(s) to a seasonally appropriate setting for river health, e.g. 1000 CFS to assure salmon have needed flow to migrate. (Assuming they're not ghosts too). The dam is out of the power business, with all generator valves shut and locked down.

All other power plants will do whatever they need to do to stabilize the plant, so that no damage will occur if the plant runs entirely unattended. For most thermal plants, that means they are entirely shut down.

Industry is doing the same thing, so load is dropping.

And in a lot of zones, that means the grid is down.

Where possible, the grid ends up propped up by turbine peakers, wind and solar, or has collapsed entirely. It will be blackstarted starting at 12:05pm Eastern. Power will be back and stable in a couple hours if this week's curse permits.

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    $\begingroup$ Good luck restarting an aluminium smelting plant, or a blast furnance after it was shut down. Emptying and restarting an oil refinery, or a continuous production chemical plant, or a petroleum or gas pipeline is also quite interesting, and it will definitely take much longer than a day. Vast tracts of industry simply do not take kindly to complete shutdowns. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Sep 15 at 5:15
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP and I bet most take even more unkindly to sudden, unexpected lapse of supervision. Your call. ............. Seriously, it boils down to that. What's cheaper, planning a shutdown every Saturday just in case, or repairing the damage from the plant going out of control. Of course, full credit for any way they can automate orderly shutdown... $\endgroup$ – Harper - Reinstate Monica Sep 15 at 5:58
  • $\begingroup$ I think I may need some further reading or other resources to understand what you're talking about with the nuclear plants being repurposed. Any suggestions? I'm just having trouble visualizing what you're describing. $\endgroup$ – Jason Clyde Sep 15 at 12:54
  • $\begingroup$ @JasonClyde the high point is "decay heat", google that. Nuclear fuel keeps making heat after shutdown. Everything is about coping with that. The most secure storage method is put it in a deep pool of water. $\endgroup$ – Harper - Reinstate Monica Sep 15 at 15:44
  • $\begingroup$ As for the refueling cycle, look at how it's done on BWR or PWR (VVER) types. I meant to link this video but forgot. $\endgroup$ – Harper - Reinstate Monica Sep 15 at 15:46
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Depower the Grid

Any powergrid requires a finely tuned dance between power creation and load. If this balance falters, really bad things happen. The US grid consumed 4000 terawatthours in 2017 or 76 terawatthours per week. If we assume that the grid can continue to generate power for a week, that's an astonishing amount of energy ready to do damage where ever it can. A depowered grid will have to deal with storm damage and normal equipment failure that happens over a week. A powered and neglected grid still has to deal with storm damage but with the damage amplification from megawatts of electricity.

As a proxy for how much work is required to keep the grid up and running, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics states there are approximately 242,000 electrical line workers. These workers are just to maintain the distribution infrastructure. Bringing the grid back online will take at least 242,000 man-weeks cover the missed maintenance plus the usual weekly labor.

First Times Always Hurt

No one has ever intentionally depowered the entire US grid (and really, due to the integration, the Canadian grid will need to be shutdown too). There have been regional power outages but never nationally. Procedures for a nationwide depower and repower may not exist. Probably the hardest part will be coordinating all the various utilities and regulatory bodies to get everything online in a coordinated manner.

Invariably, a switch will be open when it should be closed or vice versa. A transformer or substation will explode. For a project as large this, something somewhere will go wrong; probably something expensive and in a remote location.

Costs

For 242,000 line workers at \$32/hour and \$48/hour overtime, assuming 40 hour work week plus 20 hours of overtime, the overall cost in wages alone is $542,080,000.00. This doesn't include equipment replacement, transportation costs, or wages for anyone else related to getting the grid back online.

Minimum cost to get the grid back up will be \$1 billion dollars, probably more. If it takes a week for the grid to come up to 100%, lost productivity could be as high as \$371 billion (or 1/52nd of the 2017 US GDP of $19.39 trillion.)

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