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Zombies zap the grid (again): the second one

A few years ago, the concept of “disruption” was all business. Last year, it became literal when zombies finally zapped the grid. (For coverage on that outbreak, click this link.

But humanity—with utilities leading the way—fought back. We drove as many zombies West as possible, pushing them with bucket trucks and leaf blowers, pulling them with the low sizzle of transmission lines and transformers (which they seem to mistake for something cooking) and the bravery of human bait.

The idea was simple: Use Ivanpah to our advantage. The world’s largest solar power plant uses hundreds of thousands of huge mirrors to heat nearly 500 collectors to more than 800 degrees. What better way to destroy the zombie hordes?

It was a brilliant idea, a real vision involving that T&D sizzle, smart-grid enhanced lighting and heliostats to “smoke out” the zombies. The project truly brought humanity together to build a “walking grid” to push those zombies into the desert.

Alas though, as with many good plans, it didn’t quite work out. As the zombies moved farther, they got smarter, and they got stronger. Like the power grid we were trying to use as the ultimate weapon, the zombies evolved.

It honestly wasn’t for lack of trying that zombies weren’t complete eradicated. Karen Bartleson, president of the IEEE Standards Association, was confident, back then, that technology would save us. 

“Many energy networks are self-healing, a feature that confounds zombies and is a great relief to field technicians,” she told a worried group of conference attendees when the attacks began last year. 

And, after those attacks, the IEEE Standards Association reached out to its global network of experts working to advance technology for living humans and established working groups to address zombie infestation through new standards projects, which continue to adapt as the zombies evolve. 

But, suddenly, with these more human-like adaptations, we all realized that zombies—except for that whole “trying to eat us” thing—weren’t so bad after all. If this were a “Twilight Zone” episode, it might open with the narrated words of “portrait of a world in transition”—droned by Rod Serling in that creepy, calm voice only he had.

In this transition, that crazy, massive, panicked zombie disruption has circled back to being all about business—the business of catering to a whole new customer segment.

Humanity is truly adaptable, especially when it comes down to business.

Getting down to business

“The key to dealing with and truly satisfying the zombie hoards is collaboration from utilities on ideas, best practices and case studies,” noted Chris Moyer, communities manager for utilities industry publisher Energy Central.  “It is exciting to see communities on analytics, mobile technology, and smart cities impacting new utility innovations for improving their zombie customer segmentation.”      

Still, for all that potential, the zombie horde’s not a perfectly well-mannered customer segment just yet. The fresh zombies are still a bit rambunctious and tend to get into things (without signing up for service). So, to keep an eye on the grid and keep that electric infrastructure up and running, the industry has turned to Elster, a company that built on their smart grid insights to alert monitors when a fresh, unfriendly zombie is lurking in the equipment. (Now, as we now know, not all zombies are bad, but, alas, some zombies are very bad. It’s just an individual thing.)

“Working with the chip vendor that produces our vibration sensor used currently in our older metering products, meters being deployed in zombie zones now are able to not only detect tamper and outages once they occur but can notify authorities using a zombie proximity alert,” said Ron D. Pate, head of solutions and product management for Elster. Pate added that Elster was additionally utilizing backhaul networks originally part of metering infrastructure to make sure our new zombie segment doesn’t get too stuck in substations and circuit breakers. 

“With advanced detection mechanisms, the threats they represent can be greatly neutralized,” he said. 

IEEE’s Bartleson added to the grid safety debate, saying, “Thanks to the Internet of Things, we are able to deploy sensor networks, instead of tender, juicy humans, to monitor substations and let us know with specificity where zombie nom-noming has occurred.” 

Pate also brought up a new concept to zombie segmentation: analysis. Pate and Elster have been recording historical motion of the newly zombified and creating predictive models. In fact, they have discovered that zombies are “soothed,” it seems by that low hum of power transformers. 

Ever the brilliance in business planning, Elster is hard at work planning to use this attraction that new zombies have to transformers and substations to humanity’s advantage. Though the details are strictly proprietary, Pate did share the overall concept: using treadmill technology and zombie perseverance to add energy to the grid. 

“Zombies, in their relentless walk up the slight incline toward the substation are powering the turbines and are producing a surprising amount of energy,” Pate added.  “This zombie treadmill environment contains the zombies in an environment harmless to the general population—and provides some sense of peace to the zombies, which were once our family members and friends.”

In fact, though it may impact Elster’s concept and the proprietary selling points of Pate and company’s technology, IEEE has already adopted a standard that fits Elster’s treadmill concept: IEEE P131313.

Bartleson explained, “This ironic standard, in development, specifies the capture of energy for use in the electric infrastructure through zombie containment on treadmills with buckets of brains suspended ahead of them, thereby harnessing relentless zombie forward progression.” 

No word yet on whether Elster was inspired by the standard or the new standard inspired by the Elster technology or what that means for the interoperability of similar industry tech in substations. But, as new zombie segment ground is forged in tech and standards, more of this overlap is bound to occur, which may mean a need for more intimate collaboration on the subject.

And speaking of collaboration, as the fresh zombies evolve into less harmful members of our new society—basically when they stop trying to eat the handlers in charge of the treadmill environment—Elster has a re-introduction program (in tandem with DataCapable) to find the perfect new life for them.

DataCapable, for one, has really hopped on the pro-zombie bandwagon. 

Zombie customer segmentation (not literal)

Ryan Zaczynski, DataCapable's zombie intern manager, said, “The zombie apocalypse has been great. DataCapable is a startup and needed the best minds out there. Our living dead interns have really delivered. Talk about dedication.” 

Zaczynski did note, however, that while zombie interns are traditionally cheap—they won’t cost you an arm and a leg in the salary sense—they may cost you a literal arm and a leg if they aren’t properly vetted for the program.

DataCapable and Elster aren’t the only companies seeing potential benefits in the new zombie population. Mike Smith, vice president of the Utility Analytics Institute, which is always on the bleeding-edge of industry concepts provided an update of utility industry efforts at managing the zombie problem. 

“After last year’s zombie threats, we now see some utilities leveraging the power of predictive analytics to stay one step ahead of what some people believe to be the coming apocalypse, while other utilities are taking a proactive business posture on this emerging issue. Over half of utilities surveyed have implemented zombie regression analyses aimed at predicting the location and severity of zombie activity, while 666 utilities report that they are planning for zombie wants and need—with an eye ahead to the zombie ‘threat’ becoming a real disruptive opportunity,” he added.

Smith added that the Institute has identified three new VC-funded Silicon Valley analytics start-ups with zombie-specific algorithms. These are expected to be publicly available on October 31st of next year. 

According to RIM Solutions spokesperson Vanessa Edmonds, the industry marketers at RIM have put away their sharpened JA Henckels post-attack and got down to the business of how utilities can help meet zombie needs—well, except for that whole brain need. Otherwise, though, she sees utilities as uniquely equipped to use their big data experience to apply smarter analytics to the evolution of this new market. Will zombies use more or less power than their human counterparts seasonally because they are naturally room temperature? Will they want to join a renewables movement or remain shufflingly apathetic? Will the fewer remaining limbs a zombie—and the decaying process of those limbs—impact the number of electronic devices they will utilize? How does a utility market rate plans to a segment that can’t communicate well and gets distracted easily by movement, food and buzzing transformers? There are so many questions to answer, Edmonds added.

John Kraft, Georgia Power spokesperson, for one, has his utility’s answer. His company is quickly establishing a market that benefits from what they say is the biggest new trend among evolving zombies: a massive (if perhaps partially co-opted from fleeing humans) EV market.

"Atlanta is now one of the top electric vehicle markets because of their zero emissions and our low recharging rates. Clearly, all those lurching zombies are tired from walking around dead all the time. Offering a sweet electric ride, we guess, just puts them in a better mood,” he said.

Well, there’s one of RIM Solutions’ questions answered. Now, what about those electronic devices? Will zombies have more or fewer, and will they plug them all in at once? Will they remember to plug them in at all?

So many questions about new zombie customer segmentation, but one thing is no longer in question: We live in a time of serious disruption. Like those zombies, we’ll just have to adapt and evolve.


Happy Halloween.

For having a great sense of humor and a willingness to lend a nearly literal hand to this holiday fun, thanks to Zac Canders and Ryan Zaczynski of DataCapable, Mike Smith of the Utility Analytics Institute, Vanessa Edmonds with RIM Solutions, Ron Pate and Ginger Juhl from Elster, Chris Moyers with Energy Central, Karen Bartleson of the IEEE, Melissa Power with Interprose PR, John Kraft with Georgia Power, and a certain favorite Western utility media relations guy who asked to remain nameless and quoteless (but who came up with the brilliant Ivanpah concept that opens this article).


Our zombie references/inspirations this year include AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” SyFy Channel’s “Z Nation” and the new cult cartoon classic “ParaNorman,” where the zombies are just super nice guys trying to help out.

For last year’s first installment of “Zombies zap the grid,” click here


Kathleen Wolf Davis's picture

Thank Kathleen for the Post!

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