None of us even think about it, much. Except when we have to. But in this era of extreme weather, it’s happening more and more often.
It happened to me, personally, in September of 2008, when Hurricane Ike sent some ferocious winds as far up as Ohio. Not only did I lose $9,000.00 worth of roof, my power went out for 5 days. In that time, I lost pretty much all of my perishable food, except for what I cooked on an outdoor fireplace outside. I paid almost $5 for a gallon of gasoline, and was glad to find someone who would sell it to me. My cellphone service was almost non-existent, and driving anywhere was an adventure, as traffic control devices were done for. Since then, of course, the weather-related disasters have given millions more of us the chance to find out what it is like to try to live without electricity, most recently on the Eastern Seaboard, post-Sandy.
These things that have already happened, however, could wind up being minor annoyances. As this OilPrice.com article points out, our entire power grid is a house of cards, waiting for a wind. It is far from inconceivable that one fantastic event (or some inspired thinking some place like Pyongyang) could black hundreds of millions of us out. The potential is there, and one has to wonder if, given our present grid, if it isn’t inevitable.
What will you do?
As Washington hunts ill-defined al-Qaeda groups in the Middle East and Africa, and concerns itself with Iran’s eventual nuclear potential, it has a much more pressing problem at home: Its energy grid is vulnerable to anyone with basic weapons and know-how.
Forget about cyber warfare and highly organized terrorist attacks, a lack of basic physical security on the US power grid means that anyone with a gun—like disgruntled Michigan Militia types, for instance–could do serious damage.
For the past two months, the US Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) has been tasked with creating a security strategy for the electric grid and hydrocarbon facilities through its newly created Office of Energy Infrastructure Security. So far, it’s not good news.
“There are ways that a very few number of actors with very rudimentary equipment could take down large portions of our grid,” warns FERC Chairman Jon Wellinghoff. This, he says, “is an equal if not greater issue” than cyber security.
FERC’s gloom-and-doom risk assessment comes on the heels of the recent declassification of a 2007 report by the National Academy of Sciences.
The National Academy of Sciences on 14 November warned that a terrorist attack on the US power grid could wreak more damage than Hurricane Sandy. It could cause massive blackouts for weeks or months at a time. But this would only be the beginning, the Academy warns, spelling out an “end of days” scenario in which blackouts lead to widespread fear, panic and instability.
What they are hinting at is revolution—and it wouldn’t take much.
So what is being done to mitigate risk? According to FERC, utility companies aren’t doing enough. Unfortunately, FERC does not have the power to order utilities to act in the name of protecting the country’s energy infrastructure. Security is expensive, and more than 90% of the country’s grid is privately owned and regulated by state governments. Private utilities are not likely to feel responsible for footing the bill for security, and states may not be able to afford it.
One key problem is theoretically a simple one to resolve: a lack of spare parts. According to the National Academy of Sciences, the grid is particularly vulnerable because it is spread out across hundreds of miles with key equipment not sufficiently guarded or antiquated and unable to prevent outages from cascading.
We are talking about some 170,000 miles of voltage transmission line miles fed by 2,100 high-voltage transformers delivering power to 125 million households.
“We could easily be without power across a multistate region for many weeks or months, because we don’t have many spare transformers,” according to the Academy.
The article in full is sobering to read. I was aware of most of its points already, but I hadn’t taken much time to think about it.
I should think about it. We all should. It seems to me that maybe we’re spending way too much on the Pentagon for way too little in terms of REAL security.