Oct 28

The Power Grid: Our Achilles’ Heel

You come home from a long day at work and hit the garage door button inside your car, the door opens and you pull inside.  You step inside your home, disarm your alarm and flip a few switches on the wall, the lights come on.  Opening the refrigerator door you reach inside to grab a frosty beverage, turn around and move to your living room couch.  You plop yourself down and flip on the TV, settling back into your couch in the climate controlled 71 degree comfort of your home.  Everything you did since getting home is routine and expected, as a matter of fact you barely noticed any of it.  That’s because it is all supposed to work, you are used to it and I dare say you are almost completely dependent on it.  Ask yourself this: what if none of it worked…indefinitely and across most of your state or even the entire country?  The possibilities are much greater than you might want to believe.  If the grid goes down and stays down you will see panic and carnage like never before, and our enemies know that.

Recently there have been several instances of the power grid failing across the nation due to isolated events (storms, disasters etc).  Quite often it takes a herculean effort by the local power companies, many times with the assistance of out of state power companies, to get the grid back online.  Wind storms which blew through the eastern US this summer crippled the grid for almost a week, forcing people to congregate in shopping malls in order to benefit from the air conditioning provided there.  It quickly became obvious just how dependent people were on the power grid always functioning:

“You wouldn’t want to live this way more than a day or so,” Foster said. “There are sick people here, or people who don’t think too well. They need help.”

The sensitivity of the grid was exposed last year when a few simple errors plunged 9 million people in southern California into darkness for almost 12 hours.  What about all of the fail safes and redundancies that were supposed to prevent something like this from happening?  If one technician can cause a short circuit which causes that much damage, how much more could a skilled hacker do with malicious intentions?

Electric grids are supposed to be set up so that no single failure will cause a cascading blackout, by shifting the location of electricity generation in a way that reduces the load on transmission lines. But on that day, because of the way that operators had configured the system, the single failure was enough to cause a blackout at 3:38 p.m. The blackout affected 2.7 million customers — probably about 9 million people — from San Diego to the Imperial Valley to Baja California. It all but shut down San Diego’s airport and caused traffic jams as drivers tried to navigate roads without stoplights.

Officials at all levels have been warning about the vulnerabilities of our power grid.  They realize just how exposed the grid truly is, be it from natural disasters, rolling blackouts caused by heatwaves, hackers or even something like an EMP strike or massive Solar Flare.  Speaking at the Aspen Security Forum this year, Assistant Secretary for Homeland Defense Paul Stockton put it this way:

“Our adversaries, state and non-state, are not stupid. They are clever and adaptive,” Stockton said. “There is a risk that they will adopt a profoundly asymmetric strategy, reach around and attack us here at home, the critical infrastructure that is not owned by the Department of Defense.” But Stockton’s concerns were not solely limited to terrorist attacks. Other concerning scenarios, said the assistant secretary, include geomagnetic disturbances, earthquakes and other natural disasters that could take down the grid. According to Stockton, a recurrence of a massive earthquake, like the New Madrid earthquake of 1812, “would cause a power outage for weeks to months across a multi-state area, rolling blackouts in the East Coast…”

Last year the eggheads over at M.I.T. published a report which warned about how vulnerable the US electrical grid was.  Of course most of us probably never saw much about this reported on by the mainstream media, they were too busy keeping us up to date on what all of our favorite reality stars were up to.  Nonetheless the report speaks to some serious flaws in the grid and potential scenarios that could occur if exploited/attacked:

“Millions of new communicating electronic devices … will introduce attack vectors — paths that attackers can use to gain access to computer systems or other communicating equipment,” the report found. This would in turn lead to an increased likelihood of “intentional and accidental communications disruptions” including “loss of control over grid devices, loss of communications between grid entities or control centers or blackouts.”

As I have noted on this site over the past few days Hurricane Sandy is bearing down on the east coast of the US.  Those who are in its path have had several days to prepare but are still being warned of power outages which could last for 7 to 10 days.  Only in the days and weeks after the storm will we be able to truly assess how grid down scenarios impacted those who were left in the dark.  Widespread outages brought on by the lingering storm could occur across hundreds if not thousands of square miles, not just isolated pockets as most are used to seeing.

“The predictions on this storm and the damage it could create are dire,” said Ron Morano, a spokesman for Jersey Central Power and Light, which issued the dire warning to its customers. “We need to deal with the forecast. We have said throughout that we are preparing for the worst case scenario.”

Achilles was a magnificent and powerful warrior in Greek Mythology, who as a child had been dipped into the River Styx, giving him the gift of invulnerability.  He was held by his heel (by his mother) and thus the heel became his weakness as it was not covered by the river’s water.  After surviving many battles as an adult he was finally killed by a poison arrow which struck him…in the heel.  Much like the warrior Achilles this powerful nation has a small but vulnerable and potentially fatal weakness, that being our power grid.  We have become conditioned as a nation to almost complete dependence on the grid to sustain our way of life.  Almost everything we do throughout the day is touched by the grid from the small comforts we enjoy to life sustaining services provided by our medical facilities.  As preppers we should come to understand this reality and embrace it.  While it is not practical to suggest that every prepper move to an “off the grid” lifestyle it is realistic to   understand the risks that our nation faces and to mitigate those risks as much as possible within our daily lives/preps.  Prepare for short and long term power outages, educate yourselves and those around you so if the darkness comes unexpectedly a well rehearsed plan of action can be implemented as opposed to the usual wild panic which tends to manifest itself within the general population.


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  1. […] recently wrote about the vulnerabilities of our national power grid and referred to it as our nation’s Achilles’ Heel.  Personally I feel this is one of […]

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