How real is Ted Koppel's threat of total grid shutdown? Very real. But home batteries can help.

by Andrew Meyer
December 3, 2015
Energy

The facts are clear: the grid is vulnerable, but you don’t have to be.

Ted Koppel’s recently released book, Lights Out, details a threat that many of us are completely unprepared for: a disabled power grid. A country without electricity would quickly face devastating consequences, many of which we have recently dealt with in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Koppel claims the government is completely unprepared for this specific disaster, even though he believes it’s quite likely to happen.

The facts are clear: the grid is vulnerable, but you don’t have to be. Here’s what you need to know about Ted Koppel’s perspective on grid vulnerability, and how you can keep your household out of the dark with your own energy storage in the form of a home battery.

Could the Power Grid Actually Go Down?

The short answer? Yes. Though utility companies work to protect the grid from outside influence, it’s certainly not impenetrable. While doing research for his book, Ted Koppel caught mention of power grid vulnerability from various government officials, and reports that even the President himself included power grid failure when speaking about cybersecurity.

At Stanford University’s Consumer Protection Summit in February, the President said that “much of our critical infrastructure -- our financial systems, our power grid, health systems -- run on networks connected to the internet” which is both empowering and dangerous, creating vulnerabilities our country had not faced in the past. According to the White House, foreign governments probe these systems every day.

Speculation about power grid vulnerability was made tangible, however, by Felix Lindner, a German IT security guru who conducted a simulation of power grid infiltration in 2013. Germany’s fortunate it was only a simulation. Lindner’s experimental probing gained access to Ettlingen’s control room, and could have “switched off everything: power, water and gas” for a town of 40,000 people in southern Germany. The simulation gave new reality to the sensitivity of the power infrastructure, and the reality of its vulnerabilities.

The Consequences of a Disabled Grid

This section of Koppel’s book reads like a nightmarish survival novel.

Most of us have experienced a few days without power due to various weather disasters: we dig up our flashlights, and keep an eye on the light at the end of the tunnel -- the utility company’s promise that the power will switch back on in a matter of days.

But what would happen if the grid went down on a larger scale, for a longer period of time? Koppel tells us it wouldn’t be pretty. Our population level is high, and our modern infrastructure depends on electricity. We no longer grow and raise our own food, and our homes are not equipped with hand water pumps or outhouses. Because of this, a power grid failure would cripple our society.

A prolonged, widespread power grid outage wouldn’t just take away our televisions -- it would deplete our essential resources in a matter of days. By Day 3, gas would be gone, water would be rare, and FEMA’s food reserves would be entirely consumed. By the end of the week, backup food would be zeroed out, and everyone except the Mormons (one of our society’s most disaster-prepared communities) would be stranded, hungry, and getting desperate. This is when humans are on their worst behavior. You get the picture.

Why the Power Grid is Vulnerable

Though our country’s utilities are an invaluable resource, the systems still rely on 1970s era technology. Updating utility systems means interrupting service, so it’s rarely done. Our current power infrastructure simply wasn’t designed to stand up to modern threats. When it was originally designed, the concept of web hacking simply wasn’t there.

The electrical grid is particularly weak because its network is spread out over many installations that are miles apart. An infrastructure like that is difficult to protect. Targeting the power grid is also appealing because of the domino effect that disabling the grid would have on our country. In basic terms, electricity keeps all our other systems running. Take down this single system, and the rest will follow. We’ve backed ourselves into a situation where the technology we possess to detect and monitor infiltration of our power grid depends on the grid itself. Not ideal, right?

Smart Grids Pose New, Unique Vulnerabilities

The power infrastructure was traditionally protected by keeping it off the web. The introduction of smart meters, the number of which is set to quadruple to over a billion in the next ten years, poses new risks.

Connecting energy utilities to the internet has great advantages, giving both providers and consumers valuable information that can help control energy use and conservation. Unfortunately, the same information could give an outside source control as well. A web-integrated grid means that our utilities aren’t just vulnerable to physical force, like natural disasters. Now, a single laptop could have more devastating effects than a high-magnitude earthquake. The data-hubs that collect information from smart meters and transmit it to power companies by way of mobile connections present especially high risks.

Because of smart technology, Radware expert Werner Thalmeier says that “there will never be 100-percent protection.” If we accept this, it’s time to make a plan.

The Current Government Plan

One of Ted Koppel’s most disturbing findings came when he asked government security officials about their plan of action if the power grid ever went down. They became uncooperative and defensive, giving Koppel oversimplified and unclear answers. Koppel could only gather from these responses that there really was no plan. At least, not one that was accessible to the people who would be most affected by a prolonged outage (so, everyone.)

The country’s usual response to disaster includes evacuation, increased supervision, and emergency aid. But in the case of tens of millions of homes without power, this action wouldn’t take care of the situation. Evacuation wouldn’t make sense, supervision would never be adequate, and emergency aid would be depleted within days. Koppel speculates that the government doesn’t have a plan because they don’t know where to start. The situation would be bleak, with few good options, if any.

Koppel’s Suggestions for Preparation

After giving overwhelming information that a grid outage is not only possible, but likely, Koppel spends multiple chapters giving advice for enduring the aftermath of a prolonged period without power. He tells us to take a page from the Book of Mormon.

The Mormons, according to Ted, are one of the only communities that are truly ready for the lights to go out. Historically, Mormons have a long tradition of always preparing for the worst. Their focus on self-sufficiency has motivated them to be prepared to take care of each other in the case of disaster. Because of this, Mormon community centers like Salt Lake City have storehouses packed with medical supplies, toiletries, and nonperishable food. And these aren’t just shelf-laden rooms in people’s basements. We’re talking about enormous, Cosco-esque warehouses, as well as high-tech dairies, orchards, and independent truck companies.

Koppel encourages readers to mimic the Mormons, storing 3 - 6 months of food and water in the case of a long-term grid outage.

A More Elegant Solution: Home Batteries

There’s one major thing missing from Koppel’s doomsday narrative: energy storage could change everything. Think of this this way -- households independent from the grid won’t even notice a grid outage… that is, until their grid-connected neighbors come knocking.

Households equipped with solar panels and energy storage in the form of home batteries will be completely protected from any utility company mishap, whether it be on a large or small scale. Home batteries allow households to power their own essential appliances like refrigerators, water pumps, and heating/cooling devices with stored electricity collected from renewable energy sources like solar panels. The grid may be vulnerable, but the sun? Not so much.

Energy storage changes the entire conversation about grid vulnerability. We don’t have to talk about prolonged power outages as a impending probability, but a situation that can be avoided altogether. Home batteries put the power back into the hands of the consumer, and back into the appliances and systems we need to sustain our lives.

The largest, most logical, and most likely threat to everyday people doesn’t have to be a threat, but a motivator to adopt a new way of creating, storing, and consuming energy.

With home batteries, we can keep the Lights On.