Disabling the power grid (and life as we know it) is easier than you might think

by Anna Gretz
August 6, 2016
Energy

The only thing that stands between us and a total power grid failure is a chain-link fence.

We typically don’t take the “doom and gloom” perspective, but this Wall Street Journal article really has us thinking. It’s all based around on terrifying fact: The only thing that stands between us and a total power grid failure is a chain-link fence.

This sounds like an exaggeration, but it’s not. The WSJ points out that we have built a society that runs on electricity. We count on it to heat and cool our homes, clean our water, preserve and cook our food, and keep our medical equipment running. With this in mind, the article then shows us that a loss of power isn’t simply a loss of luxury and entertainment--It could quickly push us into survival mode.

Even though we rely heavily on electricity every day, the Wall Street Journal discovered that most power substations in the United States are left unmanned, with virtually no electronic security. A chain-link fence is the only protection that we have against a power grid attack. Here’s how easy it would be for someone… anyone… to wage war on our power grid, and what would happen if they did.

If a rat can do it…

The weak security of our power grid isn’t just susceptible to the plans of ill-willed humans. It’s also vulnerable to the missteps of rodents. A New York Times reporter once spent the summer keeping track of animal-related power outages. In two days, he tracked the outages of over 17,000 homes from Oregon to Iowa, all of them caused single-handedly by squirrels! A single squirrel can burn out a circuit breaker, or obliterate hard-to replace equipment, costing millions of dollars a year, and leaving tens of thousands of homes in the dark. Animal-related outages inspired the website Cyber Squirrel 1, a map that tracks the “success” of a secret squirrel black op: taking down the power grid. It sounds funny until you’re staring at a map of thousands of power outages around the country.

It’s unlikely that rodents will organize forces and embark on a simultaneous strike… but humans could. Easily. Especially with the lack of security at most power substations.

This month, Rebecca Smith at the Wall Street Journal looked into this issue, and found a recent reports of two people with flashlights who broke into an electrical substation in California, and cut transformer wires. This particular substation, in Bakersfield California, services 16,700 customers, and is only one of the dozens of break-ins observed by the Wall Street Journal last year. Despite the Journal’s report, tens of thousands of stations are still left vulnerable.

“The U.S. electric system is in danger of widespread blackouts lasting days, weeks, or longer through the destruction of sensitive, hard-to-replace equipment,” WSJ reported. “Yet records are so spotty that no government agency can offer an accurate tally of substation attacks.”

Our utility grid isn’t just vulnerable to physical attack, but cyber attack as well. 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 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.

And that’s not the end of the bad news. According to the White House, foreign governments probe these systems every day. At Stanford University’s Consumer Protection Summit last year, 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. This infrastructure has become a huge target, not just for Californian intruders with flashlights, but for foreign government agencies.

Still sound a little paranoid? Then talk to Felix Lindner.

Theoretical speculation about power grid vulnerability was made tangible, 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.

It’s time to accept the threat of a physical or cyber grid attack. What’s next? Anticipating the potential consequences, and beginning to prepare for them. Unfortunately, this isn’t as easy as it sounds.

Why we should be afraid of the dark

But what would happen if the grid went down on a larger scale, for a longer period of time? It wouldn’t be pretty. Our population is at an all-time high, and the entire 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 pretty much everyone still in the blackout zone would be stranded, hungry, and getting desperate. This is when humans are on their worst behavior. You get the picture. A week after a grid attack, a major city could be transformed into a post-apocalyptic warzone.

But the government has a plan… right?

Actually, no. Not at all.

While doing some research for his book Lights Out, a serious look at America’s vulnerability to a cyber grid attack, Ted Koppel made some disturbing discoveries about our government’s lack of preparation for this particular disaster. 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 potential case 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 th because they don’t know where to start. The situation would be bleak, with few good options, if any.

The government is unprepared… but you don’t have to be.

There’s actually one very good option for individual businesses and homeowners, and it’s available right now: Batteries.

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 likely threat to our everyday lives--a power grid attack---doesn’t have to be a threat at all.

Instead, it can be a motivator to adopt a new way of creating, storing, and consuming energy.