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Clearing Up / Bearing Down

[August 4, 2017 / No. 1811]

Where Were You When the Lights Went Out -- And Stayed Off?

SUMMARY: Widespread blackouts aren't a new thing. Nor are cybersecurity attacks on the components of the electric grid. But a techno-thriller, originally published in Europe and released this year in the U.S., raises some unsettling worries about what happens when the two are combined to unleash civilizational havoc.

For a techno-thriller to really connect with its audience, i.e., scare the popcorn out of it, the book or movie needs a plausible scenario of doom.

Rogue nation with a nuke? Yeah, okay. Rampant disease-spewing microscopic bug? Better.

The collapse of a continent's electric grid, and the apocalyptic consequences? Now you're talking.

That's the premise behind "Blackout," a book by Austrian author Marc Elsberg, actually published in German in 2012 but with an English edition issued this year.

It's not a complicated plot to describe. One cold night in Europe the lights go out -- and stay off. Efforts to repower the grid are futile, leading to suspicion of a massive, coordinated cyberattack (using smart meters as the entry point and the interconnected generation, transmission and distribution system as the channel for propagation).

Meanwhile, civilizational collapse ensues. No electricity means no gasoline (pumps won't work). Public transport shuts down. Stores can only accept cash for what little inventory they have, but who carries cash any more, and the ATMs won't work. Water and sewer systems have no pumps or operating treatment plants. Hospitals lack lights and heat, and without replenishments supplies of medicine dwindle. Food in refrigerated warehouses spoils. Backup generators sputter to a halt since additional fuel isn't available.

In other words, Western Europe isn't a fun place to be. And then it gets worse. The threat spreads to the U.S.

Sure, "Blackout" contains such elements as bumbling bureaucrats and the "only one man knows the answer and can save the world" that are requisite in the thriller genre. But what makes the plot realistic, and all the scarier for it, is that most of us have seen how fast things go from inconvenient to dangerous in the space of hours when the electricity is gone.

Here in the industrialized world we assume the availability of electricity like we assume oxygen in the atmosphere, and we're just as reliant on the former as the latter. On occasion we get a rude awakening when a massive ice storm or windstorm knocks out huge swaths of the regional distribution system, sometimes fordays for unfortunate souls living in outlying areas. The Hanukkah Eve windstorm of December 2006 was one such awakening -- many gas stations were knocked out of service with no electricity for the pumps, leading to long lines at those stations still able to operate, until they ran out of gasoline.

It's not just a few industries that operate on a just-in-time basis. Modern society is marvelously if precariously balanced to provide what we need when we need it in approximately the right quantities. Disrupt that supply chain and mayhem ensues.

But the key word is regional. The outages in the Northwest are not of concern and have no impact on the residents of the Northeast. Nor did the Northeast blackouts of 1965, 1977 and 2003 have much bearing on the lives of Northwesterners in any practical way.

"Regional" can be a relative term; those big Northeast outages covered a lot of ground, and in at least two cases the triggering events were well removed from New York City (Ontario, near Niagara Falls in 1965; near Cleveland in 2003). Even so, those were news events read about rather than experienced in the Northwest.

The size of the U.S., along with our setup of large regional grids rather than one national system, has long been the counter-argument and comfort against the notion that some calamity -- natural, mechanical or intentional human action -- could shut down the whole country.

Weather itself is hardly uniform within regions, much less across the U.S. A heat wave that has all the air conditioners running in the Southwest isn't, for multiple reasons, an issue for the Upper Midwest; and a power generating station suddenly going off line in NewEngland is not Texas' worry.

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But let's consider that third cause of blackouts -- human intervention. The book "Blackout" makes the not implausible case that it's possible to shut down the highly interconnected Western European grid no matter how many separate national utilities are involved or what ring-fence mechanisms are set up to defend it.

The nagging question is whether the increasing connections and complexity of the U.S. grids, as the country moves into the smart-grid era, also make this country more vulnerable to attacks from determined attackers.

Here are a few more: If we are more vulnerable, what are we doing to protect ourselves, and how prepared are we to deal with the consequences?

Another book, "Lights Out," written by veteran newsman Ted Koppel and published in 2015, made the argument that the answers were "very" (as in vulnerable) and "not very" (as in prepared).

The Institute for Critical Infrastructure Technology, in a 2016 report, calls the Koppel book "not the most realistic depiction of the American energy sector." But its own evaluation of the security of that sector isn't fully reassuring.

"Despite media speculation, a simple malware campaign cannot entirely take down the American power grid," the report says. "The interwoven networks of utility companies, transmission networks, distribution hubs and other facets are too complex for any one attacker to wholly dismantle.

"The grid depends on multiple parties who all operate different infrastructure that is configured differently," the report continues. "Redundancy systems and physical fail-safes protect the grid from catastrophe. Nevertheless, the energy sector is more vulnerable than most are willing to admit. Many of the legacy systems on which the nation depends lack sufficient backup and redundancy measures."

The report is useful for detailing the breadth and specifics of threats. If that's not enough to disconcert those responsible for operating the grid and its components, consider that the only way to really know how strong or weak the defenses are is when the attacks actually come. They will, and when they do, it won't be in a novel that the answer to the question "where were you when the lights went out?" could well be "in deep trouble." [Bill Virgin]

Bearing Down is excerpted from Energy NewsData's Clearing Up publication. If you aren't a current subscriber, see for yourself how NewsData reporters put events in an accurate and meaningful context -- request a sample of Clearing Up.

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