Like most Montanans, when I stumble to the kitchen first thing in the morning for a cup of coffee, I take it for granted that I can flip a switch, the lights will come on and a pot of fresh coffee will be already brewed and waiting for me.
The fact that the electrons that light my way to the coffee pot may have come from a hydroelectric dam in western Montana, a coal-fired plant in Colstrip, or a wind farm in central Montana never enters my mind. Americans born in the years after World War II have grown to expect that electricity will always be just a flip of a switch away. It’s something we all take for granted, because for most of us, it’s always been there.
But what if the flip of the switch brings no light? What if the coffee pot, toaster and microwave sit dark and inanimate on the counter? On occasion, everyone in Montana endures the inevitable short-term power outages caused by lightning, car-crashes, wayward backhoes, and amorous squirrels, but in general we are blessed with a reliable power supply.
In the past decade, the longest power outage I can remember was the result of a heavy June snowstorm that snapped power lines and trees all over Missoula. Even so, the power at my house was back on in four or five hours. While an inconvenience, it was by no means a tragedy.
In 2003 a much larger and more serious outage occurred in the Northeastern US and the Canadian province of Ontario. Overgrown trees shorted out a power line and started a cascading blackout that ultimately left 50 million people in the dark for up to 48 hours. The outage shut down hundreds of generators at 265 separate power plants, including 22 nuclear reactors. Subway trains screeched to a halt, airplanes were grounded, water and sewer pumps failed, and phone systems were overwhelmed. For most people affected by this blackout, the power was off for less than 24 hours, yet it cost the US and Canadian economies an estimated $6 billion.
More recently, a December ice storm in Oklahoma left hundreds of thousands of residents of that state without power for up to week. If overgrown trees and storms can cause that kind of impact, think of the consequences if people determined to cause mischief (or worse) gained access to the control systems of our electric grid.
Electric utilities control their power-lines and generators using a type of software known as SCADA (Supervisory Control And Data Acquisition). This same type of software is used to control the operations of oil & gas refineries, pipelines, water and sewage treatment plants, manufacturing plants, and communication networks worldwide. SCADA systems control security alarms, air conditioning, heating, energy consumption, and all sorts of other processes in public and private buildings.
A hacker with an understanding of SCADA systems could potentially turn off alarms, and then wreak havoc on our electric generation and transportation network without fear of discovery. This was dramatically demonstrated last March, when scientists at the Idaho National Library exposed the serious threat posed by computer hackers (or terrorists) to the nation’s power grid. Using an obsolete diesel-electric generator as their guinea pig, scientists demonstrated that they could not only hack into the control system of America’s electric power grid via the internet, they could turn a multi-million dollar generator into a shuddering, smoking piece of junk at the click of a mouse.
In a recent interview with CNN, O. Sami Saydjari of the nonprofit Professionals for Cyber Defense said, “For about $5 million and between three to five years of preparation, an organization, whether it be transnational terrorist groups or nation states, could mount a strategic attack against the United States.” Scott Borg, an economist and security analyst with the U.S. Cyber Consequences Unit has predicted that if a third of the country lost power for three months, the impact would be equivalent to 40 or 50 Katrina-size hurricanes striking the country at the same time.
The SCADA loophole exploited by the Idaho National Library has reportedly been fixed and utilities are working to limit their vulnerability to cyber attacks, but most Americans have done little to prepare for a widespread power outage, and still take it for granted that electricity will always be available at their fingerprints. The folks in Oklahoma who spent a week shivering in December temperatures may have a different perspective.
Next week we’ll look at what utilities are doing to prevent power outages.