If, like me, you happen to live anywhere in the northeastern portion of the United States, you may well remember what you were doing on the afternoon of August 14, 2003. It was one of those particularly hot, sticky days when it seemed far easier to focus on indoor activities and leave the air conditioning running. Then, around four in the afternoon, the air conditioner stopped. This was accompanied by the lights going off, the stereo falling silent, and the overhead fan slowing winding to a halt.
Initially we assumed that a fuse had blown, given that the house we purchased was somewhat old with an antiquated electrical system. But we quickly realized that our neighbors were also without power and the traffic lights were extinguished. Had some random drunk mowed down a phone poll? No. It was the Great Northeast Power Blackout of 2003 and it stretched on for longer than most of us wished to tolerate in our modern, comfortable lives.
It was only the latest in a series of such failures, which included incidents in 1965 and 1977 that took out large portions of the eastern seaboard and Canada. Blame was laid on everything from an aging system of transformers and high tension lines (absolutely true) to solar flares and insect swarms (also plausible to various degrees). The one thing which few people realized was that these failures were pointing to a dangerous shortcoming in our national infrastructure.
With this in mind, it was somewhat encouraging to hear that President Obama had slated a portion of our frequently wasted stimulus dollars to improving the nation’s power grid. Under this plan, roughly 100 utility entities across the country would receive funding to modernize the grid, forestall rolling failures across service areas, install smart meters at both residential and commercial locations, and upgrade security systems to prevent hostile attacks from hackers.
The more than $8 billion injection may not provide anywhere near the number of jobs which the White House is claiming, but the potential benefits are beyond question. As the linked analysis points out, one of the major problems with the grid is not just its age, but the fact that we have appended numerous high-tech, computerized functions onto an ancient system not designed for such modern adaptation. Meters on buildings and local transformers are running on Nixon-era technology, while central distribution struggles to incorporate 21st century security and load balancing technology.
As population and demand ramp up, we are increasingly susceptible to natural disasters, mechanical failure, and malicious attacks. The ramifications of this extend far beyond our individual ability to brew our morning coffee or switch on Fox News. We’ve seen several movies coming out of Hollywood which depict images of terrorists cutting off power to nuclear power plants, missile silos, or government computer systems. None of these scenarios are required to throw the essential fabric of American life into chaos.
Panic, riots, and violence tend to erupt any time essential services are cut off in our highly technological society. Whether the attacker is a shady individual seeking to overthrow our government or a stray burst of plasma from our host star, the results can be the same. This threat is very real and preparations against such a catastrophe are in order.
There are plenty of questions at hand as to whether or not this is an appropriate expenditure of taxpayer funds and how much of a “stimulative” effect they would have in this area. But the power grid is clearly interstate in nature and represents one of the few areas where Congress can rightly justify injecting federal tax dollars into a wide-ranging program.
The problem with this approach is that it will take too long, even under the most optimistic of conditions. As the Wired magazine report shows, the current level of technology being deployed is susceptible to even fairly crude attacks by hackers:
Earlier this year IOActive, a computer security firm in Washington state, was contracted to examine the security of smart meters deployed by an unnamed utility company in the northwest. Mike Davis, an IOActive security consultant, and his fellow researchers developed a malicious worm that, in a simulated attack, was able to spread from meter to meter to take out power in more than 15,000 homes in 24 hours. Davis says IOActive submitted his findings to the Department of Homeland Security. DHS, in response to a Threat Level FOIA request, said it can’t find the report in its files.
In Brazil, among other places, criminals seeking blackmail payments have already taken down wide portions of the power grid, keeping it offline until the government forked over a payment. According to this Security Matters magazine analysis, most experts in the field predict that a similar, wide-scale attack will take place in America within the next ten years and, without adequate preparations, such attacks may become a regular feature of life in the United States.
This is one area where even fiscal conservatives should support loosening up the federal purse strings and pushing forward with these improvements. But we must also keep in mind that this will not be a one-time investment. Just as hackers continue to thwart each generation of computer security, the power grid will also need to keep up with the times. It’s a price we must be willing to pay as we cruise forward toward the 22nd century and beyond.