In early December, a report from the National Infrastructure Advisory Council (NIAC) raised the possibility that a huge electric failure, the result of a concerted cyberattack or other event, could knock out electric supply in large swaths of the country for an extended period,
It’s the kind of potential catastrophe that would have been beyond thinkable before the computer age.
It is a painful mind game to try to think how long families could survive without electricity. First off, you would be hot or cold because every appliance in the home would not work. Even with a generator, in short order the fuel would be gone.
How long would non-perishable food last? Many families might be going hungry after a few days. Cell phones would run down and stay down, and the networks would collapse.
Survivalists would be proven right as they hung on, maybe for a few months, hunting for fresh food, hoping for clean water, and living off the non-perishable food they have stockpiled.
Electric utilities live in a world in which their realities are changing. Wildfires in California and Australia have pointed to a new liability for the companies: accidental ignition through falling lines. That, together with the risk of cyberattack, puts utility companies in a place of vulnerability perhaps never anticipated.
Utilities are proud of their expertise — and justifiably so — in responding to short-term outages, even major ones. They rush crews to the scene, and with military zeal get the lines up and the power flowing.
Then came Puerto Rico after hurricanes Irma and Maria, which gave an inkling of what happens when the grid fails: total devastation and maybe as many as 2,975 lives lost.
The NIAC report cites Puerto Rico and emphasizes cascading blackouts as the grid begins to fail. As it is, utilities fend off daily cyberattacks.
The utility industry, often keen to be reassuring, was part of the preparation of the NIAC report. Scott Aaronson, point man in the industry’s trade organization known as the Edison Electric Institute, was involved in the report and has been raising the alarm in interviews since its release.
Changes not dictated by cyberattack defense, but which might aid it, are on the way. Small entities known as microgrids are cropping up. Think of the old utility model with central power stations as a city. The new one is a series of microgrids, more like villages, loosely connected and isolatable, and depending on local generation from solar and wind.
Also, the technology of defense against cyberattack is growing; there is a large cyber-defense industry. It is an escalating battle in which the defenses improve as the threat multiplies, a kind of cold war with weaponized computers.
In 2020, the invisible enemy of cyberattacks will be fought more than ever. Let’s hope that it’s enough.