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So this past week the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission voted to approve the Enbridge Line 3 Pipeline through a new corridor in Minnesota even though multiple departments for the State of Minnesota had reported it as unnecessary and dangerous to the state’s people and environment.  Since I was out of commission all last week, I haven’t seen all the details.  But I had a backup blog ready and thought it quite ironic that the title of this book says how I feel about the PUC decision…  I’m hopeful we can pull out a win in the end and prevent this new pipeline corridor from becoming a reality.  More on that next week.

Let me start by saying that I was never a Ted Koppel fan.  I actually was a dissenter.  I just didn’t like him.  I can’t tell you exactly why, but it’s probably a bit of a lot of things.  I know at one point, he reported on something that I felt he showed bias and I was like, “I’m done with that guy.”  So I was not super keen to read his book, Lights Out.  But his topic was REALLY interesting.  Plus Dan read it and kept telling me, “You need to read this.”  So I did.  I read the first half about 6 months ago and then we loaned the book to a friend.  We got it back recently and I decided to finish it last week.  And I am glad I did.

Part I of Lights Out is mainly a review of how vulnerable our electric grid is and how easy it might be attacked and put out of business.  This is a scary but interesting review of how power stations are connected to government agencies and is mainly a condemnation of how poorly the whole thing is organized.  There are many holes, most notably in what, if anything could be done in the event of an attack.

Ted reviews one coordinated attack of PG&E’s Metcalf substation near San Jose, California on April 16, 2013 that took twenty-seven days to repair and bring the substation back online.  While this didn’t take the grid offline, even regionally, a better or more coordinated attack could prove much more damaging.  A subsequent analysis of the event by Jon Wellinghoff, at that time chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), revealed a highly competent operation that he describes as “a targeting package just like the [Navy SEALs] would put together for an attack”.

Wellinghoff cited an analysis by FERC concluding that if nine of the country’s most critical substations were knocked out at the same time, it could cause a blackout encompassing most of the United States.  ~ Lights Out, Ted Koppel p.19

Ted references William Forstchen’s novel, One Second After, which depicts an EMP attack by the Iranians and the North Koreans that knocks out the electric power across much of the country.  The novel describes how a community might struggle to survive in this aftermath.  While this is a fictional account, Lights Out notes that it aligns with a congressional commission report identifying the effects of an EMP attack on civilian infrastructure.  Their conclusion?  That “only one in ten of us would survive a year into a nationwide blackout”.

His review of the electrical industry and the federal regulations and organizations that govern them details those responsible for national security and emergency response.  What he finds is an unprepared system, perhaps worse, one unwilling or unable to do what is needed to become prepared, if such a thing is even possible.

“Homeland Security proposes that families settle on a predeteremined meeting place and that they equip themselves with sufficient food, water, appropriate clothing, money, and medicine to survive seventy-two hours – and yes, of course, the radio, a flashlight, and adequate batteries for both.”  Lights Out, p. 207

The electric power industry in the U.S. is highly complex and, because it is governed on one level federally but on another level by state, there is no cohesive set of controls or systems with which to assure competence for security or uninterrupted supply.  And because it is complex and unconnected, there are many points at which it is vulnerable.

While Lights Out reviews some of the efforts in place to alleviate the problems, the odds are stacked against us in any of the many possible scenarios that might affect our power grid.  Ted argues that our most likely issues will come from a cyberattack.  But concerns about proprietary information and privacy prevent much advancement in fighting against such an attack.  The Internet was designed to be a free and open market and it seems there is no way of securing that which was never designed to be secure.  And it seems that both the U.S. and its enemies are working diligently to infiltrate power systems and likely plant attacks in such systems that can be deployed on command.  It may well be, similar to our nuclear cold war, that it is only this threat of mutual destruction that prevents either side from acting.

However, with an Internet attack, it may not be an organized government with hierarchical structures that finds a way to sabotage.  And for a mad hacker, there may be little incentive to NOT pull the trigger.  If the only goal is terrorism, and the attack can be untraceable such that it prevents retaliation, there is only one option… Do it.  [I must interject here, that with recent news coverage being as plugged into The Orange One’s diatribes as it is and the resulting endless repetitive chatter, I’d almost welcome a TV blackout.]

One event that highlights our vulnerabilities is Ted’s mention on page 83 of the Sony debacle with their film release for The Interview.  Hackers not only rendered their corporate computer system inoperable (for months), they released some first-run films to the Internet along with information on compensation and medical records for executives and actors.  In effect, the hackers were able to prevent the release of this film with the threat that there would be more to come, even potentially a 9/11-type attack.  While Sony was condemned for bowing to the demands, it is unclear what the possible outcome may have been had they decided to tempt fate with the original version of the film.  Though even more interesting may be the subsequent North Korean loss of Internet access days after President Obama’s “pledging that the United States would, at a time of its choosing, ‘respond proportionately’ against North Korea”.  Perhaps the U.S. counter-attacked?  Perhaps Anonymous intervened?  With the Internet, we will likely never know for sure.  One thing we know for sure, this event highlighted the vulnerable nature of our world and the complexity of the many socio-political factors involved.

“We have come to know how nuclear weapons can destroy societies and human civilization.  We have not yet begun to understand how cyber warfare might destroy our way of life.” ~ Kennette Benedict, Executive Director, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (as referenced in Countdown to Zero Day by Kim Zetter)

Once we more fully comprehend the risks and dangers of a large scale electrical grid failure, Part II in Lights Out proceeds to explain how thoroughly unprepared we are to deal with it.  From the Department of Energy (DOE), to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Department of Defense (DOD) – NO ONE HAS A PLAN!  Perhaps most damning is his discussion with Jeh Johnson, then DHS Secretary, and his Assistant Secretary for Infrastructure Protection Caitlin Durkovich on pages 96-98 & 108-112.  While there were some more encouraging interviews with, for example, Craig Fugate, Administrator of FEMA, even then, there was little to instill faith that we could navigate this “uncharted territory”:

“Where normalcy [wouldn’t] get established quickly, [we would be] trying to hang on and keep as many people [as possible] from dying until the system comes back.” Craig Fugate, Lights Out p. 118

Even if we had some plans, the resources to provide are insufficient. As Fugate notes, “Basically, people have to drink water, they have to eat, that waste has to go somewhere, they need medical care, they need a safe environment.  There has to be order of law there.”

  • When it comes to power, even if a city can maintain generators to pump, treat, and distribute water, most homeowners would not have the power needed to pull more than about 40 gallons of fresh water (when most pressure tanks would be depleted) or even flush a toilet more than once.  And if the event occurs in winter?  Maybe the only blessing will be that freezing to death appears to be one of the most pleasant ways to die.
  • As he notes on page 125, “There is a limit to how much fresh food is available for processing at any given time.”  In order to prepare enough MREs or freeze-dried/dehydrated foods to sustain a large population, we would need years of time in advance preparation, something in which no one in government is currently motivated to invest.
  • First responders, in a large-scale emergency, especially one deemed to be a long-term situation, are going to logically be more concerned with their own family’s survival than their jobs.  This leaves not only hospitals and clinics short-staffed but also police and fire forces without the needed people to deal with the catastrophe, not to mention the looting.

“There have been, as of this writing, only four secretaries of homeland security.  Each of them has conceded the likelihood of a castastrophic cyberattack affecting the power grid; none has developed a plan designed to deal with the aftermath.”  Lights Out, p. 104

What’s the bright side?  Part III covers “Surviving the Aftermath”.  It is a more hopeful section of the book, if only to know that some people are preparing in a way that may lead to their survival.  But for most Americans, it is salt in the wound of our gaping unpreparedness.

Ted begins by discussing the Bug Outgrowing number of “Preppers”.  But he notes that many are off-track, focusing on buying ‘bug-out kits’ and not truly being prepared for a world without electricity or fossil fuels.  For instance, he presented the contents of one “Two Person Beginner’s Bug-Out Kit… noting the absence of a simple flashlight.

From what I read, much of the Prepper Retail Industry is geared for FEAR and PROFIT.  They instill fear so you will make them profits.  And I am certain there are many people who have spent hundreds, if not thousands or even hundreds of thousands, of dollars “preparing” who have no idea where they are going or what they’re doing should they find themselves facing an “abrupt departure into the unknown”, as one Prepper paraphernalia retailer puts it.  I personally believe it’s not the physical so much that will get us, it’s the emotional, and I’m not seeing a single kit stocked with a year’s worth of Valium or Prozac to get you through that transition.

But Ted does focus on this aspect by continually asking each person how he or she would respond to someone who hadn’t prepared, someone who needed help.  The answers varied but typically end with something along the lines of “your failure to prepare for crisis does not mean I have any obligation to help you now.”  But one interviewee definitely mentions the fact that, at some point, if there is no recovery plan rolled out, anarchy may well result in someone showing up to “kill you for your food.”

While some are preparing to be self-sufficient, to whatever degree possible, others are preparing as a community. The best prepared individuals have housing with wind turbine or solar power capability, water availability and wood heat along with replenishable (hunting/fishing/growing/foraging) food stores. [And, I’d add, privies that function without electricity and water.]  But many have minimal plans that don’t address likely crisis scenarios.

The example community of Preppers Ted discusses at length are the Mormons.  Whatever you think of the Mormans, you have to respect their preparedness and ability to deal with crisis. When Katrina hit, they had evacuated New Orleans of all but seven of their ~2500 congregants before the storm even arrived.  And, the LDS church was in place with tents, tarps, water and gas for those in most need before FEMA even had a plan.  In its constant state of preparedness, the church readily addresses the needs of any member down on their luck or community in need, thus rotating the stocks of their stores over time. And not only do they store the food, they produce it with “fifty-two farms, ranches, and orchards; twelve canneries and processing plants.” THIS is prepared.  But they too struggle with the question of what to do when others in need come calling.

Ted notes the over two thousand Community Emergency Response Teams (CERTs) affiliated with FEMA throughout the country but also that they don’t have much presence in America’s cities with only one CERT in the nation’s capital.

As a side project, I went to the CERTFEMA1 website to find the group closest to me and got nowhere.  First, there is a screen cautioning me to go back… that also notes the “security certificate expired 307 days ago…

When I persist, I get this lovely message:






So… good luck with the CERT program.

Instead, Ted recommends neighborliness.  Two main steps include determining the needs of the most vulnerable and knowing the skills and assets of those willing to share either or both in your community.  He mentions that local law enforcement, fire fighters, and local medical teams are good sources for help, though for some these days, local law enforcement have ruined their reputation for serving the public with their over-militarization and confrontational behaviors.

There are those who comprehend the scope of the issue, including Keith Alexander, retired director of the NSA who now owns a cybersecurity business in D.C. [Some questioned why his great ideas weren’t implemented while he worked for the government and accuse him of subsequently capitalizing on government needs after becoming intimate with the concerns.]  However, many of the ideas for protection are thwarted by concerns about privacy and information sharing between industry, government, and private citizens.  As Snowden made clear, our privacy is largely an illusion.

Unfortunately, when disaster does strike, it may largely be left to the military as the only organization with the required equipment and manpower. And while some are working to equip bases with their own power systems (which was standard practice thirty years ago), it may not be possible to implement these changes before disaster strikes.  And the task of reacting will be made more difficult as the general public has little idea of what to do.  I’m starting to think that a 10% survival rate may be a high estimate.

It would be the ultimate irony if the most connected, the most media-saturated population in history failed to disseminate the most elementary survival plan until the power was out and it no longer had the capacity to do so. ~ Lights Out, p. 222

And should we lose power, many would not know if it was a simple system anomaly we sometimes encounter, like a car accident taking out a transformer or a tree taking down a power line, or an act of cyberterrorism… an act of war.  And should it be the latter, we may never know the source of the attack.  And should it happen, we’d likely never know the number of affected people.

Many of the interviewees seemed to have a common idea: there have been many disasters for which we were not prepared… Katrina, Sandy, Snowmagedden… and we made it through them.  But we didn’t ALL make it through, did we?  How many thousands of victims of Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Sandy, heck, even Snowmagedden, did we not count?  My guess is that we lost hundreds, if not thousands, of people for whom we have no record. The Homeless are the “invisible” people we rarely consider.  Maybe when we are all refugees of a power grid crisis, homeless people will finally be a part of the accounting, if only because so many will essentially be “homeless”.

And the questions are much bigger.  How are federal and state resources managed and utilized?  How are military and national guard personnel mustered without communication systems?  How long will it take to determine plans and will that be fast enough to protect resources like fuel stations, groceries, and water utilities?  There is much to consider and, I fear, we will never honestly and openly discuss the factors, let alone find ourselves prepared.

Ted closes with a description of WWII England where preparations, even with resources that seemed “woefully inadequate”, in the end gave a sense of purpose and feeling of confidence that in some ways saved the day.  Men armed with long-handled brooms and garbage can lids would patrol the streets.  While these are seemingly innocuous tools, they did allow an incendiary device to be swept from the roof of a building and smothered with the lid.  The discipline instilled in the civilian population helped everyone at least feel like they were doing something helpful.  And, in a case of a crisis, this feeling can go a long way in helping people not lose hope.