Ted Koppel and the Electric Grid

Ted Koppel was the anchor for 25 years of the long-running ABC news program Nightline.  Koppel’s new book is titled Lights Out.  Koppel worries that the electric grid is vulnerable to terrorists.  The consequences of a long period without electricity would be devastating.

It is puzzling that Koppel could write a book about the electric grid and say nothing about the extensive reengineering of the grid now under way to accommodate the fantasies of the advocates of global warming.  Billions of government dollars are being spent to subsidize so-called renewable power, mainly wind and solar.  These sources of power are intrinsically intermittent, as clouds pass in front of the sun, and the wind comes and goes.  In small doses the grid can handle intermittent power, but to accommodate a lot of this power, a new approach is being promoted: the so-called smart grid.  The smart grid, by centralizing control, increases the vulnerability of the grid to terrorist hacking.

People who lack a background in science or engineering can easily become confused about technical subjects.  Koppel describes the vulnerability of the electric grid as follows:

The very structure that keeps electricity flowing throughout the United States depends absolutely on computerized systems designed to maintain perfect balance between supply and demand. … [F]or the grid to remain fully operational, the supply and demand of electricity has to be kept in perfect balance. It is the Internet that provides the instant access to the computerized systems that maintain that equilibrium. If a sophisticated hacker gained access to one of those systems and succeeded in throwing that precarious balance out of kilter, the consequences would be devastating.

This statement is very confusing.  Supply and consumption of electricity are automatically in balance.  If more electricity is supplied than is consumed, then where does the excess electricity go?  If more is consumed that is supplied, where does the excess electricity come from?  Koppel makes it seem that computers are necessary to regulate the grid.  But the grid worked very well without computers until the 1950s or 1960s.

An electrical grid has hundreds of spinning generators that are driven by water, steam, or gas turbines.  All the generators are synchronized to the common frequency of the grid.  The phase or timing relation between a generator and the grid determines how much energy a particular generator is pushing into the grid.  For complicated reasons, if demand for power increases, the frequency of the electricity and the speed of rotation of the hundreds of generators will slow down slightly – say, from 60 cycles a second to 59.9 cycles per second.  This serves as a signal to generating stations not already operating at maximum power to increase their power output.  The generators not operating at maximum power output are spinning reserve that can increase or decrease power to stabilize the grid.  (See a presentation on the grid here.)

There is a vulnerability of the grid to hacking known as the aurora vulnerability.  This involves manipulating circuit breakers to stress generators that may then self-destruct, due to a clash of power not synchronized with the generator.  This vulnerability is easily corrected, if only the responsible parties act.

If a significant portion of hard to replace capital equipment is damaged, then the grid could be disabled for years.  This capital equipment consists of large generators, turbines, and transformers.  These units may be bigger than a house and cost tens of millions of dollars.  It takes years to replace them.  The flow of energy moving through these transformers, turbines, or generators can be greater than 100 sticks of dynamite exploding every second.  If that energy can be turned against the device, the device will be quickly destroyed.  There is no quick recovery from widespread destruction of these massive devices.

Destruction of the capital equipment could be accomplished by hacking, physical attack, or a natural or man-made electromagnetic pulse (EMP).  An EMP may be natural, originating from storms on the sun, or man-made, by exploding a nuclear weapon in near outer space.  A natural EMP can destroy very large transformers that are essential to the operation of the grid.  The man-made EMP is even more dangerous, destroying transformers but also affecting all electronic equipment for thousands of miles.  Natural EMPs occur every few decades, with severe ones probably occurring once a century.  A nuclear EMP is within reach for minor nuclear powers or even terrorists assisted by hostile powers.  Although protection could be built for a minor cost (compared to the horrific consequences), nothing has been done, except that our nuclear forces are fully protected against EMP.  We can blow up some other country while we starve.

Without electricity, the food chain, which starts at farms producing corn, soybeans, and other crops, is inoperative.  Local stocks would be quickly depleted.  There is plenty of food.  On June 1, 2015, corn stocks were 900 pounds for each inhabitant of the USA.  Just counting corn, there is enough food to feed everyone for 2 years.  Normally this corn is fed to livestock or turned into ethanol that is added to gasoline and burned in cars (a global warming boondoggle).  Corn is only the tip of the food iceberg.  There are 80 million cattle on the hoof.  There are large stocks of soybeans and wheat.

The problem is transportation, food preparation, and distribution – the food chain.  Poor people in Mexico have been living on a diet based on corn and beans for centuries.  For a few hundred dollars, it is possible to store, in a closet, everything needed to survive for months (see instructions here).  Having a closet of survival supplies probably won’t be much help if you live in a city where your neighbors are starving and perhaps freezing.

Of course, the grid should be hardened.  But preparations should be made so that the population can survive in an orderly way if there is an extended grid outage.  The essentials are food, water, sewerage, and shelter from the elements.  Emergency generators are usually installed to support essential services.  However, provision for fuel to support extended outages is needed.  In order to provide food, there must be some sort of primitive distribution and cooking system, perhaps based on corn and beans, and cooking facilities powered by stored diesel fuel.  This cannot be handled by the Army or the police – there are too few of them.  A volunteer emergency corps is necessary.

The Foundation for Resilient Societies is one of the few organizations that is trying, on a shoestring, to push the federal government to protect us against these terribly serious dangers.

Norman Rogers is a retired entrepreneur educated as a physicist.  He often writes about global warming and the electrical grid.  His websites are here and here.

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