Thursday, January 14, 2016

Washington Post asks if squirrels are a bigger threat to power grids than terrorists or hostile foreign states; is this playing Jonathan Swift?

On p. A14 of the Washington Post, Thursday January 14, 2016, Andrea Peterson writes a sidebar story, “To protect the power grid, better watch the rodents”, or “Are squirrels a bigger threat to the power grid than hackers?
I can remember a big afternoon outage in north Arlington around 2010, on a clear, calm day, when the explanation as “animal on a power line”.  And the big outage in the northeast in August 2003 was due to bizarre accidents in Canada and Ohio.

The article points out that the recent incident in the Ukraine (Jan. 6 story) is the first known major cyber attack on a power grid.

However, as I have documented on the Book Reviews blog (most recently January 10, where I reported a conversation with CNN’s Tom Foreman on the subject) potentially existential threats exist from terror EMP attacks (which can be nuclear or conventional), very large solar storms, and (I think less likely) organized cyberwar (the subject of Ted Koppel’s recent book “Lights Out”).

Peterson’s story says that the threat to the grids does get discussed on Capitol Hill.  A major issue is that most large transformers are made overseas and are not easily transported.  (This was even a problem in Virginia restoring power in some areas in 2003 after Hurricane Isabel.)  The major news outlets, including the Washington Post (not just The Washington Times) and New York Times (as well as CNN, NBC, ABC, CBS, Fox, Vox, etc) ought to start covering the issue systematically.  The Cato Institute should have a forum on it.  Innovation (like some proposals of Taylor Wilson) and investment (like libertarian Silicon Valley investor Peter Thiel) become relevant.
In the meantime, it’s interesting how sudden drops in oil prices (and deliberate overproduction by some non-democratic countries) can be almost as disruptive economically as were the shortages and embargoes of the 1970s.  But I’d take oversupply any day over scarcity.

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