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2003 blackout in New York

WASHINGTON – Department of Homeland Security official John Verrico admitted that a Chinese researcher had detailed precisely how vulnerable the U.S. electric grid is to a cyber-terrorist attack.

The disclosure reveals the government’s familiarity with a report released more than six months ago, in which Jian-Wei Wang used publicly available data to explain exactly how the United States’ West Coast grid was connected and how the computers that control the grid could be easily sabotaged.

Wang and his colleagues at the Dalian University of Technology in China demonstrated how an attack on even the most unimportant and least used networks within the power grid could cause what engineers refer to as a “cascading failure,” or a domino effect, in which one grid after another becomes overloaded and shuts down.

Most Americans can recall an event fitting this description when in the summer of 2003, a surge at one plant in Ohio caused just such a “cascading failure” and led to complete blackouts in New York City, on much of the East Coast and even in the Midwest. More than 45 million people were left without electricity, and telephone and even water services were disrupted. In all, the outage caused more than $10 billion in losses.

Official reports immediately denied any possibility of terrorism, but a Wall Street Journal report in April of 2009 revealed that hackers from China and Russia have twice breached the national security grid and may have left software programs behind that could be used to remotely crash the system. The same type of hackers successfully compromised a water treatment facility in Australia and caused 200,000 gallons of sewage to flood a city.

Some experts believe the 2003 blackout was in fact caused by a hacker – a software bug within an operating system responsible for managing alarm systems led operators to believe systems were functioning normally when, in fact, they were on the verge of collapse. The “worm” inside the computer system at just one facility contributed to the scale of the catastrophe.

The Obama administration claims the problem is being solved with $200 million of funding, but the reality is that much of the grid uses 1940s equipment and that a few terrorists with a little explosive material – like the kind used at many construction sites around the country – could attack the grid in dozens of vulnerable places at once.

Threats to the grid are not limited only to terrorist attacks or hackers. As Newt Gingrich pointed out in a recent speech, a nuclear weapon detonated in the atmosphere above a U.S. city could act as an Electromagnetic Pulse device, destroying the electrical circuitry that powers every computer in the city. His claims are based on the Report of the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse Attack from April 2008.

Natural disasters can also wreak havoc on our relatively fragile infrastructure, as was the case in New Orleans after Katrina, after the blizzard of 2006 that dumped 26 inches on New York City, and after floods in north Georgia in September of 2009.

Citizens who sit back and expect the government to help them may be shocked to find that getting the power turned back on is not always easy and is rarely a priority for officials. In some cases it takes weeks before all the power facilities are back on line and lines are connected.

In response to the growing threat, many consumers are turning to alternatives, such as the one offered by Solutions from Science, an Illinois-based company that sells a solar-powered generator. Bill Heid, the chief executive officer of the company, explained how the solar power generator works.
“The solar powered generator harnesses free energy from the sun, stores it and then delivers it cleanly and quietly whenever you need it,” explains Heid.

Unlike traditional gasoline powered generators, the solar powered generator uses entirely free energy from the sun, and emits no fumes and makes no noise.
“If you’ve ever used a gas-powered generator, you know how loud they are and how much they smell,” he said. “That’s hardly a practical solution in a residential situation.”

The solar-powered generator raises another concern of many survivalists whose plans rely on traditional gas or diesel powered generators; the long-term availability of those fuels in the event of a terrorist attack or natural disaster. If the electric grid is down for any reason, the pumps at gas stations won’t work and if there is any serious disruption to the electric grid, the entire “just in time” inventory system will fail altogether.

Consumers who have worked hard to prepare by counting on their traditional generators may find themselves with an expensive piece of equipment that does nothing but take up room.

Heid explains, “A gas powered generator may run out of fuel in as little as a few hours. If you’ve planned ahead maybe you’ve stored extra fuel, and if you’ve taken precautions to prevent it from spoiling, maybe that will buy you a few extra days, but then what? What will your family do when there is no more gasoline?”

Many observers have pointed out that the problems facing the U.S. power grid are likely to remain with us for generations. The aging infrastructure, the left’s opposition to nuclear power, a growing population and increased electric consumption are driving demand, while fossil fuel prices inch upwards year after year.

In the book, “Brittle Power: Energy Strategy for National Security,” author Amory Lovins makes the case that the U.S. energy infrastructure is even more susceptible to disruption, by accident or through malice than even imported oil.

It is this growing danger of blackouts that has driven many consumers to prepare for the worst, while praying that day never comes. Other consumers cite a desire for peace of mind, recognizing that without electricity, even the best-prepared family will suffer many hardships that could be avoided.

The rather minor glitch that led to the blackout in the northeast in 2003 disrupted water service, communication, transportation and even contributed to the deaths of more than a dozen people. Some consumers were without power for days. A few citizens remained calm and confident in their homes, despite the chaos outside, because of their preparations.

As Heid says, “Having a solar generator is like having a secret power plant hidden in your home … with clean, quiet, permanent electrical power at your fingertips.”

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