5 Insane Things That Will Destroy Our Power Grid
Let's be honest: Without electricity, most of us wouldn't want to continue living. The power lines crisscrossing this great nation fill our homes with refrigerated meats, video game consoles, and air conditioning. The electric grid might very well be America's most valuable resource, so you'd expect it to be reasonably well-protected against terrorists, Internet sociopaths, and rodents.
Well, Cracked sat down with an executive for one of the companies working to protect and modernize our electric utilities, and he broke the difficult news that our power grid is about as carefully maintained as the floor of a taxi cab.
Blackouts Are Caused by Ridiculous Random Bullshit
There is an army trying to take down the world's power grid, right now, as we speak. They are dedicated, they are numerous, and they are willing to die. They're also very small and furry.
They are squirrels.
"I am become death, destroyer of convenience."
They run up power lines, chew anything that looks like it carries more than 1,000 volts of electricity, and die. Other times, they acrobatically stretch to grab both the power line and the transformer to try their hand at being a conduit for high-voltage electricity flow, and die. It's like there's a specific bloodline of squirrels whose only purpose in the universe is to knock out the power while you're right in the middle of a Supernatural marathon.
It isn't a small problem, either. Squirrels cause thousands of blackouts every year. A company in Nebraska found that squirrels cause more power outages per year than lightning. In Austin, where squirrels cause 300 power outages a year, Austin Energy is spending more than $100,000 annually to install technology to protect their grid from squirrels ("technology" here meaning "giant hunks of squirrel-deflecting metal"), which seems like an unnecessary amount of money until you consider that the squirrels caused an estimated $2 million worth of damage to their grid in a single year. There have been terrorist cells that were less effective in disrupting government infrastructure.
It's an adorable jihad against your ability to use Spotify.
But they're hardly the only enemy, and they may not even be the most ridiculous. Back in 2003, there was a massive blackout that cut power to over 50 million people in Canada and the United States, and it wasn't caused by an ice storm or an atomic monster -- that sprawling power outage happened because a tree branch scraped up against a power line. That's it.
The reason the blackout spread so far was the alarm system put in place to alert technicians that shit was going down had crashed an hour earlier, and no one seemed to notice. Also, another technician had gone to lunch without switching on the equipment that monitors the status of the power grid. So, basically, millions of homes lost power because the people responsible for the grid couldn't be bothered to make sure the grid was actually working.
"This thing is way bigger than the fucks I have to give about it."
A lot of people blamed the blackout on a "software bug," which in our industry is code for "sorry dudes, my bad." I'm not going to say I'm stating indisputable facts here, but I would not be surprised if the alarm systems that failed to predict the second largest blackout in human history hadn't "crashed" so much as "been turned off." Those alarms beep constantly, and that beeping gets pretty irritating, so it isn't uncommon for technicians to either ignore them or switch them off. If that seems hard to believe, click here to see an engineer asking a GE forum how she can configure the alarm to alert her only if the factory is about to explode:
"Popping the alarm screen for any alarm can be very annoying. Thus, I want to pop the screen only for critical alarms. ... What my client ask me to do is, Only for 'factory is going to blow up' alarms." (Emphasis ours.)
Press "snooze" often enough, and this is what you get.
While it's good that she still wants to be informed when her place of business is about to detonate, I imagine a fine way to prevent that from happening would be to not ignore all of the warnings leading up to it.
At this point, you're probably wondering why the power grid is so vulnerable to stupid threats in the first place. Well ...
Everything Is Ancient and Breaking
Considering the speed with which our electronic gadgets have evolved over the last few decades, you might expect that our ability to deliver power to those gadgets has also advanced. But you would be fantastically incorrect. According to the Department of Energy, 70 percent of the transmission lines and power transformers in the country are at least 25 years old. Most of our grid was built in the 1960s and 1970s, and some of it is from the 1880s. Some of the electrical infrastructure in the United States is old enough to have been built by Civil War veterans:
Not pictured: anything made in the same century as your laptop.
The cocktail of high demand and crappy supply is starting to reach critical mass in the form of constant blackouts. The average number of non-disaster-related blackouts that affected at least 50,000 people more than doubled in the space of a decade, from 41 between 1991 and 1995, to 92 between 2001 and 2005. This means that the age of Vanilla Ice and the Walkman experienced 124 percent fewer power outages than the era that gave us the Large Hadron Collider and the International Space Station.
Now, in 2014, on any given day half a million Americans will be without power for at least two hours. This might seem like a minor annoyance, but there are hidden consequences to the average blackout. For example, the economic loss incurred from blackouts is between $70 billion and $120 billion dollars a year. That massive Northeast Blackout I mentioned earlier cost the U.S. and Canada $10 billion, even though it lasted only two days. Medium to large companies average a loss of $15,709 for ever 30 minutes they go without power, and the average blackout lasts 92 minutes. It's like a tiny burglar busting in every time the lights go out.
This might as well be kindling, as far as that power outage is concerned.
But hey, fixing all this stuff would just mean either raising everyone's power bill or their taxes a little. Which means we're almost certainly going to roll the dice on those 130-year-old power lines and see how far they carry us. They've held on for this long, right?
"Wait," you might be saying, "what about all of this talk about green energy and a new, modern power grid? Won't all of this hassle be in the past?" Well ...
Green Energy Is Completely Unpredictable
The critical thing you need to understand about our electrical grid is that it falls apart unless the demand for energy matches the supply of energy. When there is too little energy being produced and too much demand for it, the grid breaks, the PlayStations turn off, and within minutes people are out on the streets eating cats.
"You're where I store my emergency food!"
Things like solar panels and wind power are called "green" because they have the potential to save our environment from the current smog-farting generation of engines. But people who work in electric utilities call them "variable generation sources," because their energy output fluctuates so heavily that they're about as reliable as the lifeguard at that swimming pool behind the Walmart. If it's an especially cloudy or windless day, the electrical grid won't have enough power to supply the demanded energy, and the entire grid will shit its pants.
Or, uh, its transformers.
Remember when I said the supplied energy has to exactly match the demanded energy? That goes both ways -- solar and wind power also run the risk of producing too much energy. If it's too sunny and windy, because of some brilliant shining tornado or something, the electrical grid gets overwhelmed and can fry itself. We've seen it come close to happening when big storms go blasting through wind farms.
This seemingly contradictory idea of "too much energy" is the same reason why charging your electric car is free at night in Texas. Utilities generally have a surplus of electricity at night, and in order to keep the grid running, all that shit must go. The price of electricity can range anywhere from hideously expensive to so dirty cheap that utilities will actually pay you to use it. That is not a joke.
"We'll give you 30 bucks an orgasm to use that plug-in vibrator."
"Why don't we just store the extra energy at night, so that it's there when demand goes up?"
Energy Is Impossibly Difficult to Store
This here is the real root of the problem when it comes to green energy: storing it. See, there's a reason we don't just Frankenstein the hell out of the electrical grid and collect infinite amounts of energy from lightning strikes. Batteries that can store enough electrical energy to power a town are both insanely expensive and complete garbage, which as you may have noticed are not two superlatives that go well together. Storing five kilowatts of energy in lithium-ion batteries (roughly the average monthly amount it takes to power a hair dryer) literally costs thousands of dollars.
A battery the size of a football field can store 40 million watts of power, which sounds like a lot but can sustain a small town only as a backup, if nobody is watching Netflix. For most utilities, storing energy just isn't a feasible option. It's an expensive fantasy that isn't worth the cost, which is what makes us so dependent on fossil fuels.
It is possible that the future solution to our energy woes will be to literally fill the foundations and basements of every house in the nation with linked batteries. However, that day is a long way off. That football-field-sized battery we mentioned is the largest battery in the world, and it sits in Fairbanks, Alaska. Weighing 1,300 metric tons, it can provide power to 12,000 of the city's 100,000 residents ... for seven minutes. Granted, it's still useful -- it prevents blackouts as a battery backup when the main grid has issues -- but at that relatively small scale, you can see the problem with attempting to convert the entire grid.
"But what if everyone just gets their own solar panels? Then the grid isn't affected either way!"
Fun Fact: 40 percent of our nation's power is generated by square-jawed Asian men.
Well, an environmentally friendly family with solar panels installed in every square inch of their house still has to reconnect to the grid if they want to have power when it's cloudy or raining, because, again, green energy is a harsh mistress and big batteries are an unreliable nightmare. We might not be ready for a sudden spike in demand, and if too many off-grid people are plugging back in at once it could cause a blackout. Of course, this isn't an issue if you install a special meter to monitor these people's power use and generation, but the unfortunate problem we face is that many of the wonderfully self-sufficient people who generate their own power are also fucking insane.
That's because many of them right now are the "buying solar panels due to the impending apocalypse" type who are convinced that we are trying to spy on them or (no bullshit) give them cancer, because I guess they think we're trying to rub them out to retain our hold on the free world's energy. Electricians have literally had guns pulled on them while installing meters, because information on your preferred A/C settings is apparently the kind of thing you take to the grave.
Above: fascism, apparently.
And speaking of apocalypse scenarios ...
Yes, Hackers Can Take Down the Power Grid
Right around the time I came into this line of work, the power companies were switching to a central computerized "command hub," which makes sense because this is the future. Unfortunately, at no point did anyone realize that networking the electrical grid to the Internet puts it at the mercy of people who use the Internet.
For starters, the electrical grid can suffer from a DDOS attack (the same tool that assholes use to take down websites they're angry at). By overwhelming our network links with traffic, mischief-minded Internet users (who, incidentally, are using the energy we generate to power their computers) can remove our ability to communicate with our own electrical grid, which can cause blackouts.
Infiltration is another huge problem. I remember hearing of a hacker who broke into a Texas water plant's supervisory control and data acquisition system and proceeded to post pictures of the water plant's "command hub" online, claiming he could have turned various pumps in the waste-water treatment facility on or off, if he chose to. To give an idea of what could've happened, a hydroelectric power station was once remotely accessed by managers of questionable skill who were trying to increase the plant's energy output. They accidentally activated an unused turbine, which flooded the plant and destroyed it, killing dozens of workers (here's a five-minute guide on how to do that yourself, because the Internet is an incredible tool for free speech/indiscriminately murdering people for no reason). A Wall Street Journal analysis of emergency reports filed by utilities reported 13 acts of cyber break-ins in the past three years alone. I've known people that have hacked into utility networks just to prove how easy it is.
"... and just to rub salt in the wound, I'll do it with a Power Mac."
The worst part is, nobody is really prepared to deal with cyber-security issues. I work with utilities to help integrate cyber security into the electrical grid, and you have no idea how many times I've heard the other end say, "We think this is too difficult, so we have stopped trying." One European utility we spoke with told us that they do not prioritize security management, because they have no idea how to do it. Putting your electrical grid on the Internet without any kind of security is like putting a sack of cash in a baby carriage and leaving it in the parking lot of a Foghat concert.
So, yeah, if your power stayed on long enough to read this article, be grateful. It's kind of amazing that any of this still works at all.
For more insider perspectives, check out 8 Things I Learned as an American Ruling an Iraqi Province and 5 Things Only Garbagemen Known About You. Do you have a story to share with Cracked? Email us here.
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