Blackout-Mania Hits Globe


By Quintus Potgieter

You have seen it in movies and you have read it in books. An entire city, nation or continent losing power like a giant switch had been flipped, plunging a population into darkness. It sounds like apocalyptic fiction. However, for some, in the last two weeks, that fiction had become a reality. Nation and statewide blackouts have been the focus of a lot of media attention. Questions have been posed to politicians and, more importantly, to engineers about what can be done about entire power grids going down. This, due to a collection of circumstances likes weather, human related error, or even more sinister, cyber attacks. All have the ability to leave thousands and even millions in literal darkness.

It was Wednesday September 21, 2016 in Puerto Rico, when a fire broke out at the Central Aguirre Power Plant. Two transmission lines, both producing 230,000 volts of electricity were rendered useless. The power plant supplies hospitals, universities, train stations and businesses with power. It was estimated that the power plant supplies 1.5 million people, who were then plunged into darkness. A commission has now been set up to identify how the fire started, however, some pointed the finger at the government, saying that there wasn’t proper maintenance of the plant.

The Puerto Rican government is also embroiled in a $9 billion debt crisis that is affecting utilities. The blackout lasted more than sixty hours, forcing the government to declare a state of emergency for the entire nation. Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla was quoted saying, “This is a very serious event. The system is not designed to withstand a failure of this magnitude.” He also said that no amount of money or maintenance would have prevented the fire, indicating that the switch had been properly maintained.

What remains clear is that rolling blackouts cost companies millions. David E. Nye, a Professor of American Studies at the Danish Institute of Advanced Study at the University of Southern Denmark writes about a study conducted by the Electric Power Research Institute in his book When the Lights Went out: A History of Blackouts in America. The study estimates that blackouts in America cost American businesses $100 billion, collectively, per year.

Nonetheless, the week after the Puerto Rican blackout on Wednesday September 28, 2016, the state of South Australia suffered a blackout of their own. A strong storm system - reportedly the strongest storm in 50 years - flattened 23 power pylons and severed three transmission lines plunging the entire state into darkness. The storm closed ports and halted mining operations. An Australian steel and iron ore producer Arrium said that because of the blackout, the company would lose AUD$30 million. According to ABC News, 19 people had to be rescued from stuck elevators.

However, equipped with the knowledge that the storm caused the blackout due to the damage of transmission lines and towers, Australian politicians, namely Senator Nick Xenophon, utilized the opportunity to target renewable energy as a leading cause of the blackout. An inquisition into the blackout - by federal energy minister Josh Frydenberg - revealed that renewable energy dependency had nothing to do with the blackout. South Australia aims to provide 41% of its power through renewable energy.

Setting goals for renewable energy is a noble political cause government should work toward; however, there is another threat to the world’s current utilities that also has the power to cause widespread blackouts. It has nothing to do with natural disasters or human error, but, it is a human act. Cyber attacks. It was December 23, 2015, when a cyber attack took down a power utility in the Ukraine, plunging 225,000 customers into darkness. It was the first cyber takedown of a power grid in recorded history.

As a result, cybersecurity has become a crucial focus of not only engineers but for politicians as well.  Republican Presidential Nominee Donald Trump, in the first Presidential Debate against Hillary Clinton, said: “The security aspect of cyber is very, very tough. But I will say, we are not doing the job we should be doing.” Clinton also replied to the question, referring to the stealing of information, rather than focusing on how threatening cyber attacks could be on the country’s utilities.

Moreover, the effects of cyber attack on the United States’ power grid could cripple the country in an attack that some critics think the nation is unprepared for. Ted Koppel, a broadcast journalist in the United States, authored the book: Lights Out - A Cyber attack - A Nation Unprepared - Surviving the Aftermath.  In the book, Koppel says “electricity is what keeps our society tethered to the modern times.” He also believes that the current power grid in the United States is run by “thousands of companies, many of which still put profit ahead of security.”

Works Cited
Koppel, Ted. Lights Out: A Cyberattack, a Nation Unprepared, Surviving the Aftermath. Print.
Nye, David E. When the Lights Went Out: A History of Blackouts in America. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2010. Print.