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US Leaning Towards Third World: No Electricity In the Capital

The air was heavy and oppressive with searing humidity as a cloud-swollen night sky boiled with lightning. It was about 11 PM, Friday June 29th, 2012.

As I prepared to leave for my job on the night shift, a massive wall of wind smashed into the neighborhood. The ponderous tree tops instantly accelerated into a frenzy; lights flickered and then died. Oh well. I shrugged. The same exact thing had happened again just a few days before. At work a generator had activated in response to the outage. The lights had been dim, an emergency light flashed on the ceiling, an alarm buzzed endlessly. Employees putting in hours of overtime far into the night had been frantically rushing back and forth hauling hundreds of pounds of meat and seafood off to the large freezers. As I performed my typical menial labor, I couldn’t shake the feeling I was a heroic protagonist trying to aid Soviet defectors aboard the Red October or busy fighting my way out of a research facility after an experiment gone horribly wrong.

This time was worse.
Even as I approached the door the streets were flooded within seconds. I grabbed a rain coat before wading out into the deluge but it provided little real protection.
This wasn’t rain as you would usually think of it. It did not fall. Rather, it was flung to the earth. It foamed and roiled as it struck. As I made my way to the metro station, I was actually thankful that the power was out. Swaying power cables were all around me and so was lots of water.
As I made the short walk, I was nearly forced to my hands and knees by the sheer force of the gusts. By the time I arrived, I was soaked through and had to wring out my socks…

Some geniuses who must have known hurricane force winds are not uncommon in the mid-Atlantic summer had decided on a brilliant way to implement an electrical grid: A random spaghetti of power cables running sloppily from house to house, many going right through the tree tops. Whenever a high wind arose, fast moving tree branches were sure to send broken power cables flying everywhere.
As it was, extensive localized damage was to be expected but this was somehow the least of it. Somehow stations and substations went down all at once. There was no backup plan nor any kind of temporary generator. Of the local power company’s 700,000 customers, over 400,000 were suddenly without electricity.
3 million people across the entire East coast and Midwest were without power.
The storm, while violent, had barely lasted half an hour as it passed through.

All this had happened in the midst of one of the worst heat waves ever recorded in the area. Temperatures soared into the triple digits.
I lived a full 3 days without access to electricity in these conditions. All of my perishable food spoiled and of course I couldn’t cook anything. In the worst of the heat, I had to sleep on a small stretch of cool concrete floor in the basement by the washing machine.

As I write this, there are still more than a million without power.
Perhaps a million people will be facing Independence Day without any electricity at home. In some places, 4th of July celebrations have already been canceled.

There’s no reason any of this needed to happen.
Things go wrong from time to time. Storms arise. But a massive breakdown of critically important infrastructure at the first sign of trouble tells us important things:

-The socially adept but incompetent have triumphed.

-If you’re just one of the peasantry you aren’t nearly important enough to be supplied with reliable utilities. Too expensive to plan a reliable system and maintain it properly? How much do you suppose it collectively cost ordinary people for all the inconvenience and spoiled food? The whole thing could be seen as a big ‘fuck you’ from the rich.

-Social atomization has progressed so far that the ability to work together to create functional public resources has vanished.

-The one thing a country like the US has long had in its favor: It’s been a decent place to settle for awhile and make some money. Reliable infrastructure is one of the key lubricants of commerce. If these basic services become unreliable, everyone has to spend their time and resources planning around it. The whole society becomes poorer. We have a phrase that’s often used to describe a society like this: ‘third world.’

-Loss of face and legitimacy. It is an embarrassment when a ‘developed’ country can’t even sustain an electrical grid in its Capital City.
The present system’s Mandate of Heaven is eroded that much more.

SCADA: Vital utilities vulnerable to hacking

Undertaken by the Dutch research lab TNO Defence, based in The Hague, the water industry study examined the security measures taken by the 10 companies that control the Netherlands’ drinking water. At issue are the Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition Systems (SCADAs) which, at a water plant, control processes like water intake, purification, quality control and pumping to homes.

A SCADA sends instructions to shopfloor machines like pumps, valves, robot arms and motors. But such systems have moved from communicating over closed networks to a far cheaper conduit: the public internet. This can give hackers a way in. Eric Luiijf of TNO Defence and his colleagues found a litany of insecure “architectural errors” in the waterworks’ SCADA networks (International Journal of Critical Infrastructure Protection, DOI: 10.1016/j.ijcip.2011.08.002).

Some firms did not separate their office and SCADA networks, allowing office hardware failures, virus infections and even high data traffic to potentially “bring down all SCADA operations”. While remote internet access to SCADAs is supposed to be possible only with strict security controls, the researchers found this was often not the case. And some water firms allowed third party contract engineers to connect laptops to their SCADA network with no proof they were running up-to-date antivirus software. Indeed, it has emerged that a US contractor logging on to check the Illinois water plant from Russia, while he was away on holiday, was behind the Illinois ‘Russian hacker’ scare.

This was compounded by news of the hack at the Texas water plant, where on 20 November a hacker named “prof” gained access to the plant’s systemsusing a three-character default password on an internet-accessed SCADA made by Siemens of Germany. “No damage was done to any machinery; I don’t really like mindless vandalism. It’s stupid and silly. On the other hand, so is connecting your SCADA machinery to the internet,” he wrote on the Pastebin website.

One of PRECYSE’s main approaches to securing systems will be “whitelisting”, a way of ensuring only authorised users obtain access. This is the opposite of the approach used by antivirus software. “Instead of hunting for malicious code, as in an antivirus blacklist, this only lets the known good guys connect,” says security engineer Sakir Sezer at Queens University Belfast in the UK. Unusual behaviour – such as attempting to extract the control codes used to drive equipment – would also mean access is blocked. Deep-packet inspection, normally used to spot copyrighted material on the net, could be harnessed to ensure no attack code is injected. Link

4 Things the Roman Aqueducts Can Teach Us About Securing the Power Grid

Back then, as now, the perception of risk had a direct correlation to how systems were designed. Over time, a decreased sensitivity to security risk in ancient Rome resulted in design modifications that made the aqueducts more vulnerable to disruption. Roman engineers began to incorporate architectural “advances” into the aqueduct system, adding magnificent arcades with arches and other above-ground structures that advertised Roman greatness.

Unfortunately these structures also made the aqueducts vulnerable to exploitation, because the water supply was no longer protected underground. Thus, the infrastructure changed from a hidden and purpose-built system into a visible symbol that invading forces found appealing. Eventually those vulnerabilities were exploited by invading German tribes, who damaged the aqueducts, disrupting water supplies. The disruption of large portions of Rome’s aqueducts contributed to the symbolic capitol’s diminished role in the western Empire and imposed further limits to Rome’s military, economic and political power–all of which played a part in the fall of the Roman Empire. As the flow of water dwindled, so did the hope of Rome’s ability to repel the foreign invaders. Ironically, the only aqueduct left in commission after these invasions was the Aqua Virgo, which had been built underground. Link

America’s Infrastructure Report Card Overall: D

You can get the report card here. It says it will take 2.2 trillion to fix it.

Within the next five years, an estimated 45 percent of engineers in U.S. electrical utilities will be eligible for retirement or will leave for other reasons, according to a 2008 survey by the Center for Energy Workforce Development. That percentage translates into some 7,000 power engineers that will be needed in the electric utility industry alone. But the problem doesn’t stop there. According to the report, two to three times as many electric power engineers may be needed to fulfill the needs of the entire economy. 

Even if universities and colleges were teeming with engineering students, the educational institutions may not be well equipped to handle the demand. The Collaborative estimated that within the next five years, 40 percent of full-time senior engineering faculty will be eligible for retirement and that 27 percent may actually do so. A number of historically strong power engineering programs have ended or are close to doing so. Emerging programs provide hope for the future, but more support is needed. “Besides educating the next generation of power engineers, universities are sources of technology innovations needed for our nation’s energy future,” Reder says.

Edited: The bank bailouts amounted to roughly 29 trillion. Priorities.

Visualizing The U.S. Electric Grid

The U.S. electric grid is a complex network of independently owned and operated power plants and transmission lines. Aging infrastructure, combined with a rise in domestic electricity consumption, has forced experts to critically examine the status and health of the nation’s electrical systems. Link

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