Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Renewable Energy And National Security

Renewable advocates and climate hawks over the last few years have claimed that wind and solar play a crucial role in national security.  The above photo shows a t shirt of mine purchased at an Iowa renewables conference a few years back. Lately, it seems that advocates have steered away from this message to instead directly discuss co2 reductions. This may be because the United States has built renewables to date mainly, using the same large scale centralized power station model favored by the fossil fuel and nuclear industry.The country also currently has ample supplies of fracked national gas, coal, nuclear power, etc., so the national security advocating seems to have faded with greens and climate hawks, if they ever truly believed the security benefits position in the first place. It may have been a tactic to attract support from non traditional interest groups.  But, the security message is also invoked by non renewable interests, so...   These days, there seems to be a renewed (pun intended) push for regional transmission and even global grid networks to encourage renewable energy. I’m still amazed when the “large scale renewables is the only way” advocates start to hyperventilate when trying to understand why rural residents push back against absentee owned transmission lines and large scale renewable projects, , the ventilating continues when voters fail to prioritize clean energy at election time. Most voters support clean energy, but I've yet to see a poll where energy, clean or dirty, ranks high in the voting booth.  But, I digress.

 It’s pretty hard to square the security narrative with large scale renewable power plants IMHO. We have plenty of resources, clean or otherwise. When security comes into the dialog, we must take another look at how we build power plants and design the grid, and whether our resources will provide electricity to our homes and businesses when things go wrong.  

The hard truth is little to none of these resources will be available if we have a grid outage. In that case, it will be difficult to transfer coal and natural gas to power plants,and nuclear has demonstrated problems with shutdowns and restarts (search the net for Fukushima).  So, renewable energy produced on site becomes very important, along with a distributed localized grid.  None of the large scale wind or solar farms-will be of any use to us if the grid has a major failure, due to weather, cyber-attack or low tech malice, fire, by physical damage or shorting out the grid when smoke accumulation causes power lines to arc to the ground, ice storms, or even critters. If we have any kind of sizable grid outage, we’ll have national security issues. So let’s look at some of the things that can go wrong. 

A raccoon recently caused a power outage for about 40,000 Seattle folks. This internet search also provided a link to a rather tongue and cheek looking website bragging about all the grid attacks undertaken by squirrels, (Hmm, quite a few in Iowa) greatly out numbering cyber-attacks.

Anyone following the news though, can’t help but notice the amount of cyber hacking lately.  Cyber-attacks are happening to our countries infrastructure, and most likely will continue for the foreseeable future.  A recent attack against the grid in Ukraine should be a wake up call for all of us. Check out this fascinating article  - 

“the control systems in Ukraine were surprisingly more secure than some in the US, since they were well-segmented from the control center business networks with robust firewalls. But in the end they still weren’t secure enough—workers logging remotely into the SCADA network, the Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition network that controlled the grid, weren’t required to use two-factor authentication, which allowed the attackers to hijack their credentials and gain crucial access to systems that controlled the breakers”

Yes folks, we’re behind here, but not just in that respect- 

 The power wasn’t out long in Ukraine: just one to six hours for all the areas hit. But more than two months after the attack, the control centers are still not fully operational, according to a recent US report. Ukrainian and US computer security experts involved in the investigation say the attackers overwrote firmware on critical devices at 16 of the substations, leaving them unresponsive to any remote commands from operators. The power is on, but workers still have to control the breakers manually.

That’s actually a better outcome than what might occur in the US, experts say, since many power grid control systems here don’t have manual backup functionality, which means that if attackers were to sabotage automated systems here, it could be much harder for workers to restore power.”

This does seem to be on some government agencies and policy maker’s radar, but so far, actions seem to be concentrated on beefing up the current centralized system and shortening the repair time. However, given the challenges here, I have felt for quite a while that this can only be a short term strategy.  In the following link,  the recently retired head of FERC, Jon Wellinghoff, shares this belief. I’d encourage folks to read this in detail,  Some quotes of interest here- 

“I think we are in a very tenuous security situation, mainly because of the way the grid is configured.  It is currently set up in such a way that requires central station generation, which is then distributed through nodes of high voltage substations and then sent out to load centers. This centralized distribution system presents an array of vulnerabilities from a cyber and physical security standpoint.”

“A node is one of a number of high-voltage substations, which are contained within the three main interconnects making up the North American power grid; the Texas, Eastern and Western interconnects. The nodes are sort of a gathering point inside the interconnects where more than one power generation source feeds into, which is then distributed out to load centers. These particular nodes, if they are knocked out by either a physical or a cyber-attack, could have a major destabilizing effect on the entire grid system. Repairing these nodes has a long lead time due to their highly customized designs. So if there are multiple node outages it could be many weeks or months till the system is back to normal. By then, the country could be in chaos.”

There was also a link in this Q and A session to a previous chat with former Clinton era CIA head James Woolsey that went into great detail about the potential “chaos”.  

The EMP Commission, which was set up after 9/11, estimated that within 12 months of an EMP event, two-thirds of the US population would likely perish from starvation, disease and societal breakdown. Other experts estimate the likely loss to be closer to 90 percent.

Q. Really? That bad?

A. Oh, sure. William Forstchen’s novel, One Second After, gives a chilling portrayal of what life may look like after an EMP detonation. It describes a population totally unsuited for living in the dark. Deaths come in waves; first the elderly and then those who depend on medication. Following that are those who die of simple diseases, like typhoid or dysentery, as well as those who have no survival or farming skills, though even subsistence farming would likely be a challenge given the speed in which society would collapse versus the time it takes to actually prepare fields and grow substantial amounts of food. Eventually, the few survivors in the small town who have overcome these deprivations and learned to produce food face continual security issues, having to fight off marauding bands and, interestingly, bullets become a base currency in their economy. It’s pretty bad stuff.”

Sounds more like a crap storm than “chaos”, but let’s go back to Wellinghoff - The solution is to go small and distributed, not big and centralized.

“Well, there is only so much you can do. We could physically protect these nodes by beefing up security around them, but they’ll never be totally safe from a physical or cyber attack. It is sort of like building a firewall to keep out hackers. Eventually, the hackers will figure out how to get through, forcing you to build a higher firewall. It never ends. What we need to do is to move forward from this kind of thinking.”

“We need change the way the grid works, not just build higher and higher walls around these nodes. This can be done by shifting from a centralized to a distributed grid architecture in which power generation is dispersed along the grid.” 

Despite the fact that Wellinghoff was extremely noisy about this during his time at FERC, precious little happened during the current administration, due to push back from incumbent utilities (you know, the companies making the money off of our century old grid design) and the makeup of the current regulatory system. I wasn’t surprised when Mr. Wellinghoff mentioned in the article that he was looking into adding a battery backup system to the solar array installed on his house. Hey, if a head of FERC is this concerned, maybe the rest of us should be also. We should be going smaller and more local with grid design, not bigger and more centralized. That means less big transmission lines and more microgrids. We certainly shouldn’t be trying to do both at the same time.

So this country needs a robust distributed generation policy, which almost none of our elected or regulatory folks are talking about. One of the few places giving serious discussion to changing grid design is New York State, after Hurricane Sandy pointed out the flaws of their centralized grid design. It’s time that Iowa and the Midwest did the same. Wellinghoff said it well -

"How quickly we get to a distributed grid depends on how quickly we recognize the value of moving there."

I’ll throw the transmission line advocates a bone and agree that some new power lines are probably needed in the U.S. But, a national distributed generation policy would make it much more clear where those builds should take place.

I’d also be remiss here if I didn’t mention other side benefits to going local and distributed with grid design-
Democratization of energy production, the folks at ISLR are great at covering this.
More public support for the climate hawks desire for co2 reductions. Who knows, people might even think more about it when voting. November is coming, advocates!
Energy dollars stay in local economies, instead of billionaire’s pockets.
Local renewable owners might engage more on other environmental issues.

Thanks for stopping by.

No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.
Albert Einstein

Edit, Sure enough, something happened today Aug 8, that is relevent to this topic. I'll just put this right here

Edit 2 There's a lot of info on the web about this issue. Including a recent article in my REC magazine reassuring members they are on top of this, and speculating the Ukraine outage happening in the states is unlikely , since it was "low tech". 


Plenty of other folks are worried about low and high tech attacks on the grid, however. Here's a couple more articles.  

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