Friday, September 3, 2010

Preparing for the big power outage

If you've read some of my earlier posts, you'll know that one of my top concerns is the risk of a widespread, long term (over a week) power outage. Emergency hazard planning is all about looking at the potential impact and probability of a hazard, and then how this is mitigated by steps that have been put in place. It doesn't take much thought to realize that the impact of a widespread prolonged power outage is absolutely huge: no water, food chain breaks down, law and order break down, no heating or air conditioning, communications fail, no health care, no sanitation, for starters. Most people don't realize that most critical services (hospitals, etc) only have enough generator fuel for a few days.

So we comfort ourselves that this could never happen (i.e. the probability is low). However, a in recent NAS report called Severe Space Weather Events—Understanding Societal and Economic Impacts scientists predict that a solar storm of similar magnitude to one that hit in 1859 could knock out our power grid for 10 years (yes, that's 10 years... how we would even recover from that isn't discussed). Further, many articles recently have exposed the vulnerability of the SCADA systems in the grid to hacker attack - it would be almost trivial for an experienced, government funded hacker to bring down at least a portion of the grid through a virus or trojan horse. We don't know what the probability is of these things happening, but it's certainly high enough to warrant concern. Yet hardly anyone talks about it in Emergency Management circles. I was therefore delighted to find that  Mitigation Journal recently brought this issue up in their article and video podcast (I'm looking forward to their follow ups on this).

What can we do to mitigate this risk? On a personal level, there are options, albeit expensive and time-consuming ones (solar panels, long-term food supplies, planting our own gardens, etc). Keeping a full tank of gas and some cash on hand will help in the short term. For a community there are more options - encouraging allotments and community gardens; putting solar power capabilities in critical functions; keeping large supplies of fuel on hand; having backup communications (it is interesting that in a prolonged power outage the only viable long-range communications will probably be on shortwave). But we need some creative thought from many people on this!

1 comment:

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