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Op-Ed: Raising Awareness About the Power Grid -- America’s Achilles’ Heel

Energy security requires national leadership to begin drawing up plans to protect the national grid -- and to survive extended nationwide outages

scott rudder
Scott Rudder

The former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, James Woolsey, issued a stark warning, based on a U.S. government study, that the death of millions of Americans could be only weeks away due to our national power grid’s shocking vulnerability to manmade and natural disasters. Knowing that, you might assume that our national leaders are doing everything in their power to ensure that the grid is adequately protected and that tragedy will be averted. But you would be wrong.

Consider this: The United States is the most powerful country the world has ever known. We have the ability to cure the incurable, to explore the unexplorable, to give generously to our friends, and to wreak devastation upon our enemies. We can do this because we, as a people, are inventive and determined, and we have the energy infrastructure to facilitate these amazing things. Simply put, our modern-day success is interdependent with our energy infrastructure.

Yet, all of this could come to a screeching halt through a single cyber or electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack from a rogue state or terror organization, or a major solar flare, known as a Carrington Event, which could plunge our nation into an extended blackout.

Government officials and survival experts agree that during the first seven to 10 days of a nationwide power outage, meaning no electricity produced by power plants going to our homes, hospitals, supermarkets, etc., more than a million people will die. Most of these deaths will be medically related, resulting from inoperable life-support systems, temperature extremes, lack of access to emergency medical services, etc. Many more will succumb due to lack of water.

Consider the effect of the power going out. Not for a day or two, but for months. Not just in a specific area, but across the entire country. What will happen to our water and food supplies? Our medical network and communication systems? Our transportation systems? How will people respond? How will you initially know it’s a nationwide event and not a temporary local issue?

We know from superstorm Sandy just how vulnerable New Jersey’s energy infrastructure is to natural disasters. During Sandy, more than 2 million New Jersey residents lost power. As with most natural disasters, during the immediate aftermath, people pulled together. Neighbor helped neighbor. It’s what we do. However, for some, as the days stretched on without power, compassion turned to frustration which turned into anger.

As people learned that it may be many days or possibly weeks without power, without water from their own taps, the frustration and exhaustion pushed people to their limits. Fortunately though, help was readily available. Trucks filled with bottled water were dispatched to relief centers. Food, clothing, blankets, flashlights and batteries were all sent as the greater community pulled together. The good news for the people most impacted by Sandy was that the devastation was localized. People and businesses a short ride away had power. Life as challenging as it was for those first weeks, would go back to normal because the issue impacting the grid was isolated and temporary. The repair crews worked around the clock and eventually the power came back on.

But what if it didn’t? What if it wasn’t a local issue but a nationwide take down of our electric grid and neighbors a few miles away had to worry about their own situation and help was not on the way?

According to state and federal experts, if the power goes out for an extended time, our electronically dependent society will quickly decay into turmoil. If our entire power grid went down, whether from attack or a natural phenomenon, we will experience an unfathomable systematic descent into chaos.

When you consider that humans can’t survive more than three or four days without water, and our water systems depend on electricity, it’s easy to imagine how lawlessness can erupt if clean drinking water becomes scarce. The threat of death -- to ourselves and loved ones -- makes people do irrational things.

I know what you are thinking. There’s always bottled water at the store, right? Maybe for a week or so. However, the same power grid needed to pump water is also essential for pumping fuel. Without fuel, there will be no trucks to deliver water to stores and emergency relief centers.

How could we pay for water, anyway? How much money do you have in your pocket? A systemic loss of power renders money almost useless. Without bank access, ATM machines, credit cards or electronic transfers, will money matter in two weeks anyway?

No wonder estimates for loss of life in the first week are so extreme, but that’s only the beginning. As weeks progress, many millions more will die as drinkable water becomes scarcer and food and medical supplies dwindle. One leading expert predicts a blackout lasting 12 to 18 months (a realistic scenario studied by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission) will result in the death of 90 percent of the U.S. population, or a shocking 270 million people. Even if the assumptions in that study are dramatically off and only 10 percent of Americans perish, we lose more than 30 million.

Seems hard to believe? Consider where we live, New Jersey. The most densely populated state in the country with a population of 8.7 million that butts up between New York City with a population of 8.5 million and Philadelphia with 1.5 million. That’s nearly 19 million people in a relatively small space.

Now take away our electricity. Take away our water, our food, our instant access to health care and medication, our working toilets. What will people do? Where will people go? The mass confusion that will set in and the need to survive will drive many people away from the cities searching relief. New Jersey residents trying to figure out their own challenges, trying to survive their own day-to-day trials will now be competing with millions of refugees from neighboring cities and states. The ensuing chaos would be unimaginable.

Despite the dire projections, our elected leaders at the federal level have failed to make this threat a top priority.

Part of the problem is we lack a singular leader in Washington to manage this looming crisis, someone designated with the authority to develop and implement a plan to harden and protect our power grid against a disaster. Instead we have federal agencies under the White House’s purview -- including the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), Department of Homeland Security, Department of Defense and Department of Energy -- battling over jurisdictional roles and limited budgets. The result of this failure of leadership is the lack of actionable movement to fend off the largest disaster in recordable history.

That said, there are plans in place to protect the institution of government. Senior White House and cabinet officials and members of Congress have safeguards. There are classified locations and airplanes and fuel depots prepositioned across the country to ensure our leaders will be able to survive and provide a skeletal government to coordinate response measures and request assistance from other countries. So while the public’s batteries are dying and water, food and fuel are dwindling, bureaucrats will be comfortable to continue fruitless debate.

While politicians fail to act, government commissions, major think tanks, and other critical infrastructure experts continue pinpointing simple preventatives. Strategies for “hardening” the grid -- or at least critical components of the grid -- and “smart-grid” solutions have been studied and analyzed over and over again.

Solutions and roadmaps already exist. We just need to implement them. We can no longer wait for Congress to pass a law for some department to review, make recommendations, and then someday implement.

The president has the authority to declare the protection of our national power grid a matter of national security and redirect funds to get the process moving. Coordinating with states and the utilities within those states to lay out and implement a methodical process to provide primary- and secondary-power solutions in the event of a nationwide disaster can happen today.

It is time for Americans to demand action from our leaders in Washington with letters and calls to news outlets, social media, members of Congress, state governors. Use any tool you can to raise awareness of this imminent threat.

It is our responsibility to get the ball rolling. I’m talking to our leaders and you need to as well. Go make a difference.

Scott Rudder is a former mayor and New Jersey state legislator who worked on energy and environmental issues during his time in office. In addition, he spent years working on defense and energy issues with Lockheed Martin, the nation’s largest defense contractor. Now as the executive director for the Energy Council of New Jersey, he devotes his time to advocating for safe, secure, and affordable energy solutions.

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