Somebody attacked an electrical substation in California last year. This should make you concerned


not to play the paranoid card so easily, but what if it was “an inside job” trying to justify funding for higher security around electrical stations?

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The underlying assumption here is that a relatively short duration blackout is catastrophic. While it certainly is not good, it seems to me that the attackers have to put a lot of effort into knocking out several substations at the same time and get relatively little in return. They mess up the power grid and it takes a several hours to get everything sorted out and the lights back on. And it requires enough people that the chances of someone getting caught or ratting you out becomes a major concern.

That’s the problem with these fantasies about enormous terrorist plots that do 100 things at once for maximum terror. The 9/11 hijackings would be child’s play in comparison, and those were already pretty dicey and took a very long time to organize. The more coordinated you are, the more vulnerable you are to having the entire organization undermined by a single breach.


The outage out East in 2003 wasn’t short duration – the outage was precipitated by a single random event… A pre-planned attack that was designed to cause havoc would send Californians into the dark ages.

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The point Maggie’s trying to make is that you don’t need to do much to cause a catastrophe. One substation taken out at 2PM in July will cause a problem. Two substations taken out at that time will cause a BIG problem.


That’s it exactly. And maybe we end up deciding that there are better ways to deal with the risk from this than securing every substation (because THAT would be a hell of an undertaking). But saying it’s “no bid deal” and/or ignoring the risk is, frankly, silly. And worrisome.


Even that big power outage lasted a total of 2 days, and it was due to a systematic flaw in the system. It sucked, but if that’s the result of years of planning and scheming by a huge terrorist organization that had to juggle a bunch of balls to pull it off, then it’s really a pretty low return on investment.

Compare that to flying planes into buildings which take more than a decade to replace and directly kill many people.

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What’s the solution though? As you note, making every substation a fortress is silly. We’re already trying to make the grid smarter (although this opens up new vulnerabilities). You could build more substations than you need so there is excess capacity to take over for damaged substations, but this is already the case as well. You’re just arguing for a larger margin of safety, but how large? At what point would you feel safe?

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You do know that blackouts cost money, right? Millions and even billions, depending on the scale. And that’s not even counting the cost to fix the infrastructure afterwards. It’s not quite the theatricality of flying planes into buildings. But it’s also not, “And then some people sit in the dark for a little while, so what?”


When did fearmongering become a thing at BoingBoing?


Were I planning disruptive action, which I am not, I would run a test first. To see if it could be done.

Securing the substations, or building more substations, costs money too. So does everything. I’m always a little dubious of those “cost to the economy” calculations, they tend to assume that people can’t make up any difference from a couple of days lost. In practice people and businesses are rarely that rigid.

But I come back to my point: What’s the solution? What do we have to do to make this not a problem anymore?

I need an option to ultra-like a post.

“Some people did a thing that almost nobody even noticed! You should all be concerned! Terrorists!”

Yeah, sure, a carefully synchronized simultaneous attack on multiple power stations could make the power go out. I don’t doubt that. It doesn’t seem like anyone is trying to do that. Even if they did that, it is not life-threatening. I remember the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. The power was out for three days. Nobody really worried too much about that, though, as the earthquake also killed 63 people.

But here I am supposed to be “concerned” about a movie-plot terror threat? On Boing Boing?

A billion dollar loss to the US economy works out to about $3.19 lost for every man, woman, and child in the country. I’ll give this issue the appropriate level of concern that any other possible $9.57 loss to my family might warrant.

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If they take away the electricity we won’t be able to watch the TV and get all panicky. QED it won’t go like this.

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From my uneducated perspective, it seems like the only realistic solution is to invest in making the grid more resilient. “Securing” substations doesn’t seem possible to me.

I have to agree with the doubters here though. It’s hard for me to imagine an attack on our electrical grid that would damage national security enough to concern me. A few years ago we, along with the rest of southeast Ohio went without power for nearly two weeks. It majorly sucked but it didn’t feel like a threat to my life or well-being. I understand a rural area in Ohio is not the same thing as downtown L.A. but with all of the potential threats out there, this one is still pretty low on my radar.

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I went back and realized that I’d completely screwed up the ending on there and was not getting across what I needed to get across. It’s been edited.

Here’s what I meant to say:

My first draft of this made it sound like the solution, the only solution, would be to hyper-securitize all the substations in the US. Frankly, that’s pretty much impossible. Instead, this should be another reminder that we need to be upgrading our electric grid. We need storage. We need smart grid technologies that enable us to more easily react to disruptions. We need microgrids that allow parts of the grid to function separate from the rest. These are same technologies and upgrades that we need to deal with the threat of unpredictable weather. And the same ones we need to allow us to build more renewable energy into the grid. The potential risk of direct, intentional attacks on the grid is just one more reason to be concerned about a decaying infrastructure that hasn’t seen serious upgrades since the 1970s.


Then I might act as an apologist for the perp. Because a large scale blackout in California means running the risk of taps running dry in Los Angeles. And if some vandalism means the grid gears up and upgrades happen, then, well, ends, means, you get my drift?


But I thought we were all perfectly safe now that the cops have military tanks and we’re not allowed to bring yogurt on airplanes.


I am planning nothing of the sort either. Or a heist, or anything like that. No sirree.