The nation's aging, vulnerable power grid and the threat of natural disasters and terrorist activity make a long-term collapse that could leave millions of Americans in the dark a growing likelihood. - To experts, it's not if, it's when. - Parts of the nation's system have gone down. - In 2003, human error and a computer bug plunged 50 million people into darkness for up to two days after high voltage lines brushed against foliage in Northern Ohio. Multiple interconnected systems went down as one failure led to another in a cascade of collapse that sparked about $6 billion in economic damages in the northern U.S. and Canada. Eleven deaths were attributed in part to the failure. - No system is immune.
"The sky is not falling, but we're not bulletproof," says Massoud Amin, director of the Technological Leadership Institute and professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Minnesota. Aminalso is chairman of the Smart Grid Newsletter for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.
The nation's power grid problems are fixable, he says, but that would require a change in culture in the utilities industry, which is more focused on short term goals and scrimps on research and development. It also would require policy changes at top levels of government and a broader view of a segmented industry.
"The solution deals with policy and technology and we can do it," he says. "We need to. We can and we must do this if we are going to remain an economic superpower. Bottom line is that this is not something to pass on to the next generation."
Efforts to prevent or mitigate a major breakdown are underway, including in Colorado.
At Fort Carson and the U.S. Northern Command , engineers and experts work on SPIDERS, a mini-electric grid backup system that will kick in if the bigger grid collapses for mission critical structures.
It's in its infancy, but the project passed key tests in September and October at Fort Carson.
In El Paso County, Commissioner Peggy Littleton works on "Lighthouse," a network of community communication hubs that would be activated in the event of a major power-grid killing catastrophe or attack. She got the idea from a similar program in Seattle.
Her work has drawn interest from Denver and state officials, FEMA and area military bases.
And this week, Canada, the United States and Mexico will take part in the largest-ever emergency drill simulating terrorist and cyber attacks on power grids called GridEx II.
The massive exercise includes more than 150 companies, organizations and key business executives, antiterrorism experts, government officials and thousands of utilities employees.
Most recently, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti on Oct. 30 signed an executive directive creating a Cyber Intrusion Command Center to help protect that city's computerized infrastructure against attacks from hackers and cyberterrorists.
The center will provide "a rapid reaction force to cyber-attacks," Garcetti says in a news release. "Today, our traffic lights, our routing system for trash pick-up, and so much more are electronic. Cybersecurity means protecting the basic services at the core of city government, and it means protecting our critical infrastructure like our port and airport, which we know are top targets."
Warns the mayor's directive: "It is difficult to overemphasize the significance of cyber threats."
'A matter of time'
Threats include cyberterrorism, extreme weather and natural disaster.
Thousands of cyber attacks hit power grids in the United States every day.
Also, the sun is in a violent, 11-year cycle of increased activity, belching out turbulent storms that impact Earth.
And, in Colorado, catastrophes such as wildfires and flooding have reached historic highs.
In the most recent spate of flooding, an entire community in northwest Colorado was cut off from the rest of the state by washed out roads and massive flooding.
At a recent Reuters summit on cyberterrorism, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers said the only thing holding terrorists back from launching a massive cyber attack on U.S. infrastructure is that they don't have the ability. If a terrorist group finds out how to do it, he said, "it's a game changer. My concern is it's just a matter of time."
It might not take much.
Studies show that the nation's grid system is failing with growing frequency.
From 1965 through 2009, there were 57 major grid failures in the United States and Canada, according to a study by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, a trade organization.
Of those, 41 were in the U.S. and 14 in Canada and two were shared.
Each failure affected at least 30,000 people.
The report concludes that "incidents of major power outages have been increasing everywhere, especially over the last 20 years."
From 1965 to 1988, there were three major breakdowns, the study says.
From 2000 to 2005, there were 11 and from 2006 through 2009, there were 33.
Most of those failures were weather related.
Experts these days, however, aren't just concerned about weather on earth. Space weather also is drawing concern.
A solar storm or flare that cooks computer chips "could happen," says Capt. Jim Terbush, with NorthCom Science and Technology Directorate Innovations and Experimentation. "That's not an unrealistic sort of threat."
It's a monstrous threat to everyday life because virtually everything - cars, cell phones, computers, traffic signals, airplanes, water systems - run on computer-chip technology. And if they're fried by a solar storm, everything dies.
Evaluating threats is part of the mission at Northcom. Terbush does it every day,
"We have to be aware of all kinds of threats," he says. "We have some no-fail missions for which 'the power is off' is no excuse."
Physical terrorist attacks also are an ever-present threat and El Paso County is fertile territory for them, says Littleton. It's home to NORAD, Schriever Air Force Base, Peterson Air Force Base, the Air Force Academy and Fort Carson.
Major Department of Defense contractors with a Colorado Springs presence include behemoths such as Lockheed Martin Corp., Raytheon Co. and Northrup Grumman Corp.
It's a region rife with secrets and people with top security clearances.
"We have some high value targets right here in Colorado Springs, which makes us prosperous, but also makes us vulnerable," says Lorin Schroeder, emergency preparedness officer for Penrose-St. Francis Health Services in Colorado Springs. Schroeder, an experienced HAM radio operator, is a volunteer member of Lighthouse. His membership is not related to the hospital.
He joined forces with Littleton, "because of my background in emergency services."
"It's one of those things you don't need until you need it. Especially in Colorado, we've been protected and blessed," he says. "We don't see the big emergencies and tragedies like they do in the East Coast, at least until recently, and now all of a sudden there's a lot of focus on it. It's good, but it's bad at the same time."
The United States, he said, has "high potential" for grid failure from solar storms, cyber attacks and natural disasters.
"We have high potential for all three, absolutely," he says. "In some places, they are actually understating their vulnerability. But it's so expensive, it's so huge, so daunting. How do you fix that?"
A critical need for disaster survival is communication.
That's where Lighthouse comes in, Littleton says.
"This is in response to something we know is going to happen," Littleton says. "In the event of any type of emergency, disaster, what is the most important thing? Communication."
Lighthouse's network could be churches, community centers, schools, even something as simple as a power line pole.
"These will be places El Paso county residents are going to come," Littleton says. "We will tell them what happened. When it will be fixed. When they will get more information."
In its early stages, Lighthouse is comprised entirely of volunteers, including ham radio operators such as Schroeder.
At each Lighthouse, or community gathering site, people would be able to get "accurate, timely, concise information" Schroeder says.
They could also get information out to first responders.
"It's not a one-way communication, either. It's two way. You could get word out by going to the site, but you can also say, 'I have that medical need or whatever.'"
Denver officials are interested in the concept.
"I think it's a great idea," says Scott Field, director of the office of emergency management and homeland security. "We've talked about it and we are interested in working with them."
Denver, he says, is not as high risk as many other areas.
That's because Xcel Energy, which provides much of the area's power, "has a pretty redundant system," he says.
Indeed, Xcel's CEO Benjamin Fowke III has been named to the National Infrastructure Advisory Council, a high level group that gets briefings from the FBI, National Security Agency, Department Of Energy and the Department of Homeland Security and takes part in addressing cybersecurity issues.
"We're not as fragile as some places, but it's still something that we're concerned about," Field says. "I wouldn't say it's likely to happen, but it's definitely near the top of our list of one of the worst scenarios - a prolonged power outage."
Colorado Springs Utilities says a big power outage is not likely in the Springs, either.
"We generate most of the electricity needed to meet local demand," says spokesman Mark Murphy. "This adds to the reliability and security of our system and less dependency on the bulk power system."
In 2012, average service availability was 99.99 percent, he says.
That doesn't mean it doesn't take the threat of prolonged failure seriously - especially when it comes to cyber attacks.
The utility blocks "attempts to penetrate our common operating environment internet firewall daily from all over the world," Murphy says.
"For this reason, physical and cyber security of our electric system is a top priority for Colorado Springs Utilities," he says. "We maintain a very high readiness level to prevent and respond to cyber incidents."
Among steps taken by the Information Security Management team:
- Developing security policies, procedures, guidelines, plans and training for utility operations, information technology and business operations
- Analyzing complex systems for security vulnerabilities
- Performing risk assessments
- Managing compliance with various industry regulators and standards bodies
- Information sharing with peer organizations
- Developing, coordinating and providing security-awareness training
- Continuing to invest in cyber security
Still, should a massive shutdown occur, community communications will be vital.
From the Puget Sound to Lake Washington, and from 145th Street south to the Leo Farm, Seattle is speckled with community hubs.
There are more than 50 and the number continues to grow, says Tracy Connelly, community preparedness planner with the Seattle Office of Emergency Management.
This five-year-old community-driven program is where Littleton got the idea for Lighthouse.
In Seattle, where the concern is earthquakes, it's working.
These are meeting places where neighbors can "share resources and not feel isolated," Connelly says.
Each hub is tailored by its community to meet its needs. Languages and cultures differ.
Some are open 24/7, others are open a few days a week, depending on neighborhood resources.
There are monthly meetings and annual summits.
"The reality is, for an earthquake, we know our transportation is going to be down," Connelly says. "We know our utilities are going to be impacted. Roads and first responders will be overwhelmed. With communications and technology, it's sort of a coin toss, you don't know how well they are going to do."
Communication, she says, "is the number one thing and it's often the thing that fails. So why don't we have as many ways as possible to communicate, runners who can knock on doors, share information, do welfare checks, post messages? Have as many ways as possible. We just want to be ready."
There are plenty of people who believe such precaution is much ado over nothing.
Terbush calls it the "normalcy bias."
"The tendency is not to plan for or consider things that have never happened," he says.
Americans never would have dreamed that terrorists would hijack jetliners and fly them into New York City financial center high rises or the Pentagon.
Northcom, says Terbush, "must think outside the box quite a bit. This is what I do."
Schroeder says there are two spectrums of thought.
"There's 'it will never happen to me' and there's 'we're all going to die,' " he says.
"Emergency management stands in between them. This isn't a silver bullet solution, but when things go horribly wrong, the 'it will never happen to me' group says, 'well, how are you going to help out? How are you going to help us?' "