Sep 032014
 
Imagine our cities with no power.  Now try to imagine how you could survive in that situation.

Imagine our cities with no power. Now try to imagine how you could survive in that situation.

The new Islamic terror group, ISIS or ISIL, is only slowly appearing on the radar screens of the mainstream media, and indeed is so fresh to the public eye that there isn’t even yet agreement on what to call it.  But if you cast around, you’ll see plenty of ‘buried’ news stories quoting senior military and political leaders who describe ISIS as now the most dangerous threat to the US and the West in general (most recently Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel).

If we take their desire to attack and harm the US at face value (and what possible reason would we have not to believe them when they say this) then the question becomes simply one of understanding what they might do, and when/how they might do it.  Well, yes, there’s another question too – how to stop them!  But that’s a question few people are asking, and outside the scope of this article in any event.

The Texas Dept of Public Safety believes they have found evidence that ISIS plans to orchestrate an attack on our power grid, and it has been speculated that ISIS might not even mount the attack itself, but could instead pay one of the Mexican drug cartel gangs to carry out the attack on their behalf.  Dr Peter Pry, head of the Task Force on National and Homeland Security, said that a gang such as the Knights Templar (no relation to the middle ages religious order!) has experience in destroying grid infrastructure in Mexico and could readily black out much or all of the US for an extended period.

His gloomy predictions were supported by Frank Gaffney, founder and president of the Center for Security Policy in Washington.  At a joint press conference with Pry, Gaffney quoted sources as suggesting that a twelve month power outage would see 90% of the US population wiped out.

More details here.

We definitely agree that a grid attack could see the grid down for at least 12 months, and quite likely very much longer.  For more on this, we’ve written regularly about the vulnerabilities and difficulty in repairing the nation’s electricity grid.

We’re not so sure that a 12 month power outage would see the death of 90% of the population, however.  If we assume that the grid outage did not extend to Canada and Mexico, then we would expect many people close to the borders would simply move north in typical classic refugee manner, and considerably more than 10% of the US population is close to the Canadian border.  Plus it seems reasonable to assume that the Red Cross and other relief organizations would come to our assistance, because hopefully the rest of the world would still be functioning.

However, we do agree that the sudden loss of electricity across the nation, and extending for a year or more, would be extraordinarily disruptive and would involve in massive loss of life.  This is a classic example of what we refer to as a Level 2 type scenario.  It is something we should plan and prepare for, and with appropriate planning and preparation, it is something that we and other appropriately prepared people could survive.

Whether there would be a 90% casualty rate or ‘only’ a 50% casualty rate, or whatever other number is in some regards a relatively ‘minor’ detail (and we’d also point out that most/all of the unprepared survivors would live a very miserable existence while the nation struggled to recover and restore power.  Furthermore, when the grid went live, a year or two or three later, what would the country then look like?  We’d not all then return back to our normal jobs and resume our lives and lifestyles as if nothing had happened.  The economy would be destroyed.  Much of the infrastructure would be destroyed, many cities would be burned out looted hulks of their former selves, and people would have moved away, out of the cities and to places where life can be sustained.

The recovery would be as difficult as the outage, and would take much longer.  This is something few people focus on.  There is an understanding that when the power goes off, things get very bad, very quickly.  But it seems that some people are assuming that when the power is restored, the problems are solved and everything snaps back to normal.  Not so.

The three key credible messages from this press conference are :

  • Firstly to point out the growing risk of an attack on our power grid
  • Secondly to point out that if our grid was attacked and disabled, it is likely to remain down for at least a year
  • Thirdly, the consequences of an extended grid failure would see massive deaths, obviously from lack of food, water, and climate controlled shelter, and less obviously from disease due to the failure of plumbing and sewage treatment services, and also from the lawlessness that would result.

How well prepared are you for a sudden loss of power for say two years?

One last point.  Maybe it is unrealistic to expect the government to ‘harden’ our power grid and make it resistant to such threats.  But couldn’t they at least be directing some of our enormous defense budget to neutralizing the ISIS threat?

Jul 292014
 
A single EMP pulse can cover the entire country with destructive EMF radiation.

A single EMP pulse can cover the entire country with destructive EMF radiation.

Paul Singer is CEO and founder of the Elliott Management hedge fund, looking after some $25 billion of client funds.

A self-made billionaire, he has a personal net worth of $1.5 billion, and his hedge fund is notable for only having had two down years in the 37 years he has been operating it.  It has averaged 14% annual return, compared to 10.8% for the S&P 500 as a whole.

He publicly warned about the housing crash and global financial crisis as early as 2006 and in 2007 met with the G7 finance ministers to warm them of the coming economic problems – a warning that was ignored by the politicians.

Clearly he knows a thing or two about managing and protecting assets, and about accurately predicting future risks, and people everywhere would be well advised to listen to his advice.

This week, in his standard investment update letter to his clients, he wrote

There is one risk that is head-and-shoulders above all the rest in terms of the scope of potential damage adjusted for the likelihood of occurrence.

You’ve probably already guessed what this risk is – this article headline gives the show away.  He tells his subscribers that a man-made EMP attack would be worse than nuclear war, asteroid strikes, or even a solar storm. :

It would not cause any blast or radiation damage, but such an attack would have consequences even more catastrophic than a severe solar storm.  It could not only bring down the grid, but also lay down a very intense, very fast pulse across the continent, damaging or destroying electronic switches, devices, computers and transformers across America.

He went on to call for a bipartisan push to make the country and the world safer from such risks.  He wants to see stockpiles of spare parts to repair/replace the key components of the electrical grid and other essential elements of our electronic society, and says the government and other groups should prepare emergency plans for how to respond to such events.

We’ve been writing about and worrying about EMP for years (check out our EMP articles here).

We’re not billionaires, and we don’t manage billions of dollars of other people’s money, either.  But, whether you’d rather listen to billionaire Mr Singer, or plain ordinary David Spero, the message is the same from us both :  A single EMP event could destroy most of the electrical and electronic functionality in the entire United States.

You need to plan and prepare for the possibility of an EMP and the destruction of our society that would surely follow.

One last comment.  It can be difficult explaining and validating our views and concerns when explaining prepping to other people.  You may find it useful to allow Mr Singer to ‘speak’ on your behalf.  Maybe your friends will find his advice more compelling.

Here’s the article that quotes from his investment newsletter.

Jul 262014
 
A solar storm such as this, if it hits the earth, could destroy much/most of all our electronics.

There’s a 50/50 chance that a massive solar storm will hit the earth and destroy most/all our electrical and electronic equipment some time in the next 42 years.  Are you prepared for this?

We’ve written many times before about the vulnerability posed to much/most of our electrical and electronic gear by a major solar storm.  Indeed, noting the expert opinion that suggests there’s a 12% chance of this type of disruptive solar storm destroying most of our modern life and lifestyle within the next decade, a solar storm and its effects should be considered one of the greatest risks of all to prepare for.

There are two issues to consider when thinking about solar storms.  The first is how strong it will be.  The second is whether it will reach the earth or not.

That second point is a bit of a saving grace, because solar storms don’t radiate out equally in all directions from the sun simultaneously.  They flow in a specific direction, and if the earth isn’t in the path of that flow, it has no impact on us.

Here’s a fascinating story of two solar storms that erupted in close succession a couple of years ago (why are we only finding out about this now?) and which had the potential to “disable everything that plugs into a wall socket”.

Fortunately, the direction those two solar storms traveled did not take them past where the earth was at that time.  But imagine if they had come directly to us.  How would your life change if everything plugged into a wall socket was disabled?  Remember, it isn’t just everything plugged into your wall sockets, but everything plugged into everyone’s wall sockets that would be disabled.  Oh yes, to say nothing of the electrical grid and the transformers and switching circuitry that routes the electricity around the country.

The article points out one impact – you’d no longer be able to flush your toilet, due to the city water supplies suffering from electric pump failures.  But not flushing your toilet (oh yes, the sewage lines would back up too, because the sewage pumps would also fail) would surely be the least of your worries.  How about also no fresh water to drink or cook with?  No heat (or cooling) and light for your home.  No food in the stores.  No internet or phones.  Pretty much no anything at all, and potentially for somewhere between weeks, months and years (the super-transformers in particular would take many years to replace).

The good news is that a solar storm would not destroy our retreat or current dwelling structure, and would not instantly emperil ourselves.  If we were quick, we would have time to respond to the event before the general population as a whole realized what had happened and started to panic.

A response (and panic) might actually take longer to occur than you think.  If all radio, television, phone and internet services are down, it would take some time before what people would instinctively assume merely to be a pesky short-term power cut became to be appreciated as a more severe, more global, and longer-term event.

Even as that awareness slowly developed, there would still be a huge passive expectation that ‘the government will help us’ – although of course, the flipside of that expectation is very ugly.  As people realize the government isn’t going to help them and can’t help them, that encourages a feeling of outrage and betrayal and a perception that all normal rules and constraints have been abandoned.  That’s the point when people start rioting, looting, setting fire to things, and becoming mindlessly violent at anyone who they feel deserves to be the focal point of their anger – in particular, anyone they see as being more fortunate than themselves.

It would definitely be a good time to be getting out of Dodge!

Bottom Line for Preppers?

Massive solar storms that could destroy everything plugged into a socket have occurred before (the Carrington event in 1859, and probably more in the past that didn’t matter so much when we had nothing electrical or electronic to be affected by them).  Not quite so severe solar storms have occurred more recently (Quebec in 1989).

It is more a case of when rather than if another solar storm will hit the earth with severe – unimaginable – consequences.  Statistics say there is 12% chance of this happening in the next ten years, which means it is almost sure to happen every 83 years, and there’s a 50/50 chance every 42 years.

Solar storms are survivable because they don’t destroy structures or injure people.  But they require you to be well prepared and able to become fully self-sufficient for probably a decade or more.

One last comment.  Our sense is the authorities underplay this risk.  We feel they prefer to under-rate the chances of this happening, and to under-rate the impact if it does happen.  Even in this most recent article, the example of the disaster that would follow is limited to ‘your toilet won’t flush’!  But think about that – if your toilet won’t flush, you’re in a dozen other worlds of hurt that are much more life threatening, at the same time.  The authorities prefer to downplay this rather than alarm the masses and expose their own inability to protect us the way so many people expect, demand, and assume.

Jul 082014
 
An  interesting depiction of some of the many impacts from a major solar storm.

An interesting depiction of some of the many impacts from a major solar storm.

Here’s a rather simplistic article that talks about the potential for solar storms to disrupt many aspects of our modern-day life.

What is interesting however is their pie chart analysis of some of the derivative disruptions from a solar storm (shown on the left and more easily seen full size in the linked article).

Like so much that appears in public about our society’s underlying vulnerabilities, we feel their chart is more optimistic than perhaps is appropriate, particularly if the storm were to be a massive scale ‘Carrington Event’ rather than a more moderate storm.  But, optimistic or not, it still shows a wide and – hopefully – eye-opening range of negative outcomes and impacts from a single strong solar storm.

It is a shame this was not prepared with more care.  See, for example, the assumption that a solar storm would simply disrupt satellite communications during the (short) period of the storm, and that things would then quickly return back to normal.  That assumption implies that the satellites would not be damaged, and that’s an assumption we’re not sure is fully valid.

Some things appear  twice on the wheel as well – for example, aviation,  which is shown as having widespread outages (as a result of disruptions to the power grid) but only short-term disruption elsewhere on the wheel.  How can it be both?

There is an interesting point in the article.  It is common to plan for 100 year floods, but few if any businesses seem to be prepared for a once in 100 year solar event.

What about you?  How prepared are you for the disruptions that would follow a solar storm?

May 052014
 
The Champion 3100W inverter/generator - currently our pick as best small inverter/generator for Level 1 type situations.

The Champion 3100W inverter/generator – currently our pick as best small inverter/generator for Level 1 type situations.

(You can see our definition of levels one, two and three type events here.  It is a useful categorization that provides structure to your problem analysis and preparation planning.)

When some people – particularly preppers – start thinking about generators, they immediately think of enormous noisy diesel standby generators, in special generator sheds, and capable of providing tens of kilowatts of power for extended periods, drawing off multi-hundred gallon storage tanks.  Don’t get us wrong.  We love diesel generators with a passion, and we also agree there’s no such thing as ‘too much’ power.

But these types of installations will typically cost $10,000 and up, will guzzle gas at a rate of several gallons an hour, are definitely impractical for apartment dwellers, and frankly are overkill for the times when you have a short power outage lasting anywhere from a few hours to a few days.  In these short time frames, we can compromise some of the convenience we normally enjoy with abundant and available power throughout our home, and also avoid needing to adjourn to our retreat to ride out the problem.

All we want is a small convenient and ‘low profile’ portable generator that we can run without drawing way too much attention to ourselves, and keep the essential parts of our home operating.

No matter if you have major industrial-grade generators or not, we suggest everyone should have one of these small generators – and here’s the key concept.  Get a small one.  Don’t ‘over-engineer’ the problem and end up buying something that generates enough power for you to have every appliance in your house all operating simultaneously.  For a short outage, all you need is lighting, some essential electronics, and some power to share between your fridge and freezer at times, maybe a stove top or other cooking facility at other times, and perhaps heating or cooling at still other times.

How Much Generating Power Do You Need?

We repeat.  Don’t over-engineer things.  And note the question.  We’re not asking how much power you want, or would like.  We’re asking how much you need, in order to sustain life and a moderate level of comfort and security, for a short duration of no more than a few days.

So, to sustain life, you need air, shelter, water and food, right?  Let’s think about each of those.

Air – hopefully you already have air!  And hopefully also you can get fresh air without needing to drive some sort of fan or other motorized appliance.  So presumably this does not need power.

Shelter – a bit more complicated.  We’re assuming that you’re in your regular residence and it is unharmed, so you have four walls and a roof already.  But also part of shelter is some amount of heating or cooling.  You know the seasonal weather extremes for where you live and you also know what you have installed in the form of hvac appliances.  But perhaps for a short-term solution, you should not aim to heat/cool your entire residence, but work out a heating/cooling plan for just a couple of rooms only.

Maybe you have a central hvac system, and in the winter you only need a small amount of power to drive the fan, with heat coming from natural gas.  That would be ideal, and natural gas seems to continue flowing, no matter what happens to the power.  But, even so, humor yourself next winter-time.  Do a ‘what if’ worst case scenario test and see how many 1500 W heaters you would need to keep a central living area warm without your hvac.  Hopefully you’ll be able to get by with only one.

As for summer, again perhaps you have a central air system, but for the purposes of this exercise, can you also have a window unit that controls temperatures in just one room?  A small generator is probably inadequate to handle the power needs of a central air system, but is probably suitable for a typical RV sized 13,500 – 15,000 BTU type unit.

One other part of shelter – some lighting.  Perhaps now is the time to start picking up LED lights when you see them on sale, so that you are getting maximum light for minimum watts.  Indeed, the LED lighting is so good (and so long-lived) that there’s no reason not to use them all the time, in all your lights.

So – heating, cooling, and lights.  That’s pretty much everything you need for short-term shelter requirements, right?  Maybe you have something else to also plan for, like a cellar sump pump?  Try not to overlook anything else that might be essential.

Water – do you have any water pumps (under your control, as opposed to operated by the building you live in)?  If not, then hopefully (maybe) you’ll continue to get water from your taps during a power outage, and if you don’t, that’s a matter for another article.  And what about waste water?  Some people have macerator units on their toilets, or pumps operating their septic system, but other than that, most of us have gravity powered waste water systems (at least out of our house, beyond that, in the city system, there might be other issues, which are again outside the purview of an article about low powered home generators!).

The only other consideration about water would be if you wanted warm/hot water.  If you have gas water heating, maybe you have an electronic pilot light (although these are not so common on hot water heaters) in which case you need power for the hot water to work.  Otherwise, if you have electric hot water heating, that will be a problem, because the elements in your water heater probably draw 5kW – 10kW of power, and that is more than you should reasonably expect from a small portable generator.

There are two workarounds for that.  The first is a small ‘under sink’ type water heater.  The other is to simply heat up or boil water on your stove top.  Worst case scenario, if you have to go without long hot baths/showers for a few days, that’s truly not the end of the world.

Food –  There are a couple of things to consider when it comes to food.  The first is food storage – ie, your fridge and freezer.  Ideally you want to keep these powered up, at least some of the time, so you don’t have all the food in your freezer spoil, and so you are able to maintain a cool temperature in your fridge too, besides which, depending on the nature of the power outage, you might need that food to live on.  Find out how much power your fridge (and freezer, if separate) use when they’re running; we’ll tell you what to do with those numbers in a minute or two.

The second part of food power needs is cooking your food.  There are several ways you can prepare food using relatively small amounts of power.  Your microwave is an efficient and effective way of preparing many food items.  A small toaster oven is another choice, and a stand-alone hotplate/element is a third choice.  You might also want an electric jug/kettle for boiling water for coffee and other purposes.  Indeed, why limit yourself – get all these items (if you don’t have them already).  None of them cost much more than $50 a piece at Costco or on Amazon.

Make a note of the power requirements for such items.

Everything Else – Okay, now we’ve covered the absolute essentials, but what else might also appear on a list of things you really need to be able to provide power to?  We’d certainly agree that you need to have half a dozen watts on hand for your phone charger, and maybe a few more watts for a radio or even a television.  For that matter, in the unlikely event that your internet connection is up, we’d not begrudge you the power cost of turning on your cable modem, Wi-Fi router and computer for an hour or two, a few times a day.

Maybe you have some medical equipment you need to operate.  And maybe you don’t want to have your generator running 24/7, and so have some batteries that you charge during the day and run your essential nighttime electrical circuits from at night.

Adding it All Up

Now that you’ve made a list of all the items you need power for, you’ll see there’s probably nothing on the list that needs to be receiving power, every hour, every day.  So this is where you now get to make a little bit of power go a long way.  You do this by letting your appliances take turns at the power from your generator.

For example, you know you’ll only need cooking appliances on a couple of times a day.  You also know that your fridge and freezer can go quite well for an hour or so (fridge) or half a day or longer (freezer) at a time with no power (especially if you keep their door shut!), and you also know that you can ‘play games’ with any heating or cooling, so that some of the day it is on, but some of the day it is not.

So what you should do is arrange it that you either have a cooking appliance, a fridge or freezer, or some hvac equipment running, but never all of these items at the same time.  How do you do that?  Simple.  Have plugs from all the devices sharing one (or two) sockets.  That way you can only have one item plugged in at a time.  Maybe you have some devices that would take up all the power, and three or four other devices that could run, any two at a time, and one or two devices that can be on or off at any time and it doesn’t really matter, because the power they draw is so low.

What you’d do is you’d have the output from your generator going first to a power strip that has all the small power devices connected to it, and one remaining socket.  You would have a collection of plugs next to this socket, and obviously only one of them can be plugged in at a time.  You might have a plug for your a/c, and another plug going to something else, and then one more plug that goes to a second power strip, on which you’ve blocked out all but two of the sockets, and you have a collection of plugs alongside that, so that any two of them can be connected at the same time.

That way it is physically impossible to overload your system, because the way you have your plugs and sockets lined up prevents that.

You can – and should – also have a power meter in series with all of this to monitor the actual power draw (see below).  Or perhaps manage all this with an Arduino based power management system.

Allowing for Surge and Starting Power

Most electric motors draw considerably more power when they are starting than when they are running at their normal speed.  This surge or starting power draw can be two or three times their running power – in other words, a 1 kW motor might have a surge/start power demand of 2.5 kW.  Some types of motors will draw as much as four, five or six times their normal running power while starting up.

This surge/starting power can last for as little as half a second or as long as three or four seconds, and starts off at the very highest level and then steadily declines down to normal running power at the end of the startup phase.

Most traditional generators will quote you two ratings – a rated or standard load, and a peak or maximum load.  So if your theoretical motor, with its 1 kW normal power draw and its starting power requirement of 2.5kW was to be matched to a generator, you should get one with a rated or standard load of at least 1 kW and a peak or maximum load of at least 2.5 kW.

But what say you have four devices, each of a 1 kW standard load and a 2.5 kW starting load?  Does that mean you need a 4 kW generator that can handle a 10 kW peak?  Happily, no.  It is normal to assume that you’ll never have multiple devices all starting simultaneously.  Because the starting load is so brief, and also quickly starts dropping down from maximum, this assumption is usually acceptable in most environments.  So in this example, you’d want a 4 kW generator with a 5.5 kW max load rating.

Choosing a Suitable Small Generator

Our expectation is that you’ll end up with a power need in the order of about 3kW; maybe a bit less, and if it is much more than that, you’ve failed to correctly differentiate between ‘need’ and ‘would like’!

The good news is that there are very many different models in this general power range to choose from.  But that’s also the bad news.  How to make a sensible buying decision with so many choices?

Well, there are a few things to consider that will help steer you in the right direction.

The first is that you want the generator motor to be four-stroke not two-stroke (ie separate oil and gas, rather than mixing the two together).  Four stroke motors tend to be more fuel-efficient and more reliable.

The second is that you want the generator to be as quiet as possible.  Some generators publish ratings on how noisy they are, but unfortunately there’s no universal standard for how this should be measured.  If you see a noise rating, it should be quoted in either dB, dBA, dBC, or possibly some other type of dB measurement.  It would be helpful to know if it was measured at full load, half load, or idle (there can be more than a 10 dB difference between idle and full load), and at what distance from the generator the measurement was made.  Was it in an open area or an enclosed room?  Was it a hard concrete floor or something more sound absorbing?

It is difficult to convert between the different type of decibel measurements, because the different weightings or adjustments that are implied by the letter A, B, C or D after the dB vary depending on the frequency of the sound being measured.  As a rule of thumb, though, the same sound probably registers lowest on the dBA scale, and slightly low on the dBC scale, and higher on the plain dB scale.  You’ll seldom/never see dBB or dBD.  Oh, to add to the confusion, some suppliers sometimes use the term dB and dBA interchangeably, even though they are actually very different.

You can sometimes get a sense for how loud generators are, even if they are not specified, by reading reviews on sites like Amazon.  Chances are someone will compare any given generator’s sound level to another generator, and then you can start to work from there to understand at least the relative loudnesses, and if one of the generators does have a published sound rating, then you know if the other one is above or below that figure.

A good generator has a sound level of under 60 dBA under at least half load when measured on a concrete floor from 7 meters (23 feet) away and with reflective walls 100 ft (30.4 meters) away, and with a very quiet ambient noise background (ie 45 dB).

Another relevant issue is fuel economy and run time.  These are two slightly different measures.  Fuel economy can be thought of in terms of ‘how many kWh of energy will this generator give me per gallon of gas it burns’.  An easy way to work that out is to see how many gallons of fuel an hour it burns, and at what load level.  For example, a 4 kW generator, running at 50% load, and burning 0.4 gallons of fuel an hour is giving you (4 * 50%) 2 kWh of energy for each 0.4 gallon of fuel, ie, 5 kWh per gallon of fuel.  The more kWh per gallon, the better.

The run time issue is similar but different.  It simply measures how long the generator will run on a single tank of gas.  Sure, the more fuel-efficient the engine, the longer each gallon of gas will last, but probably the biggest factor in run time is simply the size of the gas tank on the generator.  Run time means nothing when trying to get a feeling for gallons/hour of fuel use, unless you know how many gallons in the tank that are being consumed.

In theory, you should turn the generator off when re-fueling, and even if you don’t do this, it is always an inconvenient hassle, and so the longer the run time per tank of fuel, the happier you’ll be.

Make sure you understand, when looking at a run time claim, what the load factor on the generator is.  Needless to say, all generators will run much longer at 25% load than at 100% load.

One other nice feature, although one to be used with caution, is a 12V DC power outlet that might be suitable for some crude battery charging, depending on what its true output voltage might be.  But be careful – charging batteries is a very tricky business and perhaps it is more sensible to charge the batteries through a charge controlling device, and from the generator’s 110V main output.

An obvious consideration, but we mention it, just in case, is the generator’s size and weight.  The smaller it is, the easier it is to store somewhere convenient, and the lighter it is, the easier it will be to deploy when you need it.  Oh – do we need to state the obvious?  Don’t run a generator inside.  You must keep the motor exhaust well away from the air you breathe.

Something that is often underlooked or obscured is the quality of the a/c power and its waveform.  How close to a pure sine wave is the power that comes out of the generator?  This doesn’t really matter for resistive loads like a heater, but for motors and electronic circuitry, the ‘cleaner’ the wave form the better.  The only way to be certain about this is to connect the generator output up to an oscilloscope, but that’s not something that is easy for many of us to do.

There is a new type of generator now becoming more prevalent which not only has an excellent pure sine wave form of a/c power, but offers a number of other benefits too.

Inverter/Generators

(Note – do not confuse an inverter/generator with a standalone inverter.  A standalone inverter converts DC power to AC power, typically from 12V DC up to 110V AC.  It does not have a generator connected to it.)

A typical generator (well, what we call a generator actually is a motor that runs an alternator) runs at a steady speed of 3600 rpm so that the power that comes out of the alternator will be automatically at 60 Hz (mains frequency).  The a/c waveform will be a little bit rough and noisy, which can be a problem when powering more delicate electronics.  Also, the engine is having to run at 3600 rpm, no matter if it is heavily loaded or very lightly loaded with power consuming devices because the frequency of the power generated is dependent on the speed of the motor.  This makes the motor noisier than it needs to be, and at lower power loads, makes it less efficient because it is using a lot of power just to spin itself around.  If the engine speed should fluctuate, so too will the frequency of the supplied power and that also can cause problems with electronic items.

Modern high quality generators take a different approach.  They generate a/c power at any frequency at all – it doesn’t matter what frequency, because they then convert the a/c power into DC power.  Then, in a second stage, they use an electronic inverter to convert the DC power into (at least in theory) a very clean pure a/c sinusoidal wave form at 110V.  You have a much nicer wave form, and because the generator can spin at any speed, the generator does not need to be so powered up if generating only a light load of power, making it typically quieter and more fuel-efficient (up to almost 50% more fuel-efficient).  On the downside, inverter/generators are currently more expensive, and have slightly more complicated electronics.  But for the type of application we are considering, they are usually vastly preferable.

Some inverter generators have a nifty feature.  You can double them up – if you connect the generator to another identical generator, using a special connecting cable that synchronizes the a/c output waveform of the two generators together, you can get twice the power.  You might say that it is better to have two 2kW generators rather than one 4kW generator, because that way, you have redundancy.  Anything could fail and you still have half your generating power.

Another nice thing about most inverter/generators is that they have been designed, right from the get-go, to be small, compact, lightweight, and quiet.  That’s not to say that they will be totally undetectable when operating, but they won’t be anything like as noisy as traditional generators that can be as loud as motor mowers, and if quiet operation is really important to you, some additional external baffling in the form of some sort of operating enclosure could drop the sound level down even further.

Their compact size and generally light weight makes it practical for them to do double duty not just as an emergency generator that gets ceremonially wheeled out of the garage when the power goes off (or, even worse, that resides in its own special building), but also as a go anywhere/take anywhere general purpose generator, useful for outdoors events, camping, remote building sites, and so on.

An obvious consideration for any generator is the cost.  With the constantly changing mix of models, ratings, and prices, we’ll not get too specific other than to observe that at the time of writing, it seems you’re likely going to be writing out a check for a little less than $1000 for a good inverter/generator with about a 3 kW rating, which is about twice what you’d pay for a regular generator without the inverter stage.  We expect this price differential to drop, but please don’t wait for that to happen before you get one!

Here is Amazon’s current listingof gasoline fueled generators.  Some are inverter/generators, others aren’t.  Some are California emissions compliant (CARB), others aren’t.

If we had to select a favorite, we’d probably nominate the Champion 3100W unit, or failing that, one or a doubled up pair of the Champion 2000W units.

How to Measure the Real Current/Power Used by Your Appliances

Devices such as this, costing $16 - $26, show you exactly how much power every one of your appliances consumes.

Devices such as this, costing $16 – $26, show you exactly how much power every one of your appliances consumes.

Maybe you have a computer with a 450 watt power supply.  Does that mean the computer actually is drawing 450 watts of power all the time it is on?  Almost certainly, not (a typical computer might consume only 50W of power, maybe even less, plus another 50W of power separately for its screen).  Maybe you have something else with a power rating plate on the back ‘110V 10A’ – does that mean it is drawing 10 amps all the time it is on?  Again, probably not.  A 10A rated device probably includes all lesser amounts of power too, and they simply put 10A on the plate as a conservative overstatement that wouldn’t cause them problems in the future.  (Note – resistive devices such as heaters tend to have more accurately plated power requirements.)

It is normal for appliances to show their theoretical maximum power draw rather than their normal power draw on their labeling.  While you need to leave a bit of ‘headroom’ to allow for occasionally one or another of your appliances peaking up higher to full power, it is acceptable to assume that most of the time, most of them will be using average rather than maximum power.

So how do you work out how much power your appliances are really truly drawing?  Easy.  There are devices that you plug in between the appliance and the wall, and they measure the power consumption of whatever is plugged into them.  Indeed, you don’t need to plug only one appliance into one of these measuring devices – we’ll sometimes plug a power strip into the measuring device, and then connect a bunch of equipment to it.

As you can see, Amazon sell such units for as little as $16.  Although there are some new low price units, we have always bought the only slightly more expensive Kill a Watt brand monitors.  You only need to get one to be able to work your way around your house testing everything.

In addition to showing you the instantaneous power usage, the Kill a Watt unit has another useful function – it can also show you total energy used over time.  When would this be useful?  Think of something that cycles on and off, such as your fridge.  You can measure how much power it uses when it is on, and you can guesstimate how much extra power to allow for when it first starts up, but how much power does it use per day?  Unless you stand over your fridge nonstop, day and night, carefully noting the minutes it is on and the minutes it is off, you’ll have no accurate way of knowing this.  But with the Kill a Watt meter, you simply plug the fridge in, check it is zeroed, then come back in a day or two and note the total hours elapsed and the total kWh used.  How easy is that!

(Note that if you are doing these calculations, you should check for different total energy consumption rates based on hot and cold weather, on opening the fridge a lot or a little, on placing hot foodstuffs into the fridge, and so on.  You’ll find that your daily average usage will vary enormously from some ‘good’ days to some not so good days.

How to Measure the Actual Power Being Provided by Your Generator

Your objective, much of the time, will be to run your generator at about 75% of full power.  At power levels much above this, or at power levels much below 50%, your economy will start to suffer and you’ll be getting fewer kWh of electricity per gallon of gas.

But how do you know how much power you are taking from the generator?  Easy.  Use the same Kill a Watt meter you used to calculate your power draws, and plug it into the generator then plug all power loads into a power strip plugged into the Kill a Watt.  That will tell you exactly the power you use.

You can use this information to know when you can add extra power loads to your generator, and when you are close to maxed out.

Two Notes About Fuel Storage

Many cities and many landlords have restrictions on how much fuel you can store at your residence, and probably also on the types of containers you can store the fuel in.  Sometimes these limits are per address, sometimes they are per building (which might mean you could keep fuel in a garden shed as well as in your garage and as well as in your house, too).

Enforcement of such bylaws is typically done ‘after the fact’ – ie, if you have a fire and it becomes apparent you had a mega-fuel dump in your garage, then you may find yourself being asked some awkward questions, not only by the fire marshal, but quite likely by your insurance company, too.  By the way, it is not always easy to tell, after a fire, exactly how much fuel was stored in each container, particularly if they were all in the one area.  It is probably possible to see how many fuel cans you had, but harder to tell which ones were full, which were half full, and which had only a couple of pints in the bottom.

It might pay to familiarize yourself with these requirements, and if you have a large number of half empty fuel containers, you better be sure you can explain why.

That also points to another benefit of a fuel-efficient low powered inverter/generator.  If you are trying not to trespass too far into ‘forbidden territory’ in terms of the fuel you store, then the more hours you can run your generator on a small amount of fuel, the better.

Secondly, gasoline (and most other liquid fuels) has a surprisingly limited life.  You can store it for three months with no ill effects, but after about six months, you’ll start to encounter problems.  Our article about fuel storage tells you more about these issues and also recommends the best form of fuel life extending chemicals.

Maintaining Your Generator

We hate internal combustion powered equipment, and avoid it wherever we can, particularly for things we only use rarely.  They can be difficult to store and unreliable in operation after extended storage.  Electrically powered items are generally very much better.

But in the case of a generator, you have no effective alternative to some sort of internal combustion powered device, and so you’ll need to be attentive to the manufacturer’s recommendations about periodic maintenance.  Not quite so clearly stated is the need to also be sensitive to the age of your fuel and managing that, so you aren’t running old untreated fuel in your generator.  Also not stated, but in our opinion very important, is to run your generator for several hours, perhaps once a quarter.  Solstices and equinoxes are the trigger dates we use for all sorts of maintenance items (other people use daylight saving start/end dates for things that need maintaining less frequently).

One other thought.  It might be useful to keep a spray can of engine starter fluid as a way of helping your generator come to life if it has been too long since it last ran and it is proving reluctant to start, particularly on a cold day.  Some generators start more readily than others.

Summary

A small, lightweight, and almost silent emergency generator can allow you to keep power on in your normal home, even when the lights are out all around you.  While we have nothing against larger systems that will power your entire home (and have one ourselves), if you’re not ready for a ‘full-on’ system and the costs and complications associated with it, a simple portable inverter/generator will give you enough power to make the difference between great discomfort and only moderate inconvenience.

These small units are also invaluable for apartment dwellers.

May 052014
 
Our national power grid spans three interconnected regions.

Our national power grid spans three interconnected regions.

What happened the last time you flicked a light switch?  The power came on, right?  And the time before, and the time before.  More importantly, you also expect it to continue coming on next time you flick the switch, too.

Well, maybe you don’t have such expectations, because you’re a cautious prepper, and the unknown is unsurprising to you.  But all the unaware people around us – their lives would be destroyed if our national electricity distribution grid failed to function as it needs to, distributing electricity from the places in the country where it is generated to the places in the country where it is needed, smoothing out regional peaks and troughs of demand, and so on.

If you look around you, you probably see houses or offices, stores full of goods, cars and trucks on highways, and so on – all the essential things of our society.  But our entire society is built on the thing you don’t see – electricity.  Given the essential nature of this intangible, you might be forgiven for assuming that the integrity of the electrical grid is assured, protected, and robustly engineered to be fail-safe and fault-tolerant.

On the other hand, you know what they say about making assumptions…..

With that as introduction, here now is a semi-secret report by New Jersey’s Regional Operations Intelligence Center (ROIC) which monitors regional (terrorist) threat levels.  The report is of course written in ‘officialese’ and is careful not to make any comments or express any opinions that are too extreme or upsetting.  But it does note an uptick in probing type activity against grid infrastructure locations across the entire country, including at least three intrusions in NJ located facilities in October 2013 and another three in January 2014.  It focused on three more intrusions over the last year (in AR, AZ and CA) that it says highlights the grid’s vulnerability.

The report’s conclusion?  Our national grid is ‘inherently vulnerable’ to attacks that could wipe out power across vast portions of the country.

The report is as significant for what it doesn’t say as for what it does say.  While it acknowledges that many ‘critical links’ in the grid infrastructure sit open and unprotected in remote locations, and correctly says this makes the grid vulnerable, it fails to consider the implications of a grid failure, and – perhaps most significantly of all – it fails to mention how long it would take to restore the grid after an attack that took out more than one or two or three key locations.

As we’ve reported in previous articles on this topic (and, if nothing else, do read this article in particular – Why Our Electricity Grid is So Vulnerable), the huge problem we have is that the super-transformers that are used in the grid are not made in the US, but instead are made in China, and have to be ordered years in advance of delivery.  If we need one more super-transformer, we might have to wait three years, but what happens if we need ten or a hundred of them?  Sure, the first might be delivered in three years time, but how long until the tenth and the one hundredth arrive?

That’s a problem with no upside, only downside.  Indeed, who really cares about the delivery date for the 100th replacement super-transformer.  The three-year delay to receive the first of them is more than enough cause for concern.  What part of our society can function for three years without electricity?  For three months?  For three weeks?  For many people and businesses, three days will be a struggle, three weeks will see starvation set in, and in way less than three months, unconstrained anarchy will reign.

It is an enormous puzzle as to how our nation happily (?) spends billions of dollars a year on aviation type security, but willfully overlooks a vulnerability that is much easier to exploit and which could have much greater negative impacts on very many more people than could any type of attack on our aviation system.

Unfortunately, there’s nothing we can do as preppers to reduce the national vulnerability to our power grid going down.  But there’s a lot we can do to reduce our personal vulnerability to such things.

Have you done so for yourself?  Are you doing so at present?

Apr 232014
 
This artist's impression of the tens of thousands of people fleeing the 1871 Great Chicago Fire could become a modern day reality after uncontrollable fires break out following an EMP event.

This artist’s impression of the tens of thousands of people fleeing the 1871 Great Chicago Fire could become a modern-day reality after uncontrollable fires break out following an EMP event.

We wrote, just now, about how the director of two congressional advisory boards claimed that it is practical to protect against an EMP attack, and that the cost of this would be only $2 billion.

We believe him to be spectacularly wrong on both points, and you should read our article to see just how far off base he is.

Some of the newspaper reports, all of which uncritically repeat his quote, have widened their article to refer to another self-appointed EMP expert, Dr William Forstchen, who estimates that approximately half a million people would die in the first few moments after an EMP event.

Okay, so maybe he is correct about that.  Indeed, looking at the numbers in the article, if the 7,000 planes in the air at the time of an EMP event crash, and each plane has 150 people on board, then that is over 1 million people without considering however many casualties might also be incurred on the ground where the planes crash (probably not very many, actually, but that’s not the point we’re examining here).

His further point about fires breaking out, and not being controllable, is definitely true.  In the modern high-density city centers, and without any fire trucks or water, even small fires will quickly become multi-block unstoppable conflagrations.

So what is the point we’re seeking to make?  Simply this :  The deaths in the first few minutes after an EMP are relatively trivial and inconsequential, compared to the deaths in the days and weeks that follow.  Any article which talks about half a million deaths immediately after an EMP does the nation a disservice by not pointing out that tens of millions more people will die in the days and weeks after.

Why will so many people die after an EMP?  It isn’t as though an EMP creates any blast or heatwave, or even much nuclear radiation.  The problem is that when the EMP destroys much/most/all of our nation’s electronics, it therefore destroys all our support infrastructure.

Think about the most critical things we need to preserve human life.

Shelter – with no electricity, we no longer can heat or cool our homes.  For that matter, if we live in a high-rise, we can’t use the elevators any more, either.

Water – with no electricity, town water supplies can no longer treat the water they pump to us, and – oh yes, they can’t pump it to us, either.  (Note that the lack of pumping will also cause most sewer systems to fail, too.)

Food –  Many/most trucks and trains will fail due to the EMP.  Those that don’t fail will run out of diesel or electricity, and where will they get more?  The refineries will also be offline – their control circuitry will have been ‘fried’.  Without transportation, and without refrigeration, how will our supermarkets get restocked?

So, somewhere between a few days and a few weeks, people will start dying from lack of water, lack of food, and from general disease due to lack of drinkable water and sanitation.

People in the cities won’t be able to conveniently evacuate out of the cities, either because their cars will have failed (due to their onboard computers) or because they can’t buy gas to drive with, or perhaps because the roads are clogged with stalled/failed vehicles.

On the other hand, the probable complete breakdown of law and order that will quickly follow an EMP (imagine the police with no cruisers and no radios – they’ll be uncoordinated and unable to protect or control the cities and will quickly give up trying) will definitely motivate people to try and flee the cities and go somewhere safe.

Even if they could evacuate the cities, where would they go?  85% of our population now lives in cities, in situations where it is not possible to be self-sustaining and self-sufficient.  Our nation no longer grows enough food to support us, and that which we do grow relies upon mechanical production assistance – that too will have all failed.

So, yes, for sure we’ll see at least a half million people die in the first few minutes and hours after an EMP attack.  But that’s only the very tip of the top of the iceberg – how many more tens/hundreds of millions of people will die in the weeks and months immediately thereafter?

That is the true headline that urgently needs exposing and national discussion.

Now that we have you truly anxious, you can read more about EMP vulnerabilities here.

Apr 232014
 
A single EMP pulse can cover the entire country with destructive EMF radiation.

A single EMP pulse can cover the entire country with destructive EMF radiation.

There was apparent good news this week.

Peter Pry, executive director of the Task Force on National and Homeland Security and also director of the US Nuclear Strategy Forum – both congressional advisory boards – has been quoted this week as warning that the civilian world is not ready for an EMP attack, and describes the effects as catastrophic.

In case you’re unfamiliar with EMP, please see our article that explains EMP to understand how and why it is such a chilling threat to our modern world.

Anyway, back to Mr Pry.  Yes, we agree with both his statements.  So, what is the problem?

Well, after these comments, he then goes a bit off-target.  He is quoted as saying :

The problem is not the technology.  We know how to protect against it. It’s not the money, it doesn’t cost that much. The problem is the politics. It always seems to be the politics that gets in the way.

If you do a smart plan – the Congressional EMP Commission estimated that you could protect the whole country for about $2 billion.

Sounds very good, doesn’t it.  But, let’s actually think carefully about his two claims and see if they stand up to even some simplistic investigation.

1.  Protecting Against EMP Effects

First, let’s consider his claim that we know how to protect against EMP effects.

Well, that is sort of true, but it is true in the same manner, perhaps, that we ‘know’ how to protect against teenage pregnancies.  But, just as the ‘solutions’ to the problem of teenage pregnancies, while perfect in theory, have always colossally collapsed in reality and have proven to be completely impractical, so too do the ‘solutions’ to EMP effects have little application in the real world that the rest of us wish to live in.

Essentially, there are five possible solutions to EMP.  You choose the one you wish to adopt.

1.  Place every piece of at-risk electronics inside Faraday cages.  A Faraday cage is basically a metal box (ideally of iron or steel so as to protect against both electrical and magnetic energy), and electromagnetic energy goes around the box rather than through the box.  This therefore protects the items inside the box.

But, you can’t have wires going in or out of the Faraday cage.  If you did, then the wires provide pathways for the EMP effects to enter into the cage.  So, no external antennas (and internal antennas will be blocked by the cage) which effectively makes all radio type gear useless.  Plus, yes, where will power come from to power the devices inside the cages?  And so on and so on.

Faraday cages can indeed fairly protect some types of electronics, but not everything.  Have a look around your home and your office.  Everything from your phones (wired or wireless) to your calculator to your digital clock and watch, to your oven and stove top and microwave, to the thermostat that controls your heating – yes, pretty much everything – is at risk from EMP effects.  How much of all of this can you put in Faraday cages?

2.  The next ‘solution’ is to ‘harden’ your electronics to make them less vulnerable to EMP effects.  Hardening will reduce the certainty that your electronics will get fried by EMPs, but does not zero it out.  Think of it a bit like making your watch water-resistant, or your jacket ‘showerproof’.

Hardening is essentially something that is done in the design and construction of something; it is not something that can be subsequently added on.  Hardening requires adding various types of filters and chokes, separating out components, and using special components that have been designed to be more robust when confronted with EMF induced voltage spikes (ie from an EMP).

Hardened equipment is unavoidably bulker and heavier than regular equipment, and so is seldom ever encountered in consumer grade electronics, which place a premium on being as small and compact as possible.

3.  You could replace all your high-tech gear with low tech gear.  Instead of fancy digital phones, you could use old-fashioned rotary dial phones – well, maybe you could, if your phone exchange still supports rotary dialing (and if the phone exchange itself will survive the EMP event!).  You could replace your new transistorized digital radio with an old vacuum tube powered radio (which will be much more dependent on mains power than your low current low voltage digital radio), and again, what use is a radio if there are no surviving radio stations.

We’re not quite sure what you could replace your iPad or computer with, and what point would there be, when the entire internet will collapse.

4.  You could adapt instead to a life with zero technology.  But in that case, is the ‘cure’ worse than the problem?  Imagine a life with no electricity, no cable, no internet.  Oh yes, also without water or sewer, too.  This isn’t really a solution at all, is it.

5.  The fifth approach is to keep a spare set of everything essential you might need in a future ‘grid down’ scenario.  But if you do this, you need to store them inside Faraday cages.  Just leaving them switched off is not sufficient – the on/off switch in anything merely controls the flow of electrical power, it doesn’t physically disconnect circuitry from itself and from potential antennas that would collect and feed/funnel the EMP energy into the unit.

There is another problem with this strategy.  While it is great good sense to keep spares of everything essential, it also begs the question – how many spares do you keep?  What happens if an EMP occurs, and you smile to yourself, break out your spares, and are back to normal functioning (albeit without any external support resources such as electricity or the internet), but then, a couple of hours later, a second EMP event occurs.  Do you have a third set of everything also kept as spares for the spares?  A fourth set for another layer of spares?

It seems reasonable to assume that if a foreign nation chooses to attack us with an EMP, they would have the resources, sense and willpower to do the equivalent of a double-flush – first one EMP to do as much damage as possible, then a second event some hours later to destroy all the reserve equipment now being pressed into service.

US DoD doctrine says to expect multiple EMP attacks, not just one (see the Field Manual, referenced below).

No Man is an Island

One more thought on this point before moving on to the second fallacy in Mr Pry’s strange statement.  Even if you reduce your own vulnerability to EMP-effects, what good does that do you?

Maybe your own electronics are intact, but if the power grid is down, you have no electricity to power them.  Maybe your car’s several dozen computers also successfully made it through the EMP event, but if the gas pumps at the gas station don’t work – both due to no electricity and also due to their own electronics being fried – how much use is your car to you?  And how would you pay for the gas, even if you could get it?  The banking system will be down, card readers won’t work, and you probably only have a day or two of cash in your pocket.

Oh yes, the roads will probably be blocked anyway, with less fortunate cars just stalling in the middle of the lanes they were in at the time.  Think of the chaos from a sudden winter snow-storm, then multiply it, to get an idea for how driveable the roads will be.

The EMP risk is not just a risk to ourselves personally, it is a risk to all the infrastructure about us that we rely upon in our lives, but which we can’t control.

2.  A $2 Billion Cost?

Mr Pry says it would cost $2 billion to protect the whole country against EMP effects.  Now, to me, and probably to you too, $2 billion is an unthinkable amount of money, and we could do many enormous things with such a huge sum.

But, to the government, $2 billion is nothing.  It represents little more than $6 per person in the country.  The government’s total budget for 2013 was $3.5 trillion, 1700 times more than $2 billion.  Sure, this suggests that the $2 billion is affordable, but it is also negligible.  We spent $8.2 billion on the Army Corps of Civil Engineers, $18 billion on NASA, $35 billion on the Energy Department, and $673 billion on defense.

Two specific examples.  California is currently planning to spend almost $100 billion on a fast train service between San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Sacramento.  A new air traffic control system for the country is projected to cost somewhere between $40 billion and $120 billion (no-one seems quite sure exactly how much).

So tell me, if you can, how we can’t build 1,000 miles of train for less than $100 billion, and we can’t redo our country’s air traffic control system for less than a similar cost, but we could protect all the gazillions of vulnerable pieces of electronic equipment for a mere $2 billion?

A $2 Trillion Cost to Fix just Part of the Problem

Oh – we forgot to mention, and apparently Mr Pry forgot this, too.  One of the biggest vulnerabilities to EMP is our national electricity distribution grid (click the link for one of our articles on this topic).

If the grid failed, it could take years to restore (if for no other reason, due to the lead times to get new transformers made and delivered).  The cost of hardening the grid?  According to this 2012 article, probably $1.5 – $2 trillion dollars.

So, please, make a case – if you can – for how, with $2 trillion to harden the electrical distribution network alone, we can harden that and the rest of the nation’s infrastructure too, for only $2 billion.

This $2 billion claim is beyond unbelievable.  Why does Pry make this claim?  For that matter, why does he also say that EMP attacks can be defended against in the first place?

Both claims seem to be total utter nonsense.

A Useful Reference Guide

The US Army Field Manual 3-3-1 has a useful appendix in it (Appendix C) that gives information on EMP.  You can download it here.

Unfortunately, the manual is twenty years old and there is no sign of an updated edition having been released.  Much of the material in it is based on studies and ‘state of the art’ design that is even older still.  While the nature of an EMP effect has of course not changed much in the intervening 20 years (there are some suggestions that the former ‘limit’ on the maximum power of an EMP, caused by over-saturating the atmosphere with radiation, may have now been resolved, allowing for even higher powered devices with more severe effects) there have been enormous changes in technology.

The FM appendix repeatedly refers to the frequency of EMP radiation and ties that to being of greatest risk to radios that transmit/receive on the same frequencies, but understandably fails to consider the implications of one of the biggest changes in the last 20 years – the ever greater miniaturization of our electronics.  As our chips get smaller and smaller and more densely packed with components, the separation between each part of the components gets smaller and smaller, meaning that the voltage level needed for a ‘flash over’ between one component and the next has gone down and down proportionally.

When the manual was written, typical distances inside chips were in the order of 750 – 1000 nanometers (a nanometer is one billionth of a meter).  Today, distances are 15 – 20 nanometers – 50 times smaller.  Densities of components are even more staggeringly enhanced – in 1994, a Pentium chip had something slightly in excess of 3 million transistors on it, today, an Xbox One main chip has 5 billion transistors on it.

All electronic devices are therefore massively more vulnerable than they were in 1994.

It is also important to realize, as the manual itself hints at, this is an unclassified manual written with an eye to who else will be reading it, in both friendly and unfriendly places.  The manual is therefore more likely to put a positive spin on things, rather than say ‘If an EMP occurs, we’ve lost the battle before it starts’.

So, by all means read it, and learn from it, but appreciate its limitations and how the world has changed since then as well.

Feb 072014
 
Simply shoot a few holes in this enormous transformer's radiator and you've disabled the transformer.

Simply shoot a few holes in this enormous transformer’s radiator and you’ve disabled the transformer.

In April 2013 an unknown group of people disabled 17 transformers at a PG&E substation in California by shooting holes in them from a safe distance away.  This almost caused a regional multi-state blackout, and only the low rate of power consumption at the time enabled the utilities to reroute power and keep the grid up.

An investigation has revealed this was not a casual random act of vandalism, but a carefully planned and executed attack.  The perpetrators have not been identified, and some experts speculate this was a ‘test run’ prior to conducting a larger and more devastating attack on our national power grid.

A classified report prepared in 2007, and recently made public, warned that it would be easy for a group to knock out the power grid in a way to “deny large regions of the country access to bulk power systems for weeks or even months” and which they speculated would lead to “turmoil, widespread public fear, and an image of helplessness”.

Congress passed a bill in 2010 designed to compel utility companies to harden their infrastructure, but it died in the senate.  The utility companies lobbied against it.

This excellent article tells you more about these issues.  Sure, we’ve been saying for a long time that our power infrastructure is enormously vulnerable to many different forms of attack, and, perhaps much more importantly, that recovering from a large-sized outage would not take the few days we normally experience.  Neither would it take a few weeks, and not even a few months.  Due to the lead times and limited manufacturing capabilities of the companies that make transformers (none of which are in the US any more) it could take years to recover (a minimum of three, possibly much longer).  See in particular our 2012 article, ‘Why Our Electricity Grid is So Vulnerable’ (and note also vulnerabilities that relate to our natural gas distribution too).

Our earlier article didn’t even mention simply shooting holes in the ‘radiators’ of these large transformers (that’s what these people did last year), which has to be the simplest and easiest way of disabling them.

As the article observes, this is a very difficult threat to guard against.  Worse still, in the almost one year since the attack, we’re unaware of any steps being taken to protect against this threat – even a simple curtain to hide the transformers from view would be a great start, so terrorists couldn’t see where to aim their shots.

Our point of course is simple.  Most of the country mindlessly assumes that every time they flick a light switch, power is guaranteed to flow.  Some people will accept that an occasional super-storm might rob themselves and other people in a small limited area of power for a few days, and even fewer will prepare for such short-term losses.

But what happens if much/most/all of the nation loses its power for three, four, and more years?  Who is prepared for that?