Any solar sales rep can recite the good reasons to get rooftop solar: to save money, to make future energy costs predictable, to get a high rate of return in a relatively safe investment, and of course, to go green.
But what about preparing your family or business for the collapse of the US electrical grid?
To anybody but a doomsday prepper, the idea of grid failure might sound preposterous.
But not to Ted Koppel.
Yes, that Ted Koppel, a 42-year-veteran of ABC News and anchor of Nightline from 1980 to 2005.
Certainly, not a prepper living in a bunker in Montana.
And Koppel thinks that grid collapse is a real threat. Not a question of IF but a question of WHEN the US will see a major, extended blackout that will disrupt all aspects of daily life.
If solar salespeople and marketers read his new book on the subject, Lights Out: A Cyberattack, A Nation Unprepared, Surviving the Aftermath, preparing for grid collapse could become a new selling point for solar.
Let’s go through Koppel’s argument quickly so you can see that this is a book that solar professionals need to read.
A Couple of Nights Using Candles?
First, Koppel is not talking about a two-day power outage like the Northeast Blackout of 2003.
He’s talking about a blackout that could last weeks or months. That wouldn’t just mean a couple of romantic nights camping out at home reading by candlelight or those cute little Aladdin oil lamps you can order from Lehman’s.
Grid failure would certainly mean no light. It would also mean no running water, no sewage, no refrigeration. And not just at home but at the grocery store. Thus, no place to buy food.
Are you starting to get the picture? A very serious scenario.
And not just in your town or your state. Since the whole country is served by just three major power grids, an attack on one or more of them could essentially take out modern civilization for tens of millions of people in dozens of states.
Not Rocket Science
Second, the grid is run by large utility computer systems connected via the Internet. Mounting a successful cyberattack on such a system turns out to be frighteningly easy to do.
Remember how North Korean hackers broke into the computer systems of Sony Pictures Entertainment in 2014 in retaliation for the company’s planned release of The Interview, a goofball comedy starring Seth Rogen and James Franco satirizing North Korean leader Kim Jong Un?
The attack rendered the the company’s computer system “inoperable” for several months but only after, as Koppel explains,
The hackers dumped onto the Internet five Sony films that were due for first-run theater release. Privileged information — executive and superstar compensation packages, medical records, budgets — was made public, as was a trove of silly texts and emails that perhaps shouldn’t have been sent in the first place. That was, the hackers suggested, merely an appetizer. They claimed to have a hundred terabytes of Sony data.
Do you also remember how the same year hackers broke into Apple’s iCloud servers and released private photographs of celebrities?
Or just this summer, how hackers, perhaps Russians, broke into the email of the Democratic National Committee and released emails showing the that DNC had favored Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders to Wikileaks?
Or dozens of other hacker attacks on corporate and government computer systems over the last decade?
All these indicate that it would not be difficult for hackers to break into the systems of the companies that operate the US electricity distribution system.
Using just a laptop, a hacker working for a hostile government like Iran or North Korea or a terrorist group like ISIS could break into the computer systems that manage the nation’s grids and cause large power transformers to burn out.
These LPTs are not only very expensive ($5 to $10 million each) but they weigh several tons and are difficult to transport by rail or road even in normal times when there’s not a national emergency on.
High cost means that only the largest electric utilities have extra supplies of large transformers just setting around — and they only have enough reserve to replace a small portion of the LPTs they use. Smaller utilities can’t afford extras and they buy replacements only when they need them.
And where can you even get an LPT when you need a new one?
You have to order one from China, of course, where most LPTs are made these days. Since Chinese plants make LPTs to order and ship them across the Pacific by container vessel, if you order an LPT now, don’t expect it to be under the tree by Christmas.
So, it could take weeks, months or even years for any of the nation’s power grids to recover from a cyberattack that burned out a significant number of LPTs.
What, Me Worry?
Third, for a risk this grave, the authorities have done very little to either prevent an attack or bring the system back online after an attack.
And what about FEMA keeping people fed until the juice comes back on?
Who can forget what an awesome job they did on Hurricane Katrina, a crisis that affected only one localized part of the country? Imagine how FEMA would do providing relief to ten or twelve states gone dark in a cyberattack on one of the national grids.
But even if the federal government were able to handle such a massive emergency, neither Washington nor the utility industry are doing much to prevent or prepare for cyberattack on the grid.
“It’s difficult to focus power industry executives on speculative threats when there are so many existing problems to deal with,” Koppel explains.
Focused on current threats like ISIS, government officials that Koppel talked with are no more willing to prepare to deal with a crisis that has never happened yet and still seems improbable to state and federal utility regulators and emergency management officials alike.
If Government Won’t Act, Citizens Must Prepare on Their Own
Koppel makes a good case that Lights Out will come to the US sooner or later and that it will be bad. Very bad.
His discussion of solutions has two areas of focus.
On the one hand, he wants government to make utilities take the threat of cyberattack on the grid more seriously and do a better job of protecting their computer systems from hackers while upgrading aging physical infrastructure.
Aged equipment includes those big, expensive large power transformers, which are 40 years old on average nationwide.
On the other hand, Koppel fears that any response from the government or utility industry will be too little and too late. So, he urges citizens to follow the example of the Mormons, who are commanded by church leadership to stockpile months of food in their homes.
The Missing Solution: Distributed Generation
The vulnerability of the electric grid comes from its networked computer systems and outdated hardware. The grid is also vulnerable to cyberattack because it relies on centralized generation and distribution.
So it’s strange that Koppel offers only a couple of sentences on the most obvious way to make America’s electricity system more resilient — distributed generation.
Koppel interviewed a prepper called Andrew Rose who lives on a hilltop deep in rural Wyoming in a home powered by a small wind turbine and some solar. Koppel writes:
What they’ve done, Andrew added, can serve as an example for the future. The concept, called “distributed generation,” is not unique to Andrew Rose. It envisions downsizing the current system of large-scale power plants to clusters of smaller generators spread across a broader area. His own home is an example of how this cottage-industry energy plan might work.
Strangely, Koppel seems to have an image of distributed generation straight out of the 1970s — home-built by off-grid pot growers in Humboldt County from plans you’d find in the Whole Earth Catalog with parts mail ordered from Real Goods.
Solar companies today know better. They know that distributed generation installed by a professional can be cheaper than grid power in many places.
A Selling Point for Solar
For reasons of cost, most grid-tied solar today is not installed with any battery backup. But with the cost of batteries coming down all the time, in a few years, that could change.
Meantime, having solar up on your roof, even if its only backup today is the grid, makes you much more resilient for tomorrow.
After all, you’ve won more than half the battle by putting PV on your roof this year. Maybe in a couple years, when Tesla Powerwall or Sonnen batteries get cheaper and better, you can afford to add some storage. And then, you’ll be a little more ready for the day when the lights go out for three months straight.
The good news is that storage seems poised to take off in the US this year. As pv magazine writes:
According to the latest U.S. Energy Storage Monitor, a quarterly publication from GTM Research and the Energy Storage Association (ESA), the United States deployed 41.2 megawatts of energy storage in the second quarter of 2016, an increase of 126% over the first quarter of the year. The nation is on track to deploy 287 megawatts of energy storage this year.
If the industry can install first solar PV and then storage on millions of rooftops of homes, businesses and government offices all over America over the next decade, then the country will be much less reliant on the grid and the centralized generation and distribution systems that are so vulnerable to cyberattack.
So, if you run a solar company or if you’re a solar sales rep, remember this the next time you talk to a potential customer.
Solar is not just about saving money today. It’s about making your family, your business, your city, and America better prepared for tomorrow.
— Erik Curren, Curren Media Group