“How America Could Go Dark” : a critique

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This post first appeared in Energy Central on August 6th, 2016.

Transformer over orange sky

In the recent Wall Street Journal article entitled “How America Could Go Dark” (July 14), Rebecca Smith argues that the electric power grid “is in danger of widespread blackouts lasting days, weeks or longer,” characterizes it as “fragile” and “cobbled together,” and suggests the need for more regulation and security spending focused on protecting substations. While grid vulnerabilities merit serious and sustained attention, her article both mischaracterizes the magnitude of the danger and fails to consider the full scope of possible solutions.

As researchers examining the impact of regulation on the resilience of the grid, we have interviewed over fifty knowledgeable professionals in the electric power sector, the vast majority of whom view the grid as resilient to accidents and malicious actors. Outages occur infrequently and are mostly minor. These views are not included in Smith’s article. Many of these professionals acknowledge problems while also dedicating their careers to improving grid resilience. This contrasts with Smith’s depiction of a complacent industry.

Furthermore, one of Smith’s own sources, Gerry Cauley of the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) regards a long-term widespread blackout as “highly unlikely.” Cauley states: “I think we do a great job with intelligence and law enforcement to ensure we don’t have the eight or 10 vans going out to different sites and blowing things up.” Smith only quotes the second half of Cauley’s sentence, taking it out of context.

Smith also ignores Cauley’s larger point: we should be prepared to recover from disaster. More fences, larger walls, stronger locks, and other physical security measures proposed by Smith are costly—yet they cannot prevent a determined adversary. Alternative measures include reducing societal dependency on the grid and preparing to recover from disasters. And whatever measures we undertake to improve resilience should be informed by a more balanced understanding of the grid’s vulnerabilities.


Rebecca Slayton

Assistant Professor, Cornell University, Science and Technology Studies Department and Peace and Conflict Studies Institute

Aaron Clark-Ginsberg

Postdoctoral scholar, Stanford University, Center for International Security and Cooperation

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