August 15, 2003

Destructive Secrets

Since about October 2001, I've known that power lines could be a simple Al Queda target that would not cost them assets (as suicide operations would) but could bring down the US economy. But I kept my mouth shut about it because I didn't have a way of saying it without drawing a roadmap for the terrorists where they could read it. Today, Stratfor, wrote up an article on the Al Queda implications of the current blackout. They write "Al Qaeda no doubt is watching for any opportune U.S. flaws that they might someday exploit. Now it has become obvious that if one hits the U.S. -- or Canadian -- power grid in the right spot at the right time, the heart of the American economy -- including Wall Street -- can be hurled into the dark. " After that, I don't particularly feel restrained anymore about this particular threat (though I'll still keep my mouth shut over the other easy targets I know about).

It's pretty obvious that anybody with a map and a walking stick can walk the perimeter of a city and identify where all the high tension lines coming into the city come in. This is assuming that the electrical line maps aren't available and you can't just look it up in a library. Further walking can identify choke points. It's actually quite easy to take down a power line. A little explosive work at a tower or just throwing a properly thick metal cable over the lines when one end is securely grounded and you have downed that power route.

Part of the problem is that too much power is produced long distances away from where the power is needed. Some of that is unavoidable but certainly not to the extent that exists today. One difficulty arises from the fact that the usage ends (at the meter) are too dumb. Meters generally only pass power in one direction. They are dumb mechanical machines that exclusively serve the interest of the electric company as seller to the business and residential public who are only buyers.

But what if smart meters existed? What if people could participate in the electrical markets as a matter of course, buying the way that the major users buy based on the current market value of their juice at that time. What if you could just plug in a generator and automatically have your power flow into the grid and get compensated for it at the spot market price. What if every electrical device had a smart switch that could selectively cut the wall current to the backup battery units and the overhead lights in the offices but keep the electricity running for the elevators to get out of the building. What if all these devices could talk to each other and sort out what needed doing when there was a service reduction or outright cut.

All of a sudden the entire grid system looks different, much more local, more complex, and vastly more resilient. The incentives for local power generation increase as it becomes easier to do and you not only get stable power but also have profit potential. Pulling cheap juice in the evening and feeding it back at peak demand becomes an economic opportunity. And when a neighborhood loses its external juice, local power sources can be prioritized so that the more important uses get priority and bad effects are minimized. Whether these local sources are a bank of batteries, fuel cells, microturbine generators, or standard gas or diesel models, with a universal communications method and pre-made rules created by their owners, you end up with a very important adjunct that increases the ability of people to make fine power adjustments.

The overall effect is to make the electrical system look more like the robust Internet with these smart meters serving to intelligently route around failure while enabling a wider variety of configurations. This sort of solution isn't going to get rolled out overnight but either this, or something very like it, will be necessary for the inevitable era of electrical system attacks to come.

The benefits go far beyond national security. With GM explicitly looking to market their future fuel cell cars as energy sources, a smart meter system could allow these cars to earn money while you're at work by plugging them in as small peaker plants running on pre-defined rules, supplying electricity when profitable to their owners and dropping out while they still have enough fuel left in the tank to get home. This would increase generating capacity exactly where it would need to be, at commercial and industrial centers during peak usage hours.

The level of intelligence needed to participate in a smart electrical network is fairly constant. With Moore's law continuing to operate for the near to medium term, it's likely that the basics of it could be done today. Some of the finer refinements like light fixtures that turn themselves off during energy crunches according to predefined rules could wait for another few iterations of Moore's law to make them cheap enough to put in such high volume usages.

Creating self-organizing neighborhoods of small grids of electrical consumers and producers would is not beyond us but it's unrealistic to think that anything but a national security emergency would get the incumbent electrical producers to radically lower the barriers to entry into their business. We now have our national security emergency. Let's get to it.

Posted by TMLutas at August 15, 2003 01:32 AM