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What’s changed since 2003: is our grid secure in 2016?

The Northeast blackout of August 2003 affected over 55 million North Americans, including 10 million in Ontario.  I remember it quite vividly, as it was eerie to walk around the house in complete darkness and silence, and to go outside and see the night sky in all its glory.  I have fond memories of that time.  In my neighbourhood, people came together to help one another, spread news on what was happening and enjoy the unscheduled time off.  We strategized on what to eat, how to cook it and how to keep the beer cold while sitting around a neighbour’s pool.  We were lucky that the outage was in the summer and only lasted a few days.  Industry, however, was highly encouraged to keep production to a minimum for the next week.  This resulted in a significant loss in productivity.

Some good things came out of the outage.  It highlighted the need to upgrade an aging electrical distribution infrastructure and it gave governments the political will to think long-term instead of the usual “term to term” mentality.  The electrical grid is a complex network crossing multiple jurisdictions.  Its complexity is continuing to increase as distributed generation (solar, wind, combined heat & power, and small scale hydro) takes on a larger role in delivering power.

Lights Out - Book CoverIs the grid now at a point where it is invulnerable to blackouts?  What would happen if there was a major blackout in the winter and for extended periods of time?

Ted Koppel has recently written a book called “Lights Out:  A Cyberattack, A Nation Unprepared, Surviving the Aftermath”.  In it, he makes a compelling argument that a Cyberattack to the North American grid is not only possible, but probable.  He indicates that both Russia and China are currently capable of taking down the grid.  Iran is possibly capable of it and North Korea is on the verge of being capable.  He quotes the Commander of CENTCOM General Lloyd Auston as saying that “It’s not a question of ‘if’, but ‘when’”.

Koppel is not a “doomsday prepper”, he is a highly respected broadcast journalist.  He is someone that should be listened to.