“My concern is how resilient we are as a society to withstand a major shock”

Toby Harris of the Electric Infrastructure Security Council (EISC) explains how caring about our future means preparing for the unexpected.

Lord Toby Harris has been involved in resilience and security issues for many years. He was an elected politician in London for twenty-six years, where he focused on building sustainable communities, as a Council Leader, Chair of the Association of London Government and a member of the London Assembly. He was appointed a member of the House of Lords in 1998 and recently conducted a review of London’s preparedness to respond to a major terrorist attack.

Among his current activities, he acts as UK Coordinator for the Electric Infrastructure Security Council (EISC). The EISC is a US-based international NGO that brings together the power industry, other critical utilities such as water, communications, food distribution, along with federal and state governments, regulators and others, to consider what can be done to mitigate the threat, and the consequences of, a prolonged wide-area electricity outage.

Lord Toby Harris (Toby) is very clear on his motivation for working with the EISC and the Resilience Shift on their collaboration to improve critical infrastructure resilience.

“My concern is how resilient we are as a society to withstand a major shock to our critical infrastructure – primarily the electricity supply and distribution infrastructure but it could be water or communications or food. The point of electricity is that most of our other critical systems are dependent on power”.

“A significant issue is that some of the processes we need as a society to be more resilient are event-neutral. It doesn’t matter what the initial shock is. How we respond in terms of managing the consequences may often be much the same”, he added.

Rainfall map over the British Isles for the period 2015-11-30 to 2015-12-07
Animated map of the British Isles showing the total rainfall accumulating (in mm) for the period 2015-11-30 to 2015-12-07. This is related to the flooding caused by Storm Desmond on 5-6 December 2015. Wikimedia Commons

It’s not just about global shocks and stresses. Such events take place on a smaller scale in countries around the world. On 5 December 2015, Storm Desmond led the River Lune to flood (described as a ‘once in a hundred years event’). It swamped an electrical sub-station serving the city of Lancaster in the north-west of the United Kingdom. More than 60,000 homes and businesses, and at least 100,000 people, were left without electricity for four days.

A review by the Royal Academy of Engineering (‘Living without electricity‘) found that this lack of power supply disrupted transport, communications and the ability of the emergency services to reach people in need. ATM (cash) machines went out of action, garages were unable to dispense fuel as their pumps needed electricity to operate, traffic lights stopped working, the train station had to close. Text messaging, digital radio and the internet ceased to be available.

75 emergency generators were brought to Lancaster from as far away as the south-west of the United Kingdom, and across the sea from Northern Ireland, to regain electric supplies.

Toby commented, “As RAEng noted, this was a “comparatively localized area”, “manageable in size”. In a much larger area or locality with a much bigger population such arrangements would not have worked”.

“The Lancaster incident highlighted the inter-connected nature of our critical systems and our reliance on electric power to make them work and society function”, he added.

Looking at that Lancaster once-in-a-hundred-year event, what parallels can be drawn in the event of a major more widespread outage and from one that lasted longer?

  • Schools routinely close if the heating stops working or there is a power cut.
  • Hospitals would only continue to function if they had working emergency generators and they depend on staff continuing to come to work.
  • Some systems would have to be provided with power come what may. Nuclear plant – whether functioning or not – would still need to ensure that the reactor core is cooled.
  • Another critical area is water. All buildings above three storeys and many locations will not be reached without electric pumps – so how long could fresh water be guaranteed? And for how long would waste water and sewage be removed and treated? If a certain flow is not maintained, sewage tends to solidify. A city or town without fresh water or where waste water and sewage cannot be removed rapidly becomes uninhabitable.
  • How long could communications systems be maintained? Domestic and business landlines require electric power – the days of low voltage telephony are long passed. Mobile communications devices would need charging after a few hours. Cell-phone masts would only continue to operate in the absence of power for an estimated 2 to 4 hours.
  • Domestic refrigerators and freezers would stop working as would those in small retailers. How long would those in major supermarket outlets last? In these days of just-in-time deliveries how well would wholesale supplies hold up assuming the distribution network is functioning?
  • In Lancaster the ATMs stopped working. On a bigger scale, how long would the financial system continue to function unaffected?

Toby added, “MI5 famously said in 2004 that the UK was ‘four meals away from anarchy’. It does not take much to imagine the implications for civil order of the sort of disruption to food supplies that would ensue from the sort of events that we are talking about here.”

All infrastructure is inter-connected, inter-related and inter-dependent. What is more, the impact of a major incident elsewhere in the world would have an impact on systems in the UK and other countries, and on global and local supply chains.

The BREXIT-related stories in the media, about the stockpiling of food and medicines, the mechanics of delays at ports, are a timely reminder of how dependent, as an island nation, the United Kingdom is on what arrives from the rest of the world. Other countries are similarly affected by global supply chain issues.

Toby said, “I don’t know what will happen in the future. What I do know is that as a society – and that each of us in our individual organisations and even in our own households – should be prepared for the unexpected.”

What sort of events might cause this level of power failure?

The events explored in the Earth Ex simulation exercises undertaken by the EISC with the Resilience Shift are low probability but high impact scenarios. Several possible events might trigger this sort of wide-area long-duration power failure:

Malign attacks on electricity infrastructure:

  • A concerted physical assault (perhaps by terrorists) on key nodes within the electricity grid. This would be difficult and require substantial hostile manpower. In July 1996, an IRA plot involving 37 explosive devices designed to destroy the six sub-stations providing London’s electricity was disrupted and the bombers arrested.
  • An electro-magnetic (EMP) pulse attack involves a nuclear blast in the atmosphere. This is something the North Koreans in an official news release just a few months before the current peace process announced that they were contemplating.
  • A cyber-attack – worryingly plausible – as apparently deployed against the Ukraine. Two years ago the US Department of Defense Science Board reported that the US grid had been so effectively penetrated by Russian and Chinese state hackers that both could switch off electricity supplies at will.
Drawing of sunspots by Richard Carrington (1826-1875), the English astronomer. Wikimedia Commons.

Natural hazards:

  • Extreme terrestrial weather – Hurricane Harvey and Super Storm Sandy both led to prolonged electricity outage. In Puerto Rico Hurricane Irma left 8 million people without power for months.
  • Extreme space weather – the Sun’s equivalent of an electro-magnetic pulse (EMP) attack – on 1 September 1859, Richard Carrington observed a massive solar flare which the following day led to brilliant red, green and purple auroras all over the world (the “Northern Lights” were seen in the Caribbean) and also widespread burning out of the telegraph systems. The UK’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory anticipates that a recurrence “is not if, but when” and that a Carrington-style event will occur within the next fifty years according to an estimate quoted by the Royal Academy of Engineering with a confidence level of around 50%. In their “reasonable worst-case scenario” that would take out of service six super grid transformers in England and Wales alone.

But how plausible are the more dramatic scenarios? Many may be individually remote or rare. However, the combined risk of very remote scenarios can become significant. If one assumes that there are six such scenarios, each with a one in a hundred probability of occurring in any given year, the chances of one of those six occurring in a particular year is 5.8%. That means that the chance of one occurring in the next twelve years is 51.2% – that is it is more likely than not.

Toby says, “Obviously, such a calculation depends critically on the assumptions used, but as the consequences for our society are potentially so serious, I think it is more than justified that today we should all be asking ourselves some questions about how we would cope if it happened here – or for that matter anywhere in the world.”

In his role as UK Coordinator for the EISC, he says that over the last three years they have been gathering together representatives from the power, water and telecoms industries, the finance sector, their respective regulators, others from retail, from central and local government and civil society. Together with academics working on infrastructure dependency, they have held a series of round-table meetings at the Guildhall in London (hosted by the Corporation of London), as well as two major academic seminars.

EISC has collaborated with the Resilience Shift to host Earth Ex events as part of the Resilience Shift’s project focusing on the electricity sector and interdependencies. The goal of these simulation events is to learn how better to build multi-sector resilience by enabling critical infrastructure players to improve their planning to black sky events and adopt systems thinking, cross-sector approaches.

The global Earth Ex event from EISC takes place on 21 August 2019. Find out more.

This EISC video sets out the background to the Earth Ex simulation exercises with insight into different black sky scenarios and their potential impact.

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