If You Liked Oil as a Strategic Weapon, You’ll Love This

There are sound economic and environmental reasons to build a distributed grid system for producing and distributing electricity, as we have explored on this blog. Here’s another reason: cybersecurity. As reported today in the Wall Street Journal, Cyberspies traced to Russia and China have penetrated the U.S. electrical grid and left behind programs that “could be used to disrupt the system.”

You like being hostage to Middle Eastern oil sheikhs? Let’s put it this way, if the oil sheikhs have a hand metaphorically clamped firmly around our privates, anyone with the power to take out our electrical grid has our privates encased in one of those Medieval “lemon squeezer” torture devices and a hand on the tourniquet. Writes the Journal:

The espionage appeared pervasive across the U.S. … Many of the intrusions were detected no by the companies in charge of the infrastructure but by U.S. intelligence agencies, officials said. Intelligence officials worry about cyber attackers taking control of electrical facilites, a nuclear power plan or financial networks via the Internet.

Authorities investigating the intrusions have found software tools left behind that could be used to destroy infrastructure components, [a] senior intelligence official said.

I’m not terribly worried about going to war with Russia or China anytime soon, but you never know how geopolitical alignments might look a decade from now. Moreover, if Russian and Chinese intelligence can penetrate our electrical infrastructure, who’s to say that terrorists couldn’t as well?

Primary responsibility for overseeing the electrical grid here in Virginia is the State Corporation Commission. The SCC needs to begin studying this problem immediately and (1) determine to what extent it is a real threat (as opposed to a threat conjured up by some high-level bureaucrat looking to scare up more funding for his program), (2) how vulnerable Virginia is to disruption, and (3) what strategies we can pursue to offset the risk. A central question: Would a decentralized, distributed grid employing more locally generated power sources (including household-level wind and solar) be less vulnerable?

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16 responses to “If You Liked Oil as a Strategic Weapon, You’ll Love This”

  1. Anonymous Avatar

    Another argument for onsite, distributed, micro-renewable energy production that could make the grid more resilient….

    ….Or, laying ground for a false flag attack that will discredit and make such individual power illegal so that utilities don’t have to upgrade to smart distribution technology and continue to profit from the grid and large scale energy production.

  2. Larry G Avatar

    ooooeeewwwhhh… this is one of those issues that can be thoughts of in different ways.

    Of course one of the fundamental rationales for the internet itself was that it was supposed to be “self healing”.

    In other words.. a distributed network that if part of it got damaged..it could instantly route around the damage.

    and it’s true.. it does work exactly that way but of course such a capability is at the same time a weakness when it comes to viruses and hacking….

    there are mature technologies to protect such a network though.


    so the WSJ article has a Luddite quality to you.. encouraged, in part, by journalistic ignorance/sensationalism.

    The SPRNET is what links your nations warships…subs and other strategic defense assets together and actually allows remote satellite control linkage of drones on tactical missions in Afghanistan and Iraq from control rooms in Tuscon, Arizona.

    so.. the electrical grid.. if we want to treat it as a strategic asset to be protected from hackers.. we can do it… just put it on a separate network with each node in a secure facility and all communication including the packets – encrypted.

    if a SIPRNET-style internet though can be attacked (from within) but folks .. remember.. our fleet of air craft carries, attack subs and “boomers” all are on a ‘distributed” internet-type network.

    and if our electrical grid is ever going to be able to properly load-balance it’s sources of electrical power… like moving electricity from solar panels and wind turbines to where it is needed.. our grid needs to be modernized.

    the problem that we have nowdays with the 24hr news cycle staffed by bored gen x,y, zers… is almost a ‘need’ for excitement.

    If we want excitement.. consider a North Korean satellite (as opposed to a nuclear ballistic missile).. just a satellite …bashing crudely (but effectively) into our satellites that carry the SIPRNET oh. and we’ll throw in the GPS ones just for giggles and grins…

    those reporters.. need to get a life…

  3. E M Risse Avatar
    E M Risse

    Anon 9:25 has a point about the false flag attack but…

    Onsite, distriubted, micro-renewable energy production has the same cumulative disaggreagtion impact as Large, Private Vehicles (Autonomobiles).

    It would work for a high-tec agrarian society living and working on 20 and 30 acre parcels — lets say a population of 30 million US of A wide.

    What the Commission really needs to look into is Regional Grids with Community regulation, Village control and Neighborhood genration.

    What the Commission REALLY needs to understand is the need for Fundamental Transformation of governace structure.

    Did someone say a few Somali’s just captured a container ship?


  4. E M Risse Avatar
    E M Risse


    In case you have not noticed, the Internet is being flooded with Enterprises and Institutions desperate to make some money.

    The whole idea of a distributed network assumes a finite number of potential users.

    You may be right about the reporters not understanding the security requirements of a Grid management system but the bigger point is:

    Can you name one thing that the federal / state dominated governace structure has done completely RIGHT — so, for example there is no chance of a state-sponsored hacker breaking in — during the past decade?

    They cannot even police the prosecuters.


  5. Larry G Avatar

    well EMR.. you’ve basically got two choices – government as imperfect as it is .. preferably representative government as partisan as it has become or what?

    “completely right” is a pretty high standard for just about any enterprise – governmental or otherwise….

    also.. anyone ever hear of this:

    Power line communication or power line carrier (PLC), also known as Power line Digital Subscriber Line (PDSL), mains communication, power line telecom (PLT), or power line networking (PLN), is a system for carrying data on a conductor also used for electric power transmission. Broadband over Power Lines (BPL)”


    in other words.. an internet over the grid.. which only goes where the grid goes – physically so .. no one overseas can hack into it unless you’ve got it connected to the worldwide internet.

    EMR – guy – you are swimming so far upstream on “regional” that it’s comical…

    .. the internet – is no regional …ergo.. information does not know regional boundaries …ergo… commerce..goods and services.. and electricity cannot be restricted or restrained to regional…. that cow left that barn a long, long time ago….

    the world is what it is not what it was .. and there is no going back… right?

    look forward guy.. to a world that will be technological… will leverage technology every which way but loose….

    there will be no kings who outlaw technology nor dysfunctional governance….

    only people.. wanting better/more in a free society can do that…

    more and better does not necessarily mean consumptive… many folks want to use technology to reduce consumption… to live gentler on the earth…

  6. Anonymous Avatar

    Interesting story but nothing new, really. Targeting infrastructure has always a major endeavor. Back in World War II, my Mom worked briefly for a phone company and a railroad drafting maps of sensitive connections and junctions that she had to keep in a vault every night for fear German or Japanese spies would find out.
    The Chinese especially have been interested in cyperwarfare and the Russians are talented and capable in this regard.
    But you must assume that the U.S., too, has very good intelligence on where switches, servers, substatations, fiber optics links, water and sewer etc. are located in China and Russia. We’ve had plenty of time to do so.
    During the cold war, the U.S. banned sales of fiber optics to the USSR because it would make it harder for us to tap their communications, which we did with impunity either through aerial recon or ultra secret submarine taps of their underwater communications cables. One famous case was code-named “Iy Bells” and involved a U.S. Navy sub tap;ping a cable in the Sea of Okhotsk for at least a year. It would put a tap on the cable and come back a year later for lots of military back anf forth..
    When I was there as a correspondent in the 1980s, whenever the Foreign Mininstry had a slow news day, they’d trot out the railway mystery if the clicking geiger counter. At the time, the Soviets were putting advanced ICBMs targeted at the U.S. on railcars hidden among traffic along the TransSiberian. Some “hostile intelligence organs,” the Foreign Mininstry claimed, snuck a device capable of collecting radioactivity from a warhead onto a sea-rail container that was dropped off in the Far East port of Nahodka and was to make the journey all the way across the country to St. Petersburg. It took two weeks and all the while the instrument clicked away and took meaurements looking for staging areas for the rail-based iCBMs. I assume the Sovs got the device at some point. They told us this story over and over. They loved it!

    Peter Galuszka

  7. Mirela Avatar

    I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don’t know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.



  8. Groveton Avatar

    Jim Bacon!

    Good to see you back on the blog! I thought your article was well organized and important.

    LarryG – Yes, you could disconnect the network that runs the electrical grid from everything else. That would help. However, even a disconnected network uses computers, routers and other computers that run Commercial Off The Shelf Software (COTS). So, I can hack into your “sealed” network if I can get a program into the software that runs that network. In addition, a closed network would drastically curtail your green program. For example, a home with solar panels could provide electricity for the home and generate extra electricity some days. It could store energy in home batteries for some time. But it would need to draw electricity from the grid on other days. So, how does this “green home” (or local wind farms, etc) communicate with the electric company if the electric company is on a closed network?

    Peter is somewhat right about the history of electronic snooping. What has changed is the reliance that society has on the internet. I’ve always imagined a story called, “The Day the Internet Died” about an internet wide outage of one month. How would life in America change day-by-day if the internet was taken out. ATMs wouldn’t work. Gasoline deliveries would be affected. The power grid might not work at all. I think if you work it out – a lot of people would die.

    So, cybersecurity is a big issue because the cyber economy has grown to the point that the underlying economy can’t really function without the internet underneath.

    If you believe AIG was too big to fail I think you’d find the internet way too big to fail

  9. charlie Avatar

    Jim, it is nice to see you well written pieces back on the blog.

    But take a deep breath on this one. there’s nothing here.

    Some history: 1996 is when this was first reported. It was a scare game in order to get money for critical infrastructure protection. Right now, there are still a lot of politics on this: DHS vs. NSA, the Air Force trying to take over aspects of cybersecurity, and the need for money money in a post bush era.

    I’d bet dollar to donuts that this “penetration” is basically some malware on a customer service rep’s computer that he got while browsing for porn. That’s a long way from taking down a electric grid. There is an easy way to protect against this: make sure anything critical is not connected to the internet.

    Whatever the merits of a “grid” vs “distributed” power cybersecurity isn’t one of them. There is a very theoretical argument that having thousands of systems and thousands of standards make it harder for attackers to go after computer systems. While true, the answer with critical infrastructure is to just unplug them from the internet. Creates massive inefficency but it is safe from the outside.

  10. Larry G Avatar

    “So, how does this “green home” (or local wind farms, etc) communicate with the electric company if the electric company is on a closed network?”

    okay guys.

    go look up “broadband over power lines…

    here’s a start:



    the difference is that your power grid is physically contained within the U.S.

    yes.. it could be hacked into INSIDE of the U.S. but it would be disconnected from the world wide web.. where nefarious dudes in the bowels of Russia or China or Iran could plunk away on their keyboards while eating a local variety of quiche.

    okay.. hacking away INSIDE of the US.. means.. that you can track those dudes down and send the appropriate “fuzz” to bust them..

    no can do.. when the dudes on in St. Petersburg or HungFU.

    perhaps a subtle distinction but an important one.

    which.. we should not expect a bunch of Gen Xer “journalists” to “get”.

    and no . not pointing the dart at Jim Bacon… and I also am glad to see his pen in action again…

  11. Anonymous Avatar

    All we gotta do is put in a few million byass transformers, couplers, and repeaters, plus synchronize all the data going into all the pieces of the grid at a few hundred thousand access points.

    Nothing to it.


  12. Larry G Avatar

    did you say STIMULUS?


  13. Anonymous Avatar

    “Be very wary of utilities asking for free emissions permits, says cap-and-dividend proponent Peter Barnes, in Grist: “We may be heading for yet another giveaway of public wealth to private corporations—first banks, then auto companies, now utilities.” “


    Re stimulus.

    Why would the government provide stimulus to the power companies to compete in providing a service that other companies are already cimpeting to provide?

    Is there som huge savings or net social benefit here that I’m missing? Or does this just meanthat they will add a little bit to millions of urban power bills so they can provide bradband to a handful in the hinterlands?

    Is this going to make it marginally less likely for people to want to get off the grid?


  14. Anonymous Avatar

    “Welfare Impacts of Rural Electrification: A Case Study from Bangladesh

    by Shahidur R. Khandker, Douglas F. Barnes, Hussain A. Samad

    – Using a cross-sectional survey conducted in 2005 of some 20,000 households in rural Bangladesh, this paper studies the welfare impacts of households’ grid connectivity. Based on rigorous econometric estimation techniques, this study finds that grid electrification has significant positive impacts on households’ income, expenditure, and educational outcomes.

    Khandker, S.R., D.F. Barnes, H.A. Samad (2009). “Welfare Impacts of Rural Electrification: A Case Study from Bangladesh.” Policy Research Working Paper no. WPS 4859, March 2009.”


    OK, EMR. I know the cost/benefit is differentin Bangladesh than in the US. but you think rural electrification is a waste, what say you?

    We should WANT them to be electrified so we can hack into THEIR system if wee need to, right?


  15. Anonymous Avatar

    “If the question is whether India will take on binding emission reduction commitments, the answer is no. It is morally wrong for us to agree to reduce when 40 percent of Indians do not have access to electricity,”


    “India Rejects Calls For Emission Cuts”


  16. Anonymous Avatar

    Texas installed almost 2,700 megawatts of wind power ast year. Only two countries in the world installed that much wind in 2008. If Texas were a country—it would rank 6th in the world in wind power capacity.

    The sprawling 19th congressional district in the northwest part of the state alone has about as much wind power as all of Denmark, and more than 10% of all the wind power in the entire U.S.

    Wind power has thrived because Texas is wide-open—both geographically and politically. There are plenty of open spaces to put wind farms and few barriers to building them.

    California, once the national leader in wind power now ranks third nationally behind Iowa. In 2008, Texas installed 25 wind farms; California built two. For every 100 megawatts of wind power Texas installed last year, California built 3 megawatts.

    California aims to get 33% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020. For California—not to say the entire country–that will be a really uphill struggle unless it overcomes the problems that have hamstrung wind-power development there.

    Those boil down to problems getting permits for new wind farms and problems building new transmission lines to carry the juice.

    Paraphrased from Environmental Capital


    It’s all aboput property rights.


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