A blackout

It is generally recognized that energy is the engine of the economy: witness the close to direct relationship between energy use per person and wealth level. One can even go further: energy is the lifeline of our modern society. I wonder how many of our readers have read the book Blackout by the Austrian author Marc Elsberg. It is a novel in which the author describes the consequences of a Europe-wide blackout caused by malware and hackers. The author appears to have a sound knowledge of the electricity supply system, including power plants, transmission and distribution and control systems. He even admits that he has restricted himself in revealing all the details about the power system, since he fears that otherwise he might educate people with criminal intentions.

The story features a guy with great skills in information technology which he sometimes uses as a hacker without having bad intentions. I am not going to give the plot away, but for us as specialists in the field of distributed generation, the story is very interesting. On the first day of the blackout people try to live with the situation, although many services essential for our society stop. The pumps of the sewage systems do not work anymore, causing real inconveniences. Refrigerators stop working, at home as well as in supermarkets. Dairy farmers who have not invested in a generating set cannot milk their cows anymore. Even the petrol pumps at filling stations cease to run. Laptops, mobile phones and the associated antenna systems have their backup batteries, but after a couple of hours all information streams stop. Heating systems stop functioning since their pumps and control systems do not work anymore. Yet, the first day, people try to help each other and exchange basic things such as canned food.

After one day, since it is winter, buildings have lost most of their heat and the basic resources get scarcer since the transport sector runs out of fuel. Panic buying results in aggression and fighting. Governments are having emergency meetings and the police and the military are called to maintain order. All of a sudden, the initial social behaviour of helping and sharing turns into selfishness and caring only for one’s own family. Public lighting does not work anymore and thieves raid throughout the night. A general panic breaks out.

After just a few days, massive fires are starting in inner cities and the fire brigade is unable to act. Many people die because of accidents, disasters and aggression. Nuclear power plants lose their capacity to cool the reactors since the emergency diesel generators run out of fuel, and situations such as Chernobyl and Fukushima threaten. Food is becoming scarce, and the few homes with wood burners are filled up with people wanting to escape freezing. Within a timespan of a few days, the whole civilization breaks down.

In the book, the hobby hacker fortunately helps to find the cause of the problems and the terrorists responsible are stopped. The author is, however, too optimistic on how the electricity supply is started up again. Many main transmission lines have been damaged by the terrorists and restoring Europe-wide synchronization is not an easy job. However, the main message of the book is that a continent-wide electricity supply system that is fully controlled by a common data exchange and control system is very vulnerable.

Decentralized generation that can operate autonomously, with the possibility of easily separating distribution sections, offers an excellent solution for safeguarding against a massive blackout. On 22 June these issues will be treated by specialists during a special session of the POWER-GEN Europe conference in Milan. You are very welcome to participate.

Dr Jacob Klimstra, Managing Editor