The goal of this organization is to establish our community as the go-to technology center for solutions to energy programs and projects. Since its inauguration around three and a half years ago, Energy Huntsville has grown from being a local industry organization to having a national footprint.
Energy Huntsville has a meeting on the third Tuesday of each month, which explains why I was to be found meandering my way around the US Space and Rocket Center earlier this week.
The first person I bumped into while grabbing a coffee (thank goodness for coffee) was Michael E. Gomien from Shearer & Associates, a company that bills itself as “Specialists in Facility & Security Engineering.” After complementing me on my Hawaiian shirt du jour (which, it has to be acknowledged, was rather spiffy), Michael enlightened me as to to some very interesting work he is involved in regarding protecting equipment and facilities against electromagnetic pulses (EMPs), with particular attention to the possibility of events caused by terrorists or naughty nation states (I added the “naughty” qualifier).
Most electronic engineers know that older technologies such as vacuum tubes are much less susceptible to damage from EMPs than are modern technologies such as transistors and silicon chips. Paradoxically, the smaller, faster, and more power-efficient we make modern electronic components, the more vulnerable they tend to become to EMPs.
As an aside most people have heard of early computer memories called magnetic-core stores, in which the 0 or 1 value of each binary digit was stored by magnetizing a tiny ferromagnetic donut-shaped core in one direction or the other. In addition to being able to retain its contents indefinitely without power, core store also had the advantage of being relatively unaffected by EMPs and radiation.
What is less-well-known is that magnetic cores can be used to implement logic functions that offer extremely high reliability and adaptability to extreme environments, including high-intensity radiation and EMPs. I have a book from 1969 called Digital Magnetic Logic sitting here in my office that makes for some very interesting reading, but we digress…
Of course, we don’t only have to protect ourselves against hostile forces — we also have Mother Nature to contend with. A major solar storm or lightning strike can cause a lot of damage to all sorts of things, including power grids. The reason I mention power grids in particular is that the topic of this month's main presentation, which was given by Sean P, Williams, President of Protection Strategies, Inc., was the TVC Secure Grid Initiative , where TVC stands for the Tennessee Valley Corridor — an area that encompassed 10 congressional districts, 32 research institutions, lots of private industry, and a plethora of DOD, DOE, NASA, and Air Force installations and bases in East and Middle Tennessee, North Alabama, Western North Carolina, Eastern Kentucky, and Southwest Virginia. (Phew! Try saying that last sentence ten times quickly.)
Sean started off by explaining why the North American power grid could rightfully be viewed as one of the seven wonders of the modern age. Unfortunately, he then went on to explain that the grid could not be more vulnerable if we'd set out to design it that way — it's highly complex, highly centralized while also being distributed across great distances, and highly interdependent on a global industrialized society (people, materials, and equipment). For example, some of the 500 KVA sub-systems upon which we rely can only be obtained from China (am I the only one who thinks this may not be the best idea?).
Just to add to the fun and frivolity, only around 20% of the grid is controlled by the government — the rest is owned by a large number of private companies. If this is anything like other organizations with which I've been involved, trying to get everyone to agree about something that involves spending money will be like herding cats.
Sean went on to consider the possibilities of damage caused by Mother Nature, Cyber Attack, and Physical Attack, including insider threats and domestic, foreign, and state-sponsored actors. He also discussed how the chances of a massive grid failure are moving toward the “critical” and “catastrophic” portions of the probability envelope.
I recall when we lost power for more than a week due to tornados taking out the feeds from our local power station back in April 2011, and I have to tell you that I've had enough cold showers to last me a lifetime. It really gives you a different perspective when you can’t buy gas or food or water, and your heating and cooling and refrigeration systems are out for the count, and your smartphones and TVs don’t work. And this affected only a relatively small area in the scheme of things — now try to imagine a large portion of the national grid being out of action for 6 months, 9 months, or even longer.
I'd like to tell you the good news, but there really wasn't any. The only tiny glimmer of hope is that we actually have the TVC Secure Grid Initiative . We can but hope that those who don the undergarments of authority and stride the corridors of power have a clue as to what's what, and also that they “pull their fingers out” and free up the scientific, technical, and engineering resources necessary for us to secure the grid against as many threat vectors as possible. “Of course, if I were a betting man…” said Max, sadly.