In the heart of Hertz

By Dr. Lorenz Steinke
In his thriller “Blackout,” Marc Elsberg describes the collapse of civilization within just a few days due to catastrophic failure of the power grids. How vulnerable are modern societies really when blackouts occur?
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50 or 60 hertz per second

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That’s the magical frequency at which alternating current pulsates through the power grids all over the world. Even a one-percent drop in frequency by insufficient feed-in leads to problems and large-scale consumers are “forced out.”

Shutting down the power grid is the fastest and most effective way to paralyze a society

Marc Elsberg, author of the novel “Blackout”

Frequency levels that are too high due to excessive availability of electricity are dangerous, too: Synchronous motors and grid-cycled clocks run too fast, power stations, wind turbines and solar systems are disconnected from the grid, and pumped storage stations push massive amounts of water uphill into dams for intermediate storage of the surplus energy. Power grids require constant regulation in order to work smoothly.

007-style cyber attacks

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In the 2012 novel “Blackout,” hackers upset this sensitive equilibrium.

They tamper with smart meters and cause power supply to break down in the process. Pure fiction? Far from it, say experts such as Linus Neumann from the Chaos Computer Club. The smart meters can only be protected against attacks with difficulty.

That fact that this depicted scenario is possible was confirmed in a study conducted by the German parliament

Marc Elsberg, author of the novel “Blackout”

For instance, in December 2016, hackers invade the systems of Ukrainian energy suppliers and knock out the power grid for hours. Their malware causes machines to overheat, lines to melt, and deactivates 27 substations. It takes months to repair the damage. That such attacks are also directed by foreign countries is no longer a secret: cyberattacks as a government service. The mere threat of being able to cause grids to collapse is “21st-century gunboat diplomacy,” says Robert M. Chesney, a law professor at the University of Texas, in the New York Times. Attackers not only focus on the superpowers China, Russia and the United States, but also on transit countries for electric power like Germany.

The decentralization of the power grids due to the energy transition process plays into the hands of hackers. The more players are sitting at the table the more vulnerabilities exist in IT systems. And since everything is connected with everything else, the weakest link in the chain can cause everything to collapse.

Integrated system is the Achilles heel

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However, it doesn’t necessarily take criminal energy to paralyze power grids.

In 1989, a solar storm caused an overload on power lines in the Canadian province of Québec. In cases like that, local problems will soon spread. The most recent example in South America illustrates the point. In June 2019, Uruguay, Argentina and parts of Brazil and Chile – nearly 50 million people – were without electric power, presumably as the result of a storm. The big picture, the global interaction of power stations, grids and consumers, is the Achilles heel of any energy supply system.

Hospitals, rescue control centers or civil defense organizations have stand-alone solutions in the form of emergency generators. Even so, they hardly suffice to compensate for prolonged power outages because diesel fuel would be in scarce supply after just a few days. Only a very small number of filling stations have backup generators for their electric fuel pumps.

Transportation collapses

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In the event of a power outage, transportation would soon grind to a halt, too.

Air traffic would cease first, because practically everything at an airport depends on electric power supply. Trains, including those powered by diesel engines, would soon stop running, too because switches and signals are electrically controlled. The situation in the streets would hardly look any better. Traffic lights, traffic control systems or barriers in parking garages all need electricity, just like the growing number of electric cars.

It is possible, it can happen. It can be a natural reason, it can be an attack

Marc Elsberg, author of the novel “Blackout”

But drivers of vehicles with IC engines would not be able to refill their tanks either because none of the fuel pumps would work anymore. Ships would continue to run for a while because large ocean-going vessels are floating power stations producing their own electricity. However, without radio communications and Radar, berthing them in narrow ports would be like walking on a tightrope. Plus, when it comes to wireless systems, the cellphone networks would fail as well and landline telephone systems and exchanges are connected to the power grid, too.

No food, no internet

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Once electric power is gone, supermarkets would have to dispose of spoiled food following the failure of their refrigeration systems.

Merchandise management and digital payment systems at cash register terminals would be dead. The police would have to protect shopping centers against looters. That’s why civil defense officials recommend that people store a 14-day supply of non-perishable food and drinking water as a minimum. So-called preppers even store provisions to last them for a year or more.

I have a supply of food and water for about ten days, plus matches, a flashlight and a crank radio – that’s all

Marc Elsberg, author of the novel “Blackout”

In our own four walls, we would soon feel uncomfortable, too. Stoves, ovens, fridges, phones, computers, internet and TVs would fail, but so would increasingly popular domestic engineering systems such as electric blinds, air conditioners and heat pumps. Even the owners of conventional heating systems would soon be sitting in the cold because oil or gas burners ignite their flames about six times per hour using household electricity.

The internet was originally supposed to be robust enough to survive a nuclear war, but a global blackout would deactivate most data centers. Problems would also be encountered in many areas of industrial operations. A PC according to the ATX standard can run for a mere 17 milliseconds without power before starting to lose data.

What can be done?

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In a nutshell: Without electricity, the lights would literally go out on our planet – and not only the lights.

The prevention of blackouts requires sufficient generation and distribution capacities, but also storage options for, as an example, unused electricity that was regeneratively produced. The automotive and industrial supplier Schaeffler is working on various industrial projects, such as the conversion of excess electricity into, for example, hydrogen. And it needs reliable control mechanisms that intervene when power supply and demand diverge, and IT systems that are protected against third-party interventions.

The fact that experts detect considerable deficits especially regarding the latter is anything but reassuring: “It’s scary to see that it [IT] is in such desolate condition,” IT consultant Tim Philipp Schäfers for instance recently warned on “planet e,” a program on German television channel ZDF. Linus Neumann from the Chaos Computer Club suggests that energy suppliers be made liable for damages caused by tampering. The looming threat of claims amounting to billions of dollars or euros should motivate them to take the best possible precautions for their systems.

Higher security – be it in data networks or power grids – is technically feasible. However, consumers have to understand that additional security comes at a price, but a stab into the “heart of hertz” resulting in a massive blackout is likely to cost a lot more.

12 spectacular blackouts

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  • November 9, 1965
    A programming fault in a protection relay disables a main power line in Ontario/Canada. 30 million people in the northeast of America are without power. Many assume that it’s due to a nuclear war.

  • July 13, 1977
    Lightning bolts at night knock out New York City’s power supply, resulting in looting and vandalism. The police arrest 3,800 people.

  • September 28, 2003
    In Switzerland, a 380-kilovolt line fails that supplies Italy with electricity. The Italian power grid subsequently collapses, leaving 57 million people sitting in the dark.

  • July 12, 2004
    Just a few weeks before the Olympic Games, seven million people living around Athens have no electric power. The reason for the blackout: too many air conditioning systems running at the same time.

  • June 22, 2005
    An overload circuit breaker paralyzes the entire railroad system in Switzerland. 200,000 commuters are stuck in 1,500 trains for three hours at high summer temperatures.

  • November 4, 2006
    Due to a disconnection fault in a high-voltage line above the Ems River in northern Germany, some 15 million people in Central, Western and Southern Europe have no electricity for 1.5 hours.

  • Jan/Feb 2008
    Four million people in the Chinese city of Xhenzhou have to live without electricity for nearly two weeks. Winter storms have paralyzed the grid.

  • November 10–20, 2009
    A defect at the Itaipú Dam in the south of Brazil disconnects 87 million people from the power grid – including in the Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo metropolitan areas.

  • July 31, 2012
    Due to an overload, the grid in 20 of 28 Indian provinces collapses. 600 million people have no electricity – the biggest blackout in history.

  • November 10, 2014
    At noon, following a defect, the main power line from India breaks down in Bangladesh. 156 million people are without electricity for ten hours.

  • January 26, 2015
    Pakistani rebels blow up the mast of a high-voltage line. 80 percent of the country comes to a halt, 140 million people are affected.

  • March 31, 2015
    Several power stations fail, the Turkish grid is disconnected from the European grid as a precaution and collapses. 76 million people have no electricity for nine hours.

Marc Elsberg

© Marc Elsberg
The full interview with Marc Elsberg

Born in Vienna in 1967, Marc Elsberg goes on to study industrial design and joins an advertising agency as a graphic designer. He gradually discovers his passion for writing, becomes a copywriter, strategy consultant and creative director for advertising in Vienna and Hamburg, and a columnist of the Austrian daily “Der Standard.” He achieves his breakthrough as a novelist with his international bestseller “Blackout – tomorrow will be too late”,” followed by the science thriller “Zero – they know what you do”. Both thrillers are recognized as “knowledge book of the year” in the entertainment rubric by “bild der wissenschaft,” a popular monthly science magazine. Today, Marc Elsberg lives and works in Vienna and is an in-demand dialog partner of the political and business communities.

Dr. Lorenz Steinke
Author Dr. Lorenz Steinke
Dr. Lorenz Steinke has often had to deal with the reliability of grids in his professional life. That’s why he trusts redundant systems – and will soon produce his own electricity. A photovoltaic system for the roof of his home has already been ordered: for the sake of the environment – and the future of his children.