Posted on Thursday, October 12th, 2017 in Urban security

Although we are not always aware of it, our daily activities, economies and societies are heavily reliant on the supply of power. Turning on the lights in our homes, flushing our toilet and charging our phones are just a few small examples of small things we do on a daily basis and that we tend to take for granted. On a bigger scale, our public transportation systems, elevators and traffic lights are also dependent on power, and a simple disruption could have a gigantic impact. How can we protect our electricity networks from outside threats, and ensure that our power supply functions the way we need it to?

Just for a second, imagine being stuck in an elevator during a power outage, having to weave your way through traffic without working traffic lights, or getting trapped in a subway: these situations are not just imaginary, but could actually take place in real life. Power disruptions can range from small-scale local power outages, such as a squirrel chewing on a power cable or a power disruption caused by a storm, to serious large-scale blackouts. With a substantial increase in cyber attacks and extreme weather conditions, our electricity networks are more vulnerable than ever before.


Blackout New York City 1977

One of the most well-known blackouts is the one that occurred in New York City in 1977, which ended up “disrupting the lives of nearly nine million people” after a storm shut down the entire city’s power supply.

“Thousands of subway riders were trapped in trains that stopped between stations. Homes and apartments went black. Thousands of people were trapped in elevators. Others stumbled and streamed from theaters, restaurants, and late-closing shops and office buildings.”

(New York Times)

People were stuck in elevators for hours on end, with no way of getting out. Commuters who were stuck in subway trains gave up on the idea of getting home and spent the night sleeping at the station, and cars clogged every road in the city. With a lack of ventilation, no idea about when the power would   come back on and limited food supplies, it is no surprise that people panicked and that the atmosphere rapidly turned sour.

The power outage in New York City quickly gave rise to social and civil unrest, as angry citizens lashed out at everything and everyone in their vicinity. Every item sold by grocery shops, from food to pampers, was being taken by looters. The police had their hands full, as they had to deal with a high number of looting, arson and vandalism incidents and arrests. In the following 25 hours it took to get the power operating again, there were over 1,000 fires and 3,700 individuals were arrested for looting and rioting, with over $300 million of damages. Despite a substantial number of emergency back-up generators, nothing could prevent this serious disruption of society or the civil unrest that went along with it.


Modern-day challenges

Nowadays, we are much better prepared for these types of situations, thanks to both technological advancements and increased awareness of the importance of our critical infrastructures. However, modern-day challenges such as cyber attacks and population growth are constantly putting stress on our networks  – and the chances of a blackout are higher than we might expect. When a power grid in Ukraine was attacked by hackers in 2015, leaving 80,000 citizens without power for several hours, other countries were also quick to realize that this could happen virtually anywhere. With countries such as North Korea allegedly hacking into “highly classified military documents”, it is crucial to understand that we do not just need to protect our physical infrastructures. We also need to invest in the cyber security of these networks, and the systems that operate them, to prevent cyber attacks from disrupting our power supply.

Cyber attacks are not the only threat to our critical infrastructures. Natural disasters can also cause substantial damage to our networks. Hurrican Irma and Hurricane Maria, which hit Puerto Rico less than two months ago, caused a massive power outage affecting 3.5 million citizens. 22 days after Hurricane Maria, several parts of the island are still “cut off from the outside world” with no clue of when their power will be coming back on. As many of Puerto Rico’s citizens are still struggling to gain access to basic necessities such as food, water, fuel and cellphone service, we are once again confronted with the disruptive effects of a blackout. Although there have not been reports of mass civil unrest, it is clear that this is not a durable situation. It is crucial for us to start thinking of ways to prevent these blackouts and safeguard our electricity networks.


American Blackout – National Geographic

Although this National Geographic movie from 2013 is a fictional movie, it is based on very real blackouts that have occurred in the past and that could occur again in the future – if we fail to take the necessary measures.


Digital twin cities


Blackouts clearly have the ability to disrupt society, and the effects can range from a small inconvenience to mass civil unrest. It is crucial for city management, local government and first-responders to have all the necessary insight into their electricity networks, in order to prevent blackouts or mitigate their damage when they do occur. SIM-CI’s Digital Twin Cities, virtual copies of real cities and all of their urban networks, can help decision-makers find out where their cities’ vulnerabilities lie. If you would like to receive more information about how you can manage the risks of a power outage, by pre-emptively running simulations and preparing for precarious scenarios, please refer to our “Digital Twin Cities” information section.


Header image: Storm Sandy hurricane by Stefan Leijon,  CC BY-ND 2.0.