Another Reason to Transition: Russian Malware in Electric Grid

We are going to start an occasional series of posts pointing to the benefits to start transitioning your household and community to one that can thrive without fossil fuels. A side-effect of this transition is that you and yours can weather other natural disasters, power outages, economic disruptions, unemployment, and other current disruptions.

This is not to cry wolf be a fear monger. The risks shared in this series are simply to point out that if you have supplies and systems on hand to transition to a post-fossil-fuel world, you can better survive disruptions in our current conditions. You will soon be able to go to lowtechinstitute.org/transition for more resources.


In a recent interview on NPR, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders said:

The, you know, Russians will respond probably through cyberattacks, could impact energy and gas prices in America, food distribution, banking. Who knows?

This immediately perked my ears up, as the well-documented instability of our electric grid was made obvious last year when Texas was plunged into blackout during the winter’s coldest temperatures. One of the problems was getting the grid back up from a so-called black start, as the Texas Interchange is isolated from the rest of the US grids.

It is easy to think that the effects of geopolitical conflict in eastern Europe will be contained in the region. This was true in World War II, as only a handful of saboteurs, spies, and other active measures took place on US soil. But now with an “internet of things” extended to our electrical grid control systems, banking, communication networks, pipeline controls, and others (see SCADA), we could see vital infrastructure shut down from abroad.

Our goal at the institute is to encourage households and communities to build resilient systems for a future without fossil fuels. A side-effect of that transition is that we are able to better withstand other disruptions. Here, we’ll briefly discuss the shutdown of the national grids.

Our Electrical Grid

Our current grid is antiquated and held together by gum and shoelaces, figuratively at least. Imagine a rain barrel with a half dozen spigots. Each spigot turns on and off randomly. The barrel is filled by downspouts and hoses. You must vary the stream of water coming in to keep the water pressure at the taps constant by maintaining a static water level. You are constantly watching the outflow rate and trying to match it to the hose input. This is essentially what our grid control system does: balances the inputs and outputs to keep a constant stream of electrons arriving at your home, local factory, or other infrastructure.

The gird is a patchwork of private entities that do not keep their cybersecurity as tight as they should. They all share information to balance power plants’ output with the grid’s needs. An incursion is not only possible, but it has already occurred. The easiest way to crash the grid is to send false flow data to overload or under power the grid.

Bloomberg has the best summary of this I’ve seen in a short form. From just a few weeks ago, the article “What Happens When Russian Hackers Come for the Electrical Grid,” lays out the threats and our fumbling attempts to stop them. A few key points:

  • DARPA and the Pentagon run drills to protect and restart the grid after attacks, with varying success: “Attackers hijacked critical safety equipment, shut down communications, and sent fake data to confuse operators making crucial decisions. Utilities that were once confident they could keep from being hacked are no longer so sure. ‘What we’ve seen as a country is the adversary is going to be successful,’ says Walter Weiss, Radics’ program manager. ‘The issue then is, what do you do next?’ . . . At the beginning of one exercise, Weiss reminded a group of cybersecurity experts of their own lack of preparedness by simply flipping the circuit breaker to the conference room where they were gathered. Anyone who hadn’t brought extra laptop batteries or had forgotten a headlamp was basically out of commission.”
  • Russia has done this to other countries and their malware has already been found in our control system: “Russian hackers carried out the first major cyberattack on a nation’s electricity grid in late 2015, taking down part of the Ukrainian national grid for six hours. The following year they staged another attack on Ukraine . . . Shortly afterward, Russian malware was discovered inside as many as 10 U.S. utilities, including the operator of a nuclear plant in Kansas.”

If you’re interested in learning more, the Government Accountability Office recently published a report to congress saying essentially the same thing, in much more detail.

What Does This Mean For Us?

Whether or not this specific scenario comes to pass, minimal preparation is universal and can be useful in a variety of disasters — and it is the first step on the road to transitioning our households and communities to thrive after fossil fuels are no longer used.

Start with the resources you need to survive for a week without major services: water, food, clothing, and shelter (unfortunately the “week” scenario boils down to sound a like a prepper’s plan — remember, the goal is to start somewhere and build on it). Humans can only go a few days without water, so a weeks worth of water is about 7 gal/person at a minimum. A few 5-gal bottles put aside is a good start, but a purifier (filter, UV, chemical) or way to cook water and a reliable source are better. Remember that neighbors and other will also be counting on these resources, so make sure it is abundant. The easiest way to do this is have a drinking water dispenser (like this — not an endorsement) and a half dozen 5-gal jugs in reserve — use the oldest one first and replace it with a new one at the back of the line as part of your daily life.

We can go a few weeks without food, but our decision-making ability and quality of life suffer after a few days. A weeks worth of food (2000 cal/person/day) in shelf-stable goods can be easily stored in a tote, or made part of one’s pantry, cycling the foods and replacing them periodically to keep them fresh. Think about foods that can be eaten as-is or, better yet, have a way to cook foods using on-site energy, be it a solar oven or camp cook stove.

If we’re home, a weeks’ worth of clothes and shelter is easy to access, and may be especially important in colder weather. As with camping, one should consider the season, layers, and protective outer garments. In the home, having backup systems for heating in the winter may be life-saving, while access to extra water for cooling in the summer is equally important and should be thought about before disaster strikes. Having a tent and tarp available isn’t a bad idea, if feasible.

Beyond water, food, clothing, and shelter, we can think about power and waste. For a week, we can get by figuring these out on the fly, but if you have the bandwidth to plan for these, it makes life that much easier. A panel and battery pack to provide light at night and basic charging functions can be had for a few hundred dollars. Depending on what systems are functioning, access to the internet or radio can provide life-saving information.

As the popular children’s book says, Everyone Poops, and we have to deal with waste. At minimum, a few rolls of toilet paper, a shovel, and a plan to deal with waste should be enough to keep your effluent away from your living and eating space. If you’re confined indoors, look into a simple composting bucket toilet (a short discussion here — not an endorsement).

Finally, don’t go at this alone. Find a buddy. Staying in a home or apartment is preferable but not always possible. Having these resources available and mobile can be helpful if you have another household in your plan. Maybe it is a neighbor with better backup heat or power, who is willing to share space with you, providing you bring what you can. Or maybe you can be the partner to host. Preferably your “buddy” would be within walking distance.

Remember, this isn’t just about preparing for any one specific near-term threat or disaster — it is about thinking about our upcoming transition away from fossil fuels. As we have no credible plan to electrify everything and carry on as before, we should look to make our households and communities as locally self-sufficient as we can.


2 thoughts on “Another Reason to Transition: Russian Malware in Electric Grid

  1. The vast majority of folks believe tomorrow will be just like today, and justifiably so. Our brains strive to recognize patterns and we rely on those patterns to free up time to think big thoughts, It is one of Homo’s great adaptations. Consider approaching a green signal light while traveling in a vehicle, the prudent thing would seem to be to stop and make sure there are no semi-trucks approaching. But we don’t. We take for granted the normal pattern will hold and cross traffic will stop. As long as they do stop everything is fine.

    Normalcy bias is normal. “Hoarding” food and supplies, growing food and scenario building around uncommon (though potentially catastrophic) events is like stopping on a green light—it verges on antisocial behavior. But that’s OK, pattern thinking can also be a trap, innovation is just another word for breaking the pattern Don’t be concerned that most folks will be uninterested or even afraid of what you are attempting, maybe even call you a Prepper! Gasp! Number one, you are doing what you think best for your family and #2, you are providing a resource for others.

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting. Right! And our system’s real threat is the end of fossil fuels, which will happen one way or another. It’s a finite resource. That’s what we’re primarily focused on. So, pass through the green lights in your example, but don’t run off the bridge that isn’t finished (i.e., the end of fossil fuels). And being prepared for that makes us by default prepared for things like this. The difference, though, is that preppers are generally interested in protecting themselves and their family as a independent unit. We’re saying communities and society at large has to face this transition and do something. Thanks again.

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