Where the hacking must stop

20 April 2001

Some computer hackers seek to exculpate themselves by claiming that they want only to serve the public by exposing systems’ insecurity and the inadequacies of those responsible. One enthusiastic American practitioner of the black hacking art announced proudly that he could easily shut down about thirty electrical utility grids in his country. He added that he was warning the utilities of what he could do: and he took credit for showing them the armorial chinks that they would therefore close against less scrupulous hackers.

If numbers of grids have indeed been shut down by computer hacking marauders, the news does not seem to have got about. I gather that some hackers’ warnings have been discounted, even ridiculed, by utilities, but perhaps others have been convincing enough to bring about protective action and thus help account for the rarity of grid loss reports.

For my part I am aghast at the mere possibility that raiders might, without bombs, bullets or any direct physical violence, subtly sabotage whole power networks. I cannot but wonder whether the eerie skill of hackers can always be prevented from causing any vast disruptions. Maybe ever more extensive integration of power systems is not such a good idea after all, and what the world really needs is myriad fuel cells, microturbines, Stirling engines, renewably energised generators and all the other independent power units that we keep hearing about from the perhaps not-so-lunatic fringe.

The followers of R Buckminster Fuller, whose campaign for a worldwide grid prompted my musings in last June’s MPS, may also have new cause for thought. What a prize, what a temptation, would be Bucky’s ‘world-around electromagnetic power network’ to a devoted hacker!

To eradicate such hacking threats, must we hack down all our grids?

How not to help wind farmers

The power sources, wind and plutonium, are chosen for comparison by Marc Fioravanti in a report published by the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research.* Their common feature seems to be seen by the author as their theoretical potential for long-term energy supply. What he begrudges is the greater investment that has been made in fast breeder reactor research than in wind turbines. What he favours is explicit repudiation of ‘failed’ plutonium and strong promotion of wind farming instead. But he acknowledges that wind farming demands a lot of land and does have some environmental effects that are not universally admired, so he argues for aeoliculture offshore.

I was told about Fioravanti’s thesis at about the same time as I read a report in The Wall Street Journal on the Enron energy corporation’s abandonment of a project to generate power for Los Angeles in the Tehachapi Mountains. Projected was not a fast breeder reactor (heaven forbid!) but a 53-machine wind farm. Apparently the National Audubon Society, perhaps the USA’s best-known bird-protection organisation, had objected because the ridgeway site of the farm was probably crossed by the glide-paths of condors, an endangered species. With their nine-foot (three-metre) wingspans, these impressive scavengers could be likely victims of whirling rotor blades.

According to The Wall Street Journal, Enron did not give up its wind farm idea but transferred its affections to ranch country elsewhere in California. I guess that there was no offshore site within range. But, had there been, I guess that the threat to marine bird life might have made it unsuitable too.

I do not suggest that this condor story damages Fioravanti’s case. He admits that wind farm costs are higher offshore than on, and that neither mariners nor marine ecologists may like turbine archipelagos better than landlubbers and onshore ecologists like turbine plantations. But he does prefer the archipelagos greatly to plutonium-fuelled reactors. And what I do suggest is that that is no more relevant to the general case for wind power than is the condor story. I do wonder whether it was altogether smart of him to advocate a particular low-density and intermittent renewable energy source – and a promising one – by contrasting it with a particular form of nuclear power that has been largely abandoned.

For the time being, anyway.

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