Infrastructure Resilience and Black Sky Hazards

Witnesses

Lord Toby Harris,

UK coordinator for the Electricity Infrastructure Resilience Council, which coordinates academic, government and industry efforts to build more resilient infrastructure.

Dr Julius Weitzdörfer,

Research Associate at the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk.

Key Findings:

 

  • While they are uncommon, prolonged large scale infrastructure failures could strike at any time and there are numerous historical precedents we can learn from

  • Such low probability, high impact, scenarios involving common pool resources and lengthy time frames pose unique challenges for policy making and risk management

  • A key role for government is to bring together diverse groups, including other governments, industry and academics, to find collective solutions and work towards better preparedness.

The first meeting on Managing Technological Risks, held on Tuesday 5th June 2018, focused on infrastructure resilience and the risk of a ‘black sky’ event, a prolonged, wide area, electricity outage. 

 

Despite the fact that such events are undoubtedly rare, there is a significant probability that the UK will suffer some kind of catastrophic infrastructure failure in the long term. It is easy to ignore such low probability high impact events even though they happen, somewhere, all the time. Maybe an event like this will happen tomorrow, or maybe it will not happen for a generation or more, but we need to think about what we will do if and when it does happen. Those who will bear the consequences of such a catastrophe will not thank us if we don’t.

 

Lord Harris, began the meeting by arguing that black sky events could strike at any time. Indeed, the meeting heard to six scenarios that could potentially trigger this kind of event, each with strong precedents in the history of the UK and similar countries:

 

  1. A terrorist attack - in 1996 the IRA plotted to disrupt the London electricity supply by disrupting 6 major sub stations serving London, though police were able to foil this;

  2. An attack involving an electromagnetic pulse, like those produced by high atmosphere nuclear explosions - North Korea has stated that they are contemplating such attacks, which require much less targeting than conventional nuclear strikes;

  3. A cyber-attack - 2 years ago, the USA department of defence science board reported that there was so much penetration by state hackers into the US electricity supply that they could turn it off at will;

  4. Extreme conventional weather – Storm Desmond disrupted electricity supplies to more than 100,000 people in 2015 and required generators to be imported from as far away as Northern Ireland.

  5. Solar weather - the 1859 Carrington flare lead disruption of the telegraph network, even a relatively weak solar flare could knock out GPS satellites on which many systems depend; and

  6. Earthquakes and other seismic activity – while the UK is comparatively free of such event in the UK, we are increasingly reliant on an international grid that is more vulnerable to such risks.

A black sky event from any one of these scenarios could have devastating consequences. Some services would immediately stop working, for instance schools will close and this will also disrupt the lives of any key workers with childcare responsibility. While hospitals have backup power available they still rely on other systems that don’t, such as water and transport, and they also carry out a lot of care in the community, away from these supplies. 

 

Sewage systems rely on electric pumps that seldom have protected supplies, and if these fail then the system will solidify. Almost all modern telephones require electricity to operate, while mobile phone masts have backup batteries that only last for a few hours. Disruption to refrigeration will not only curtail ‘just in time’ food supply chains, but also lead to a build-up of toxic food waste that is hard to dispose of and will contribute to the spread of disease. 

 

Many people believe that in such circumstances martial law will be declared to preserve social order. However, our armed forces are no longer big enough to secure the entire country.

 

One important reason our infrastructure is not more resilient to this kind of scenario is that much work has gone into increasing the efficiency of systems and reducing costs, often by stripping away redundancies in the system, and thus its level resilience. Yet, because the consequences are so potentially catastrophic, we must ask more questions about how we could prevent, or at least respond, to these events. This is not just a requirement for politicians or society in general. We all need to consider what we can do. The reality is that people don’t want to imagine how they will cope without modern technologies, so we have to build in enough resilience to be able to meet their expectations, or people will not be able to cope.

 

In his evidence, Julius Weitzdörfer discussed the relationship between Black Sky events and global catastrophic risks, and argued that even relatively small blackouts differ from catastrophic threats not in kind but merely in terms of their scale, as both relate to the same three challenges:

 

  1. The tragedy of the commons (market failures and underinvestment in infrastructure – the classic common pool resource);

  2. The tragedy of the horizon (the failure to engage in long term thinking, because it is always easier to leave working on distant problems rather than seeking solutions when they may still be easiest to implement); and

  3. The tragedy of the uncommon (failure to pay enough attention to what is rare or unexpected, especially when one’s incentives are focused on observed results).

 

While these are systemic problems for policy makers, there are also important concrete things that can be done to manage the specific risks associated with Black Sky events, including:

 

  • Greater Preparedness at the corporate, insurance and political levels;

  • Renewing the contract for European solar monitoring satellites, which are vital if we are to get any substantial warning of a solar flare event;

  • Continuing to work with the EU to secure and improve the common market for electricity and the interconnectivity of grids. This is expected to supply 20% of the UK’s need and will be vitally important in the event of recovering from a black sky scenario; and

  • Improving the interconnectedness between academics, infrastructure and policy makers.

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