Winter 2019

If the Lights Go off ... Is Resilience the New Black?

James Arbuthnot

You rely on electricity. You’re well aware of that, of course; you know that you need electricity to switch on the light, charge your telephone, run the kettle, give you the internet and your emails (a mixed blessing, you think). Do you ever wonder what life would be like without it?

Because electricity is vulnerable. An effective cyber-attack on the National Grid (which is under sustained probing all day, every day), a natural phenomenon such as a large solar flare (Carrington Event, see below), human failings or malice, even a sniper attack on a generator (2013 Metcalf sniper attack, see below) — any one of these might cut off our electricity. One day one of them will happen.

The consequences of a prolonged power outage would be more than turning off the lights and the internet, because every single piece of technology on which we now depend so completely is powered by electricity. That dependency has become our potential single point of failure. And everything is now connected to everything else, so that what wasn’t brought down by the initial event would be brought down by a cascade effect.

No power would mean no water (pumped by electricity); fires could not be extinguished, toilets could not be flushed. That alone would make cities uninhabitable. There would be no cash tills, so shops couldn’t sell you food — and they wouldn’t have it to sell because of our reliance on just-in-time delivery. Nobody would know what was going on, because there would be no communications, there being no functioning telephone aerials. So our emergency services could not operate. 

Order would break down.

Do you have a plan to deal with this? Of course you don’t — you rely on the Government to deal with such a catastrophe. Your faith is misplaced. Governments across the world are only just beginning to wake up to the threat we all face, and while they are starting to recognise that there may be a problem, they are nowhere near identifying solutions. They believe that a problem without (as they think) a solution should not be exposed to public scrutiny for fear of worrying the public.

But there are solutions, and the first part of those involves the very public that Governments don’t want to worry. If the multiple vulnerabilities of the electricity sector are explained to the public, we will all be able to think about and to discuss what the answers might be. The ingenuity and the passion of the people of the world has recently been shown by Extinction Rebellion in their approach to climate change, and could be deployed for the public good in relation to our dependency on electricity.

If public discussion is the first part of the solution, the second part is education and training. Every organisation should have a major event contingency plan — printed in hard copies as well as being on computers. To cope with a potential loss of communications, everyone should know what their role is in the event of a major event, and should begin to carry out that role even without instructions. And military planners will agree that a plan not exercised is no plan at all, so every organisation — and everyone in it — should practise their major event plan. This won’t happen if governments persist in not worrying the public.

There are other elements that need to go into a contingency plan. We need spare parts, disconnected so that they are quarantined from danger. We need several different ways of achieving one desired result. This may involve separate and redundant networks of processes, communication and power supply. But the key component in all of this is a recognition that bad things will from time to time happen.

It is understandable that we spend a lot of our energies trying to stop them happening, but some of our energies need to be devoted to what happens when they do, and to working out how we bounce back (or bounce forward to the new realities), and how resilient we are in the face of bad things.

Resilience is becoming the new black. There are many different reasons for building up the resilience of our individuals, companies, organisations and countries and what works against one threat may often be effective against others. A resilient organisation is adaptable, diverse, open, geographically flexible, constantly and quickly evaluating where and how it needs to change. And if it were possible — I believe it is — to harness market forces as well as government regulation to make resilience profitable, that would begin to resolve and reduce our vulnerabilities.

Wikipedia (go on, look at it quickly before the electricity disappears) covers the Carrington Event solar flare and the Metcalf sniper attack. Either or both could happen to you and me tomorrow, and could lead to the collapse of the world’s financial system, starvation and anarchy. I’d rather avoid that. Wouldn’t you?

The writer is Chairman at Electricity Resilience Ltd and a former MP and Defence Minister