Saturday, December 4

Myths and realities of the ‘Great Blackout’: a threat that we have been talking about for years, but for which we are not yet prepared

Last week, the Austrian Defense Minister, Klaudia Tanner, assured that there is a high possibility (of “100% in the next five years”) of an electrical blackout that will massively affect not only Austria, but the whole of the European Union. Not only that, in fact. The same minister assured that the Government was working on it and they hoped to build an autonomous and resilient infrastructure that would allow the country to function. “The question is not if there will be a big blackout, but when”Tanner said.

And is that the possibility of a “Great Blackout” goes beyond mere speculation. On January 8, 2021, a failure of a substation in Croatia caused a frequency drop that was on the verge of putting the energy system of much of Europe out of play. The only thing Austria has done is try to learn from it: analyze the possible threats and see the capacity of the system to deal with them. The conclusions are dire.

It didn’t take much more for the news to go viral, but in this case it has. While the Ministry of Ecological Transition and Red Eléctrica came out to deny that Spain had this problem, Iker Jiménez himself has come to the fore to alert about the Great Blackout. What do we know about all this? Is it a real risk, a long shot, or science fiction?

The “Great Blackout”, the Phantom Menace

Zoran Kokanovic

Austria is not alone The idea that the international electricity grid could be compromised by a solar storm, a massive atmospheric phenomenon or a (cyber) terrorist attack has been on the table of governments, companies and military commanders for years. So much so that Switzerland is also working in a similar scenario given the dependence of the Alpine country on the European electricity grid and the idea that “a world without electricity could have much worse consequences than the pandemic.”

Germany, for its part, has been raising the need for 15 years (since the great six-day blackout that affected Münster in the middle of a snowstorm) be able to operational to deal with this. In the United States, more than five years ago, there are work plans to develop solutions to “survive” the chaos that a solar storm would produce. There are many more cases fundamentally because as the administration and logistics of a country are computerized, its dependence on electricity grows exponentially.

And Spain? In our country, the response to the concern of these days has been exhaustive. Perhaps too restrictive, in fact. The Minister of Ecological Transition, Teresa Ribera, flatly ruled out in Onda Cero that this could affect Spain and defended that “we can rule it out of our horizon of concerns.” According to Ribera, to the extent that the Spanish energy system “is almost an island [y que disponemos de casi el doble de potencia instalada de la que usamos], the risk of a type of blackout due to a system crash in third countries is very limited and there is the capacity to put a sanitary cordon in case that happens “.

Red Eléctrica de España (REE) joined the minister’s message and insisted that there is “no objective indication” to fear the Great Blackout may occur. However, reviewing the arguments of the Ministry and REE we realize that they are right if we limit ourselves to talking about the effects that the European blackout would have in Spain. There, the arguments are solid and the authorities “make a virtue of necessity”: our country has the capacity to operate calmly. With tranquility, yes; but not without problems: in Spain we have already seen major blackouts in recent years (two in Tenerife in less than ten months) and everything suggests that the state of the network is far from optimal.

What to do in case of zero energy? But it is that even in the case that the Ministry and the operator of the electricity system are right, the threats detailed by the Austrian Ministry of Defense are much broader. Is Spain ready to a solar storm that will fry electronic systems of all country? What would happen if a computer attack took the network out of play as it happened? in other State institutions? Can our logistics network work “blindly” and guarantee the necessary supply?

Unfortunately, all these questions remain unanswered despite the fact that we have spent years talking about different threats of this type. Already in 2017 the Spanish Association of Civil Protection for Space Weather registered in Congress the request to develop a national plan ‘anti-solar blackout’ and the response of their honorable Members was send the petition to the agriculture commission. The metaphor speaks for itself. Nevertheless it’s time to start talking about itAbove all, if Austria is right and in the next five years Europe will be thrown into such a blackout.

Imagen | Claudio Black