Paul Stockton: Keeping the grid safe

Alex Chadwick, BURN Host

Paul Stockton was the government’s point man for protecting the nation’s electrical grid from terrorist attacks. He served for four years as President Obama’s Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense and Americas’ Security Affairs.

Stockton was the responsible for “defense critical infrastructure protection.” He talks with host Alex Chadwick about the threat of terrorism against the grid. They also discuss  the lessons learned from Hurricane Sandy and how best to protect the grid during the next super storm.

Stockton’s portfolio also included domestic crisis management, and he helped lead the Defense Department’s response to Hurricane Sandy, Deepwater Horizon and other disasters.

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When it rains, it floods: Hoboken underwater

A Hoboken street and power station partly flooded. Photo:  Donna Ferrato.

A Hoboken street and power station partly flooded. Photo: Donna Ferrato.


Alex Chadwick, BURN Host

The next BURN special is about what keeps us all going, except when it doesn’t: the grid. That’s the term for the complicated, interconnected electrical power system that runs so many of the machines that power our lives. The grid makes i-everything possible.

But it is old, and in many places frail. The city of Hoboken, New Jersey, is subject to flooding even in normal heavy rains. But it never saw anything like what happened last October when Hurricane Sandy hit. Parts of the city were without power for ten days. Now Hoboken is working to build a new, smarter grid for itself – in part, an official told me, because the big lesson the city learned from the storm was that by the time the next big storm hits, Hoboken will have to be ready to save itself.

The city partly flooded twice in the last month from rain storms. Now it’s late May, and after recent heavy rains, the city is partly flooded again.

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There’s power, and then there’s power

Robert Rand, BURN Editor

When you think about political power, electricity probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. But when you think about the ability – or more importantly, the inability – of a government to deliver electricity to its citizens, the political nature of energy transmission becomes clear.

Ask any mayor or governor who worries about the wrath of constituents during extended power outages, such as those that occurred last year during Hurricane Sandy. The politics of Sandy were captured in this headline from the Associated Press: “Sandy a Super Test for Bloomberg, Christie, Cuomo.”

Lenin and electrification

One of the first politicians to grasp the political nature of electricity was neither from New York nor New Jersey. He was Vladimir Ilych Lenin, founder of the Soviet Union. In the early years of the USSR the new Bolshevik government faced the daunting challenge of extending control over the vast Russian landmass. Lenin framed the issue this way: “Communism is Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country.”

Lenin understood that a government is as good as its grid. The ability to provide a reliable source of electricity is one of the most important measures of effective state governance. Lay a electrical grid across the land and the people will be satisfied and prosper.

In prosperous, developed countries, the grid is so well-established and electricity so plentiful that it’s taken for granted. Fail to lay down a reliable grid, or fail to make quick repairs when the power goes out, and a government’s credibility may tatter, with political, economic and social consequences to follow.

Which makes an event in the Middle East last week especially interesting.  It happened in Syria, which is embroiled in a God awful civil war that has claimed more than 70,000 lives. Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, has spent most of the past few months hunkered down in the presidential palace in Damascus.

Mideast SyriaLast Wednesday, Assad made a rare public appearance. He visited a power station in the city center.

Al-Assad’s message: Don’t worry, be happy. I can deliver electricity to the people of Damascus. I still have political power.

The problem, of course, is the conundrum Assad will face if anti-government fighters manage to turn off the lights.

This summer, BURN will feature a one-hour radio and multimedia special on our nation’s electrical grid system – how it was built, how it works, and what happens when it doesn’t. Follow us here, on Facebook, SoundCloud, and Twitter all next month to hear great excerpts, see photos, and learn more about America’s grid.

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Why you can’t attend a rising seas conference in NY

Alex Chadwick, BURN Host

This week, in New York City, the Union of Concerned Scientists is convening a meeting of dozens of public officials from New York, New Jersey, Virginia, North Carolina and Florida to talk about one of the most serious issues these officials are facing: rising sea levels brought about by global warming, the product of greenhouse gases. Some of these officials dealt with Hurricane Sandy – the one that left parts of Manhattan without power for five days and battered the New Jersey coast. Others, especially in Florida, already see evidence of climate change – not from storms, but simply in the tides. The officials are meeting with one another for conversations, with a few scientists on hand to offer guidance.

They will be there – but the public will not. UCS, which describes itself as a coalition of citizens and scientists working to better public policy and corporate practices, has closed the meeting.

I learned of the event a month ago through one of the participants. I sent UCS a note asking to go, and dropped what I thought would be our best card with this group – we were just recognized by the American Association for the Advancement of Science for best radio science reporting. I though of this as an opportunity to meet and listen to the people who are going to be creating the policies and practices that will be of ever greater significance in this country, as more and more lives and enormous swathes of property are at increasing risk.

The response from UCS was that it would be ‘unwieldy’ to allow reporters to observe. And no one from the public, either.

A citizen who might think s/he would like to know more about rising sea levels? No, not this time, they said. Unwieldy.

I’ve known the Union of Concerned Scientists to be public-minded advocates of science-based solutions to all sorts of issues. They’re tough-minded and fearless in their frequent papers and testimony. But when I protested the exclusion of reporters and others from this meeting, a UCS press person said that climate has become so controversial that they worried about hecklers, or trouble-makers – people who would show up for theatrical opposition.

If UCS is going to close a meeting because some nut-job – or even a true skeptic, though many believers doubt there is such a thing – might show up and try to disrupt things, then we are in worse shape than I thought. These are public officials, at a meeting convened by a science organization that boasts of its citizen involvement. And they want to talk just among themselves because an outsider might be argumentative – even disruptive?

A spokeswoman told me a week ago that they’d think about opening the meeting. She’d tested the idea on one official already, and the response was that UCS would be changing ‘the rules’, and thus the official might not attend. Wonderful. If UCS and public officials are doing such a great job getting out the climate message, where is the public consensus about the urgency of doing something?

UCS and public officials have done such a great job getting out the climate message that there is noted consensus about the urgency of doing something. So, okay, maybe we should just leave them alone in a room, talking to each other. But when they close the doors, I hope there’s a flicker of shame somewhere inside there.

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