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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Electrifying rural America

Bob Malesky, Producer & BURN Contributor

Running a family-owned farm is one of this country’s more difficult livelihoods. Before electrical power, it was even harder. In the early 1930s, only 11% of the country’s farms had power. Fifty years later, nearly all of them had electricity.

Here are oral histories of people who experienced the life-changing transformation, much of it coming courtesy of the Rural Electrification Administration (REA). Produced by NPR veteran Bob Malesky.


An REA worker hangs power lines. Photo: Library of Congress


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Tim Gallant, electrical lineman

Ari Daniel Shapiro, Science Reporter & BURN Contributor


They are the electric grid army. When the power goes down and the lights go out, a legion of them is deployed.

Power linemen are the first to respond when the public needs to be reconnected with the grid.

This is a portrait of that community through the voice of one of those linemen — what his days are like when things are calm, what happens when disaster strikes, and what he thinks about the state of the grid.

It’s a window into the world of the pole climbing folks in hard hats who, as they like to say, “provide light in a dark night.”

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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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