Draft bill encourages communities to generate 20% of their own power

Summary:In a shocking act of actual patriotism by elected officials, some Congressional representatives have been exploring how to keep America safe in the face of dire circumstances.

What happens if you lose power? Your lights go out, your UPS blares, your Internet might go down. No worries, right? It'll be back soon. Your iPhone can last half a day, the iPad even longer, so you can keep yourself amused with Angry Birds while you wait for the power to come back on.

But what if it doesn't? What if the power doesn't come back on all day? What if it doesn't come on all week? That's what some residents of the mid-Atlantic states experienced during the derecho that hit in early July.

What if the power doesn't come on for a month? What do you do? What do you do?

More to the point, what can your community do? Do you even know where your power comes from? What about gasoline? Those pumps require power to work. What about food? Most supermarkets require power to keep the food fresh.

These are the questions that worry emergency preparedness officials.

Power can be knocked out by a major storm. It can be knocked out by a terrorist act. The electrical grid could be taken down in a cyberwarfare attack. Power (and most electronic devices) can also be taken down as a result of something called an electromagnetic pulse (or EMP).

I am a member of the FBI's InfraGard program, the infrastructure security partnership between the FBI and industry. Within InfraGard, we have a number of interest areas, one of which is EMP. It's an area of particular concern because -- in the event of a serious attack -- EMP could be an event of such seriousness, it might be impossible for us to recover.

In a shocking act of actual patriotism by elected officials, some Congressional representatives have been working with InfraGard's EMP-SIG to explore how to keep America safe in the face of dire circumstances.

One approach is embodied in a draft resolution due expected to be introduced to Congress tomorrow by Representative Roscoe G. Bartlett of Maryland's 6th District. Chuck Manto, who chairs the EMP SIG on behalf of InfraGard National, cautions that the bill is a draft, subject to final revision.

He says, "The focus is on local preparedness to a degree we have not known for a while." Dr. Bartlett's (yeah, I know) resolution is interesting in that it encourages communities to take direct responsibility for at least 20% of their own power generation, food supply, and infrastructure needs.

The thing about a draft bill is that there's no guarantee it will even make it to a House Resolution, nevermind an actual law. There's also no guarantee that it will make it through the entire process without a lot of changes. At this point, Bartlett's draft bill doesn't even have co-sponsors yet. Unless more representatives sign on to endorse the bill, it won't get that far.

This is important stuff. Most of us would be in terrible trouble without power (and not just because Netflix would be down). In the northern states, being without power in the winter can be a death sentence. In the southern states, being without power in the summer can be equally grave. Power drives our food, our sanitation, and our medical infrastructures, as well. An EMP-level event could leave us in very desperate trouble, indeed.

On the other hand, I don't think the bill goes far enough.

As it is written, it's just words without teeth. It talks about the problem, and then uses phrases like "encourages each local community to foster the capability..."

In my opinion, encouraging and fostering don't make for a reliable disaster preparedness strategy. We need to put carrots and sticks into the laws, incentives that help desperately cash-strapped individual communities take on additional responsibilities.

In fact, this sort of bill, taken somewhat further than Representative Bartlett's well-meaning resolution, could actually have a bottom-line benefit on the economy. Imagine if America were to focus on personal power generation the way we've focused on personal computing technology. Imagine the businesses and the opportunities that could spring up from all over America if we had a massive, nationwide push to encourage all sorts of alternative energy generation -- energy that could be used in good times as well as times of disaster.

Since the bill, which has a working title of "Expressing the sense of the House of Representatives regarding community-based civil defense and power generation," is still in draft form, there's still time to go from an expression of a sense to something that actually changes America for the better.

This bill doesn't capture lightning in a bottle, but with a few changes, it might really incentivize innovative Americans to do just that, and a lot more. We'd be safer in case of a dire emergency, we'd jump-start a new sector of our economy, and we'd reduce our reliance on foreign oil.

Now, that would be something to get all charged up about.

Topics: Government : US

About

In addition to hosting the ZDNet Government and ZDNet DIY-IT blogs, CBS Interactive's Distinguished Lecturer David Gewirtz is an author, U.S. policy advisor and computer scientist. He is featured in The History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets, is one of America's foremost cyber-security experts, and is a top expert on savi... Full Bio

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