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

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.

TOPICS: Government US

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.

Topic: Government US


David Gewirtz, Distinguished Lecturer at CBS Interactive, is an author, U.S. policy advisor, and computer scientist. He is featured in the History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets and is a member of the National Press Club.

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  • A tricky issue

    It's a bit of a tricky issue. On one hand, I do want the government to step in when an emergency happens. On the other hand, I want a fairly minimal government, and you can't really fix stupidity. There's a lot already being done for emergencies. Do we really need more?
    • Very true

      I mean, corporations getting taxpayer-funded subsidy, even when offshoring jobs and reducing revenue along with worker opportunities (including trampling down wages and lying to congress about it) as a result, and how corporate lobbyists seem to have government influence, you do have a very interesting point...
  • A wise strategy

    It's an excellent idea, and I hope it gets implemented. We need this in the UK, too. We cannot take energy security for granted.
    Tim Acheson
    • The greatest risk to energy security...

      Is the greens. This legislation will be used for the same purpose, rent seeking.

      City communities providing their own power is ridiculous.

      Government stepping in in emergencies (Katrina) is a disaster. I pity today's Americans.
      Richard Flude

    Natural gas pipelines can feed decentralize power stations all over the country. Such pipelines are not affected by EMP attacks. We have a lot of natural gas coming online. A solar flare could also cause a major EMP. It is not likely, but it could happen and eventually will.
    • Not true

      I toured a compressor station up here in Canada. The pipeline was compressed by a pair of F18 jet engines. A small amount of NG was pulled from the pipeline to feed the engines. However without any electrical signals the engines will not run. Those same signals are susceptable to an EMP. The building is metal but not a Faraday cage. A solar flare won't normally do to a gas line what it has done to the power grid but a deliberate EMP will take the station down. Up stream and down stream stations may continue to work or the surge may cause a cascade failure. If one or more stations do continue to work then you may run into low supply pressure which may take those distributed gen stations down. Hope for the best but Murphy usually says otherwise.

      On another note. Our power supplier has a program to put solar panels on house roofs. You are charged a flat $60 per month. An independant analysis has shown that the most you could recover is $15 off your monthly electric bill by those same panels.
    • No, but control circuits would be

      You must be a Liberal. Most of us do think of the bigger picture, and few even talk about the risk of naturally occurring EMPs (or the comparatively higher risk brought about by purportedly unfriendly countries). :)
    • EMP Commission report

      Actually, gas pipelines' SCADA systems are affected as detailed in the EMP Commission's 2008 report to the US Congress found here www.empcommission.org/docs/A2473-EMP_Commission-7MB.pdf.
      A solar flare is only similar to the E3 component of EMP, the E1 component is the nasty one.
      Due to our critical infrastructures interdependence on each other only a small percentage needs to be compromised to cause widespread failure. See http://spectrum.ieee.org/energy/the-smarter-grid/disaster-forensics/0 for discussion.
      There are many articles online about the progress N. Korea and Iran are making on their EMP designs and the rocket technology to deliver them.
      Finally, a couple videos http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fvu08Y9XJ0U and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0odJKYTzXg8.

  • Re-regulation?

    Isn't this what happened before ENRON ran around strongarming the government into de-regulating electrical power?
    • --BINGO--

      But Enron was good for our economy. They even encouraged their employees to buy stock, especially for retirement plans. No wrong could come from that, surely?

      Oh, wait, those at the top cashed in...
  • Tough problem

    We were well prepared for the aftermath of hurricane Ike having back up gas and diesel generators, but having more than two weeks worth of fuel is difficult as it goes bad eventually. Diesel is safe enough to store, gas not so much.

    Lots of service stations had fuel, but no back up generators to pump it with! Lots of my neighbors had generators but no fuel after one day!

    Everyone running a 5KW generator for a few weeks is feasible, and they aren't really very expensive, but air quality would go to hell quickly!

    Natural gas powered backup generator is a great option if you have natural gas service, beyond that, unless you can arrange underground tanks I don't see many viable options.

    Two weeks off the grid after Ike, providing my own power has made me realize what a bargain the electric company really is!
    • You are very aware

      However people not knowledgeable will run their gen all day and maybe through the night. This is where having a family plan is necessary. Gen is run only at set intervals. Enough to keep food cold, etc. Meals are prepared only at those times. Fridge is not opened in between. Showers with an electric water heater are no more than get wet, water off, soap and then rinse. That's assuming you have water pressure. Otherwise it's an ice cream pail full, heated in the microwave.

      You cannot live like you normally do.

    So. . . where do we get this money to become 20% (or more) self reliant?
    Gov can print money willie-nillie, we can't.
    PAY ME to install such items and I'd gladly help. As it is right now I don't think this current administration has their brains in there craniums.
    ( THE IDIOTS )
  • Command and control economies ALWAYS

    fail. ORDERING local communities to produce power locally isn't going to do any of the things your naive utopian ideology says it will.
    • The fail is bigger than you realize

      But, yeah, if your local communities don't care about you, they won't. Be careful for what YOU, not David there, wishes for...
    • Besides

      local communities have been hurt the most, thanks to the offshoring of jobs - and propping up those corporations with taxpayer funds... how's that for command and control, "we're too big to fail so save us even after we screwed over our customers and countrymen"...
  • Guardians ad light 'em

    See it now! The titanic clash between the forces of "Yes, it has to be in your back yard" and the NIMBYs. SEE billions spent on lawyers as the YIYBYs and the NIMBYs fight each other in court from sea to shining sea! SEE money intended to buy actual generating capacity diverted into treadmills for Unicorns by well-meaning do-gooders! WATCH helplessly as tax dollars are spent on plans to write a study to determine the effects, instead of on anything resembling actual power generation!
    Robert Hahn
  • Tough, isn't it?

    It goes completely against the whole economy-of-scale concept to purchase, install, and maintain equipment to provide power we're already getting cheaply and so easily that we don't even think about it.

    But it's insurance. Many of us feed countless thousands of dollars into the insurance industry while redeeming little or nothing of the the benefits we've bought. At least this insurance, when purchased on a community scale, provides a few local jobs, too.

    I live where winter power outages are relatively commonplace, so I've used my 5.6kW generator a few times. Maybe not enough to pay for itself, vs. having a little food go bad in the fridge, but it feels right to keep some lights on & the fridge and microwave alive when there may not be power for a few days.

    As for fuel, I keep a couple of 5-gallon cans, which are only filled with non-alcohol gas and always treated with fuel preservative when I fill the cans. I use the fuel for my mower, weed whacker, and chainsaws, alternating cans, so a full one is always in reserve.

    For anyone with small gas engine equipment that's seldom used, the biggest threat is gasohol, or oxygenated fuel, as they like to call it now. Left in the engine for too many months, it can gum up the carburetor enough to destroy it. A lot of folks out in the country will lose a lot of equipment to 15% methanol gas.
    • Alcohol in gasoline

      By law in Missouri our gasoline must contain 10% ethanol with certain economic exceptions. There is no requirement to tell you at the pump if the gas has alcohol or not.

      Of course I'm wondering how well this will work out now that all the corning is dead.
  • Mr Gerwitz

    Thank you for a well written and interesting story, that take us out of the constant whose OS is superior. This is a timely report too, as we are constantly making our weather situation worse, each day.

    I live in Pensacola, Florida and the veracity of hurricanes on our power delivery systems led me to my decision to buy a whole house generator. The last major hurricane, Ivan, left us without power for more than a week. During this time, I happen to be in the right place to buy an off the shelf generator, an item so many other was in search of. We then had a few minor storms after Ivan that, would you know it, knocked the power out. I soon discovered another problem, finding a gas station that had power so I could buy gasoline to run my generator. I had driven more than 30 miles in search of gasoline.

    A long story made short, the whole house generator is powered by natural gas, that already installed in the house. Although I do not use it much, it is like insurance and I know that after a storm has come and gone, and my home is still standing, I can muster some semblance of tranquility, while waiting for the professionals to finish the clean up.