From Delta to darkness

Delta Air Lines' day of disaster left passengers stranded in multiple cities. It's inconvenient to have flights canceled by a power outage. But what is even more frightening is the future possibility that we could truly be left in the dark because of our reliance on power and computer technology.

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For years, we have been warned that much of the infrastructure that services the U.S. power grid is aging. We have also been told that terrorists could attack our critical sources of electricity. Last year, a report by Cambridge University and Lloyd's of London hypothesized a cyberattack that would leave 15 U.S. states — 93 million people — in the dark from New York to Washington, D.C.

That follows a warning by the National Research Council four years earlier stating that terrorists could black out this country for weeks or months. And reading Ted Koppel's new book on the potential for a foreign country to hack our electricity grid will keep you up at night — even if you have to read it by candlelight.

The Delta outage reminds us that the power grid is central and vital to our existence. It must be secure, resilient and reliable, with a backup system in case of failure. Moreover, we are not yet 100 percent energy sufficient, so we still rely on others to power us up. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, about 24 percent of the petroleum consumed by the U.S. was imported from foreign countries. The good news is that that is the lowest level since 1970.

We need "smart grids" that don't fail. We need a modernization plan that ensures we stay lit. With aging plants, natural and manmade disasters, and the need to respond to a growing population with growing energy demands, we simply can't wait around.

It is also worth stressing that this is not just an American problem. The Delta outage caused delays not just in Atlanta, where Georgia Power is based, but across Japan, Italy and the U.K. We are all in this energy mess together. And we all rely on computers and information technology to keep us smart and safe.

In the end, resources will drive how far we can go to fix power problems that are not just on the ground, but in the air.

Let's hope we can stay powered up — at least long enough to get where we're going.

Sonenshine is former undersecretary of State for public diplomacy and public affairs.


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