Lights Out by Ted Koppel- Book Review

The Outer Banks made news this week due to the mandatory evacuation of thousands from a loss of electricity. The power outage occurred after a construction crew drove some steel through a main power line. There is not a good estimate on how long repairs will take. The incident spurred me to pull a book off the shelf to review. The book discusses the electric grid.

I read Lights Out by Ted Koppel a few years ago and it really affected me. The book caught my eye from the new release table at my local library. I had no inkling of the content when I checked it out. My eyes were opened by this book. Once I finished, I urged the members of my immediate family read at least the first section.

Koppel’s topic is the nation’s electric grid. He breaks the content into three sections. The first part is titled A Cyberattack, with eight chapters discussing actual attacks on the United States grid. The second section, A Nation Unprepared, is short but factual. The final section of the book, Surviving The Aftermath is the least technical part and the easiest to follow.

Koppel has a very readable writing style. His background as a reporter is evident throughout the book. The author grabs your attention with a hypothetical scenario. However, he quickly turns to factual information with a first focus on cyberattacks. His facts are backed with documentation.

Many of the attacks on the grid have not received widespread media coverage. Some were totally unknown to me before reading. They range from automatic weapons destroying a transformer to malware which has infected the national grid. At times these first chapters, swimming with acronyms, become difficult to follow. It is important to reread until the information soaks in. Danger lurks within the nation’s infrastructure.

The middle of the book, while relatively short, illustrates just how unprepared the United States is for this new warfare. Part of the shortfall stems from the aging grid infrastructure and the lack of coordination between utilities. Yet another factor is economic. Large power transformers (LPTs) are difficult to replace. One reason is that each is custom-built at a great cost. So there is no mass production available for replacements. If multiple LPTs fail at once, there is not a stockpile to draw from.

Another problem pointed out in this part of Lights Out is the lack of a cohesive plan to respond to a long-term grid failure. Koppel uses anecdotes to make the point that neither state or national agencies nor non-profit groups have plans for long-term emergencies. The current focus is on short-term problems such as seen after hurricanes or blizzards.

The final section has received some negative feedback, but I found the information interesting. Koppel focuses on what individuals and private groups are doing to prepare for long-term problems. This goes beyond preparing for short-term natural disasters. Interviews with groups including “Preppers”, emergency preparedness groups, and Mormons show the extent some in America have readied themselves for long-term disasters. However, Koppel’s posits that most in these groups are not ready for an extended time without electricity.

After reading Lights Out we made some changes. We have a generator for back-up power and in the last year it has kicked on as needed three times. I am doing a better job of stocking the pantry. Also, I have increased the size of the vegetable garden and have taken to canning with a zeal. So perhaps, I could relate to those described as being emergency prepared.

Cyberattacks in the form of ransom ware and for theft have become more common. But it is hard to tell if inroads have been made against the grid. Media coverages of power outages usually take a back seat to other news, but I have begun tracking the grid failures on social media. Very seldom does a single day go by without loss of power somewhere. Koppel’s work convinced me that at the very least it is time to upgrade our power grid infrastructure.