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We Should Learn from the War in Ukraine and Prepare Now

Effectively looking out for our public safety is more than posing for a picture with a police officer or firefighter. It’s about having the experience to understand the implications and effect of policy and law. It’s also about having the background and ability to recognize potential threats so we can be prepared for them before they come to fruition. Although alarming, recognizing threats and tackling them head-on mitigates, or even eliminates, their potential damage and empowers us all.

The New York Times, on June 15, 2019, published an article titled “U.S. Escalates Online Attacks on Russia’s Power Grid.” These digital incursions by the United States were purportedly in response to Russian incursions into the Ukrainian and the American utilities. Whether you believe America acted first or Russia or China, the fact is that shutting down a nation’s electrical grid is a tactic of first resort in a conflict. That fact was made even clearer over the last few weeks as Russia began conducting mass cyber-attacks against the Ukrainian infrastructure as a prelude to war. Russia, China and the rest of the world appear to be entering into a new cold-war, or potentially worse. With this knowledge, a logical question would be – what would happen if we suffered a cyber-attack on our electrical grid? Few would argue that we would struggle greatly during a prolonged power outage.

I was a Detroit Police officer during the Midwest Blackout of 2003. During the first night, there were mass break-ins and multiple shots fired throughout the neighborhoods of my precinct. During the second night, there was heavy gunfire erupting throughout the night and the mass break-ins continued. While the areas of our district are not as prone to civil disorder as other areas, that does not mean that given enough time and the “right” circumstances we would not get to the same point.

Imagine that instead of a couple of days, that blackout extended a couple weeks or even a couple months. The food we had on hand when the power went out would spoil due to a lack of refrigeration. Grocery stores, which already have empty shelves, are out of fresh food because they would also lose refrigeration. The limited items that grocery stores have would only be able to be purchased with cash, since credit card processing requires electricity and the internet. If the blackout occurs in the winter, how would you heat your home? Even if you have a fireplace, the loss of heat in the rest of your home would likely cause water pipes to freeze and burst, which could make the home uninhabitable. While in the Army serving in Mogadishu, Somalia, I observed what people will do when desperate to provide for their families and I can only say, I pray we never experienced anything like that in this country.

Power grid management entities throughout the nation have been conducting internal drills with the goal of reducing the impact and duration of electrical loss if a cyber-attack does occur. But, what if they fail? Or, if they can successfully restore power but it takes them several days to do so?

It is because of this potential that we also need to consider individual solutions that would allow us to protect and provide for our family without relying on the power company or the government to rescue us during an emergency. Thankfully, such a solution exists – a battery backed-up, small-scale, residential solar-array. And, although relatively inexpensive compared to a whole home system, or the cost of inaction, it is outside the reach of many without some sort of assistance.

A small-scale system, which may potentially be expanded later, can often be installed for well under $10,000. It is powerful enough to power a refrigerator, a furnace blower, and a few lights in a home – indefinitely. That is enough to keep people fed, warm, and safely living in their homes. This is a matter of more than individual comfort, it is a matter of national security and national defense; after all, there is a reason why hostile nations shut these systems down, it destabilizes a society.

Our State currently has billions of dollars in unspent Federal funds from COVID relief and other programs. Enough that we have politicians on both side of the aisle calling for tax cuts. I know this may be unpopular but I believe that using some of these funds to create a task-specific, State run solar installation loan program for residents would be a far better for our society and our individual safety and security than immediate tax cuts.

While not going into all of the specifics, which would obviously need to be ironed out, the State (potentially in cooperation with utility providers and the federal government) would approve participating retailers throughout Michigan to sell and install specific, authorized systems for residents. An authorized company, once an installation is complete and verified, would bill the government and receive payment through the State’s program. The total amount of the installation could then be repaid over a specified time period as a yearly income tax assessment. This provides the security and stability we need as soon as possible while eventually returning the money to our state government for future use or return to the tax-payers.

This type system has other benefits as well. It is widely known that our electrical grid is not prepared for the rapidly approaching conversion to electric vehicles. A system such as the one suggested here, when not in use for emergency purposes, could be used to charge an electric vehicle - without pollution and without cost, while removing stress from our already strained power-grid. Or, the system could be used to simply offset a resident’s existing electrical use, which could significantly reduce their monthly electric bill.

There is no doubt that a program such as this would be a large undertaking. However, to not tackle this potential issue would be negligent and potentially costly in both dollars and lives. It’s effectively a society level insurance program that we cannot afford to disregard.

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