Blackout Blues

Power came back in Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay after an unexplained blackout on Sunday, but journalists were still able to make puns about these countries being in the dark, while investigators were still groping to identify the cause.

The sudden collapse of the Argentine electric grid, which also serves neighboring Uruguay, Paraguay and some of Brazil and Chile, left about 50 million people without lights, water, phones and public transportation. Officials throughout all the countries agreed that this was a failure of basic services that should not have happened.

Argentine President Mauricio Macri described the outage as “unprecedented” and promised to get to the bottom of it.

A “technical issue” — or simple humidity — could have been the cause, according to Carlos Garcia Pereira, CEO of Transener, SA, Argentina’s largest power-transmission operator.

Argentina’s Energy Secretary Gustavo Lopetegui offered a slightly brighter level of enlightenment, telling reporters that the blackout had so far been traced to a failure in the country’s “interconnection system.”

“This is an extraordinary event that should have never happened,” he told a news conference. “It’s very serious. We can’t leave the whole country all of a sudden without electricity,” he said.

Fortunately, there were no reports of societal breakdown, like looting, that often accompanies such service disruptions. Aside from the yet-to-be-assessed loss to business, the populace seemed largely unfazed. The worst that happened was a somewhat discombobulated Argentine regional election and Father’s Day plans that had to be cancelled.

The breakdown could not have come as much of a surprise to energy officials, who were quoted as saying that the power grid has long been in disrepair. There’s plenty of energy supply, they say, it’s the money supply that’s short. Utility rates have not kept pace with the need for infrastructure upgrades such as substations and cables.

That’s the upside of this brief tale: The system is fixable. “A localized failure like the one that occurred should be isolated by the same system,” said Raúl Bertero, president of the Center for the Study of Energy Regulatory Activity in Argentina. “The problem is known and technology and studies [exist] to avoid it.”

Authorities were disinclined to blame the blackout on a cyberattack; apparently, the initial evidence does not support fears that it was the result of foreign hacking. But they weren’t ruling out the possibility, either.

The investigation should be able to furnish conclusions in 10 to 15 days.

Until then, at least, the lingering ambiguity could be a kind of dual-use wake-up call for neighbors to the north with their own grid concerns; a warning of the consequences of either infrastructural negligence or cyber-vulnerabilities, or both.

One does not have to ask if it could happen here. It already has.

Although Argentina was saying that this was the worst power failure the country has ever seen, it’s not the worst ever seen in the Western Hemisphere. On August 14, 2003, a grid collapse of roughly the same scale — also estimated to have affected 50 million people — hit the northeastern United States and Canada.

Heavy use of air conditioners and fans in the mid-August heat was said to have overloaded the system and triggered a cascade of outages. Sabotage played no part.

But the plague of international hacking has since then grown into a major concern. Argentine officials treaded carefully, seeking to reassure the public, while at the same time allowing for the possibility that somebody out there in cyberspace doesn’t like them.

After a series of security breaches, in 2018, the U.S. government for the first time publicly accused Russia of hacking power networks, penetrating as many as two dozen or more utilities in no fewer than 24 states, New York and New Jersey among them.

According to a report in The Wall Street Journal, the bottom line (literally, the last sentence in the piece, published this January) was: “Industry experts say Russian government hackers likely remain inside some systems, undetected and awaiting further orders.”

U.S. cyber-security experts have been working assiduously at finding ways to protect sensitive assets. They have also been deploying computer code inside Russia’s power grid, according to a recent article in The New York Times. The idea is not to harm Russia, if that can be avoided, but rather to provide deterrence against Russian attacks — fighting cyber with cyber.

President Donald Trump denied the story. But nobody thought it improbable. On the contrary, most people are rooting for the U.S. to mount an effective campaign against Russian hackers that will discourage Moscow from deploying its digital demons in American power grids and political campaigns.

Regarding the vulnerability of our own power grids to technical glitches, the Union of Concerned Scientists has warned that “widespread blackouts can occur even when only a few components of the electricity grid succumb to extreme weather — and right now power plants, substations and other electricity infrastructure all across the country are at risk from coastal flooding, wildfires, and other weather events.”

That prediction was made in 2017. The condition of the national infrastructure since then has continued to worsen, and the promises of politicians to fix it still remains in the realm of empty rhetoric, unplugged from any real change.

But if America doesn’t act very soon, what happened to Argentina and its neighbors this past weekend, and what happened here in 2003, could well happen again.