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'Revolution:' What would it take to bring down Utah's lights?

By Andrew Wittenberg  |  Posted Nov 26th, 2012 @ 10:36pm


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SALT LAKE CITY — It's something you probably don't think about very often: your lights, your computer, your television, and what it takes to power them.

But what if the lights suddenly went out? What if there was no electricity?

That's exactly the plot behind NBC's new show "Revolution." With the fall finale airing earlier Monday evening, KSL News thought it was a good time to explore some of those questions. We looked into what it would take for all the lights to go dark, who could be behind it, and whether we'd be able to flip the switch back on.

An interconnected system of electricity that spans the nations is "probably the most complex machine ever built," according to Lou Seppi, with Rocky Mountain Power.

It's commonly referred to as the electric grid: a series of transmission lines, sending power from plants to everything that needs it. In the show "Revolution," that system fails, sending the country back to the middle ages.

"As long as there is overlap between junctions, then the whole grid is protected," Seppi told KSL News.

Utah's power grid security

Rocky Mountain Power services nearly 1 million customers in Utah, and Seppi is responsible for making sure it's all working. "We have protection systems on the grid that are designed to sense problems and isolate them quickly," he said.

It's widely believed that an attack to the electric grid would be the most likely cause of a widespread, long-term outage — probably caused by hackers over the Internet.

Seppi's office is a heavily secured, secretive monitoring center inside Rocky Mountain Power's Salt Lake facility. "There is another control center operating in parallel to this one," he said.

It's a separate facility in another state, Seppi said, but he wouldn't say where it is.

Since 9/11, access has been restricted these types of places to ensure a secure environment. But KSL News cameras were recently allowed inside.

"Our control system here in this center is isolated from the outside world, so there's not a pipe or a link to get into it from the outside world," Seppi said. "I don't' know how someone could hack in here."

He may not know, but others claim they do.

Hacking into and patching up the power grid

"The No. 1 threat for cyber security is that it's just too easy," said Matt Might, an assistant professor at the University of Utah's School of Computing.

Might works day and night with the U.S. military to improve its cyber security. He says the most likely culprit of a concerted effort to turn out the lights would come from a known enemy, referred to as a nation-state.


At least one of these nation-state actors had actually implanted back doors in our electrical grid, with the intent of being able to shut it down at will.

–Matt Might, U. School of Computing


And if you think another country breaking into our electrical system can't happen, here's the bad news: it already has.

"At least one of these nation-state actors had actually implanted back doors in our electrical grid, with the intent of being able to shut it down at will," Might said.

The technology exists to attack multiple regions of the grid simultaneously; and while that is concerning, there is a solution.

"I'm sure we'd be pretty good at ultimately figuring out what caused, or what the vulnerability was to let them in in the first place," Might said. "And we'd probably have that patched within days, actually, and then it's just a matter of bringing the system back up."

In 2009, the North American Electric Reliability Corporation warned against cyber-attacks on the electric grid. Since then, an incredible amount of money has been spent to increase security and hopefully prevent anything like we've seen on the show "Revolution."

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