Saturday, January 15, 2011

The weakest link

These days there is a lot of speculative talk about the vulnerability of some of our most crucial systems to cyber attacks - and rightly so. According to proponents of catabolic collapse, a society that lumbers itself with too much complexity reaches a point when the resources needed to maintain these complex systems become too great. Have we reached that point now?

Complex systems, such as national energy grids, are usually characterised by an over-reliance on computers and a fragmented chain of command, meaning that the overall integrity of the system can be easily compromised by a single attack on the weakest chain in the link.

In today's Independent there is an interesting article about just how that could happen, and apparent evidence that malicious hackers have already penetrated the computerised systems that the US electricity grid relies on. In the good old days, to wage war on another country one of the first things one would have to do is drop bombs on their electricity generating infrastructure from airplanes. These days an attack could be mounted on the energy supply at the stroke of a key in a basement in Delhi or Shanghai. It carries with it the benefit that the targeted country would have no idea (or no proof) of who carried out the attack, enabling a kind of pseudo war where national governments, lone individials and shadowy agents fight it out in a kind of Inception scenario, while the rest of us sit around by candle light.

Below is a short story I wrote a few years ago. In it a lone rogue energy trader manages to bring down the UK electricity grid. It is, of course, totally fictional - but it could happen. I got the idea for the story some years ago when I was working as, yes, an energy trader for a large company that shall remain nameless (no, it wasn't Enron). My job was to manipulate the gas supply to power stations, selling it to other companies if the spot price was right, and turning off the supplies to generating plant, hospitals and other heavy users, such as steelworks.

The idea started as a thought experiment and, at times during those long night shifts, I did experience moments when it seemed touch or go whether the lights would remain on, due to various technical, procedural and human-motivated problems. The problems - so far - were always solved, sometimes in the nick of time, but usually because of the valiant efforts of engineers on the ground. By removing the means to fix problems from these hands-on people and handing it to energy traders and complex computerised systems it seems that we are heightening the risk of the system collapsing.

Anyway, this story is being published on Ether Books - an app that lets you read short stories on your iPhone or other mobile device.

The Toffee Hammer

It’s the stuff of nightmares. What happens when a lone energy trader, acting on an anarchic impulse, is given enough power to bring down the entire UK electricity system? You think it could never happen? Think again ...

It's just gone 3am and we're moving into the dead zone. Systems come off line around this time and even the most conditioned night shift worker, his body struggling against its evolutionary programming, feels the urge to stretch out and lie down on the carpet beside the desk. Most large-scale industrial accidents happen during the night. Think Exxon Valdez. Think Chernobyl. Think BP. That's why I call it the dead zone, and I plan to make full use of it.

The office, which rises above all others in this greenfield business park, is like a cathedral of light. At least, that's what the designers would have you believe. In truth it looks more like a shopping mall. Several layers look down into a palmed central atrium that is ordinarily filled with men and women tapping away at their laptops and sipping fake spring water from plastic bottles. There are noise pollution reducing ceiling tiles and enough seating for a thousand suits. At night, when you have this vast building to yourself, you can hear the little hydraulic motors pushing the rods that open the roof windows as they whir and click. Natural air-conditioning, say the architects. Cuts down on energy loss.

It is in this spirit that I have planned my parting shot. Tonight I'm going to be doing My Bit for the Environment. I wish I could claim some kind of moral high ground on this point but, you see, I just can’t. Don’t ask me why, I just like to see stuff get fucked up. When I was a kid playing rugby for the school the teachers said ‘the bigger they are the harder they fall’. This is going to be one mother of a fall.

Tonight, I am Gas.

The phone rings and it's Electricity. 'Yo, Mobes,' I say.

'You got anything planned on Gas that I should know about?' he asks.

'Er. Nope. We thought we were short day ahead but I managed to get hold of some. What's going on down your end?'

'Nothing. Dead really. I was just checking, you know. Grid are on tenterhooks tonight. Keep calling me to check we haven't got no outages or nothing. Paranoid, they are. Chill out, I tell them.'

'That’s Grid for you.' I say. 'I'll be down in a minute. Just got to do something. You fancy tea? I'm making.'

'Cheers. See you in a mo.'

I put the phone down. Moby's enquiry, decoded, means that he's planning on getting some shuteye soon. Officially, of course, The Company never sleeps. Not us, the sentinels of the ship in the night, on lookout over the grey waters of the corporate seas so that the day-working drones can sleep peacefully in their cabins. But what else is the dead zone for if not snatching forty winks?

I clip the phone to my belt and stroll down to a refreshment station. As I walk I glide my hand along the smooth banister of blonde ash. Once, on one such night shift, a huge pane of glass exploded, seemingly of its own volition, and came showering down on the darkened atrium. Engineers took some of the other panels away and discovered that a single tap with a dessert spoon in the right spot could turn these sheets of expensive glass into heaps of worthless diamonds. The whole roof had to be replaced at enormous expense to The Company. A smarmy man from Accounts later told me this was a Good Thing because it was writing off assets and it got them out of a tax hole.

I realise that what I'm about to do is extremely bad. For a moment, as the teabag darkens the hot water and I'm popping the pills out of their wrapper, I experience a spike of fear. It's a kind of negative epiphany and I see the misery I'm about to cause as clearly as if I'm standing and looking at a picture in a gallery. I steady myself against the black granite top (which has travelled all the way from a mine in Zimbabwe to be in this cathedral) and breathe in deeply ten times. It clears and I crumble the sedatives into the hot tea that will soon be sloshing around inside Moby's stomach.

I make it as far as the Electricity trading floor without spilling Moby’s special tea. He munches on a Twix as he imbibes, just as I expected him to, dipping it in his tea until the chocolate coating has melted. Officially, in corporate competition terms, we are enemies. OK, not enemies, sparring partners. Sometimes I get confused between the difference. It's corporate strategy, you see. Keeps us on our toes, so the theory goes. Whatever. So even though we drink from the same corporate goblet we are two tribes, set against each other in a way that the free market game designers deem to be a healthy relationship. The more complex those clever folks can make things the better. You see, by making the rules of the game soooo complex they’re always one step ahead of the Big Bad Regulator. Because that is what life is to them, a game. Plus - get this - they can pay themselves what they like because they can always prove to dim-witted folk that they are Adding Value.

Ordinarily Moby is a regular bod. Balding Aston Villa supporter, golf addict, adored dad and secret Shakin' Stevens fan. But tonight, in that seat, he is Electricity. At his fingertips are an array of power stations that burn enough fossilised plant life to power the needs of a fifth of Britain. His office is smarter than mine. Plasma screens surround him and shine down like adoring fans and his telephones look almost presidential in their importance.

Tonight he wants to talk about The Game. I have no interest whatsoever in football, but in five years he hasn't noticed. I nod and agree when it seems I am called to do so, and frown when it seems appropriate. I listen to his theories about money corrupting the game and agree that this is indeed the case if he says so. He sips and gulps his tea and munches on that Twix.

He is the first one to yawn. Really, he doesn't need me putting pills in his tea to make him sleep. What I don't want, though, is him waking up until they barge into his office all panic stricken and sweating. I stand up and say that I'll let him have the nightly gas report just as soon as I've finished typing the figures in [decoded: I won't bother you again]. On my way back to my own desk, three floors up and a couple of hundred meters away, the phone on my belt rings. It is Clive at EnPowerCom. He cuts straight to the point.

'Mate, have you seen day-ahead?'

'No,' I say.

'It’s trading at over two quid! Arctic front on the way down according to Forecasting.' Clive hails from Australia. That's practically all I know about him. Apart from the fact he's a humourless capitalist automaton, of course.

'Shit,' I say. 'Don't tell me you're short?'

'Can't say, mate. Look, you wanna stick something on?'

'OK Clive. I'm not at my desk at the moment I'll see what I can do and call you back.'

'Arighty,' he says.

Actually by now I am at my desk and I can't believe my good fortune. With gas prices this high there is serious money to be squandered. Also, I'd just had a great idea on the way back from Electricity before Clive rang. At the computer I type 'cult' and (I pick a country out of the air) 'South Africa' into a search engine. Bingo. Google rewards my mischievousness with a news story relating to a group of people who believe an end of times prophesy only a few months hence. I quickly locate their website and am staring into the pacifically crazed eyes of their leader in no time. I send him an email.

Hey Robin,

Everything is in place. Gonna be up at Findhorn for a while with Dagon until this dies down. Shd be able to make it over for u know what. Love out. JB.

I snigger a bit as I’m typing, and have a premonition of the police sitting round looking all serious and trying to figure out what the hell I am talking about. It’ll throw the hounds off my trail for a bit at least. I print it off, screw it up and throw it in the wastepaper basket. No, too obvious. I fold it out and take it to the recycling bin next to the photocopier. They'll easily find it there.

Now to that trade. I look at my watch. 3:42. I'd better get a move on. You see, I should explain. Back in the day, gas and oil and coal was simply sucked out of the ground by companies working for the government and supplied to people’s homes at a set price. How lame is that! These days it’s all just a bunch of numbers and people like me can buy and sell it a million times before it ends up heating your baked beans. Before I became an energy trader I had no idea you could have such fun gambling with little numbers on a screen. Especially when the numbers belong to other people and you can never lose.

I'm a whiz with a calculator and numbers. Didn't used to be. In fact I failed my maths O'Level. Twice. And here I am, an energy trader! Sometimes the irony gets too much for me. Tonight The Company has about ten million therms for me to play with. Enough gas to heat the Royal Albert Hall for a couple of centuries. I toss a coin. Heads I give away one million of it, tails I give away two. Tails it is. I roll my chair over to the trading terminal and input the trade, counting off the six zeros. I make sure that only EnPowerCom can see it. Just before my finger clicks the cursor on 'VERIFY?' I experience another jagged moment of doubt. I am, after all, only human. Right now, my next mouse click could spell a jail term. I’m thinking self preservation here, rather than anything more altruistic.

I allow myself a moment to rationalise. Tonight is my chance. I've been in a state of readiness for months. Everything about tonight is right. Arctic weather is set to put the country in a deep-freeze. Moby - a man who takes glee in his colleagues calling him Homer Simpson - is currently asleep on the carpet with his monitors showing increasing signs of alarm. The spot price has gone through the roof. And to top it all, tonight is the departmental Christmas party. Apart from one tipsy phone call from the boss I haven't been beeped, emailed or Tweeted by a single one of my team. By now they'll all be squeezing the last few drops of spirits out of the free bar and bemoaning the fact that their extremely generous remuneration packages don't match up to those at EnPowerCom. Now is my chance.

I let go of the unclicked mouse and roll my chair over to the desk. I go through my drill again. My checklist is right there in front of me. I can already tick off 'No. 1 – Moby/Electricity'. Next to it lie my passport, a Company envelope containing a thick wad of 500 euro notes (don’t ask), my car keys (petrol tank full - check, recently serviced - check) and a postcard from the sun-kissed land that I am relying on to nurture me through any post-operational guilt. My hands begin to shake alarmingly and I feel the urge to vomit. I try to make it to the toilets but I can't and instead have to make do with a big plastic bin next to Mr Goldberg's desk. I stand upright again and wipe saliva from my chin with one of his Mansize tissues. That wasn’t in the plan.

I stride over to the trading desk and boldly click 'VERIFY?'. It asks me 'Are you sure?' Of course I’m sure, I’ve got a hedge fund that says The Company’s share price is going to tank. Call it my pension, if you like.

Things are going to have to move very quickly now. I pace up and down for a few seconds to help me think and then come back to look at the trade I just put on. Its lunatic price screams out at me - like one ninety-nine sticker on a new Mercedes. Or in this case, about a hundred new Mercedes. It floats there on the screen like a crust of bread in a trout lake. Snap! Suddenly it's gone. Fuck, I say quietly to the empty trading screen.

Now is the time for some class acting. I need to be out of the building within an hour. I will steal away in the heart of the dead zone. I ring Clive.

'Clive. Shit, man. How do I say this? That trade. Look, I'm sorry but it looks like I put on the wrong price.' I am blessed that Clive can be relied upon to be a professional bastard. He responds with cold silence.

'Clive? Can you hear me? That trade. I need you to reject it. I put the decimal point in the wrong place. I was multiplying instead of dividing.' I know our conversation is being recorded at both ends. I need to sound honest to buy a little time for when they're freaking out and trying to figure out if I was acting with malicious intent. I doubt it'll fool them for long, but maybe long enough so they don’t watch the ports for a couple of days.

'Look mate,' he says 'We're really busy at the moment. Can you take this up with my boss when she gets in?' He sounds irritated and triumphant all at once. He’ll get a big bonus for my ‘mistake’.

'Oh come on Clive. You owe us a favour. I'll give you a good price. Just bin it and I'll put it on the system again.'

'Sorry mate. No can do. It was automatically accepted by our system.' There's a pause while he tries to think up a plausible excuse. 'It's basically non-reversible.'

Oh come on! Non-reversible. Ha! 'Oh shit,' I say. I suck the air in through my teeth and then say, 'Thanks a lot mate,' trying hard not to sound like I really mean it 'I'm gonna have to get onto Commercial Ops about this. Just so you know.' I slam down the receiver and then do a quick drum roll on the desk with a couple of rulers. I have just given away a fortune to a rival firm. Fistpump.

Another tick on the checklist and I'm moving onto the next task. The telex machine is in a cupboard on an upper landing. I begin to make for it when I am suddenly reminded of an urgent task. I run down to Electricity. Moby is nowhere in sight but his snores emanate from somewhere in the dark cavity under his desk. The shiny dome of his head can just be seen glinting in the shadows. I turn the ringer volume down to zero on all the phones and get the hell out again. Let sleeping dogs lie.

Back to the telex machine. You'd have thought that such an antiquated piece of equipment would be banished from a technological haven such as this. It sits there with all the sophistication of a Blake's Seven prop, encased in thick grey plastic and baring its greenscreen face shamelessly. Its very presence is an offence to the technologist’s eye, which is why it's hidden away in a small room inhabited by blocks of A4 and The Company’s fleet of spare staplers (black, stylish). Oh how it pains the IT department that men on oilrigs are suspicious of any new invention that doesn't have rotor blades or a drill bit. I tap in the numbers and put a start time of 4am on it. Technically I'm not supposed to put a dead zone time on it but these blokes will bend over backwards to be helpful. Decent chaps. I watch as the little green characters file sideways off the screen and drop off onto a piece of dusty paper that the printer sneezes out for me.

The call comes almost immediately from Onshore Control - a monstrous city of pipes and pumps crouched on the edge of Lincolnshire where all things gaseous are received from the North Sea to be cleaned, processed, measured and handed over to me and my chums to be flogged. 'Yes, that’s right, a zero nomination,' I confirm. 'The pressure's too high in our pipeline and Nox is going on outage for maintenance at oh five hundred.'

Perhaps I should explain. The Company had bought its very own pipeline to avoid the charges levied by the government controlled pirate stooge that is British Gas. Let’s face it, it was a punt. One of my jobs is to stick gas in it and make sure it’s all tickety-boo. Put too little in and it’ll shut down and three nice shiny gas-fired power stations will suddenly have nothing to run on. Put too much in and, well, half of Lincolnshire would be flung up into the stratosphere. Of course I would never do that. Nobody can say I lack scruples.

He sounds like he wants to believe this but says he never heard anything about it in the handover. I tell him there was a fax sent to his manager a week ago. I'll send a copy just as soon as I've finished all the control work that I'm doing, I say. Not being comfortable with paperwork himself (he is a man of action, happiest when striding around the complex with his diagnostic toolkit in hand) he agrees that I should send it later.

I go back to my desk and roll the chair over to the pipeline screen. It gives me some satisfaction to watch as the lines, which until this point had been ambling along quite nicely at a safe pressure, suddenly jump off a cliff. The phone rings again. It's Control at Nox (Jesus, who gives these power stations such stupid names?). 'Yes of course I know about it,' I reassure him. 'I'm just offloading some gas, reducing the pressure a little.’ He is doubtful. He needs to know more about my motives and who cleared them. ‘Who's your boss?’ he demands. I am forced to brandish the big gun of capitalism and wave it in his face. 'Look,’ I say in a plaintive kind of voice. ‘A fantastic commercial opportunity has arisen, I'm duty bound to pursue it otherwise I’ll have to explain things to the director, and I doubt he’ll be in a good mood the morning after the Christmas party.'

I then spend five minutes detailing my fictional commercial opportunity, firing little bullets of financial jargon into the ground around his feet. I put on a patronising air that I hope, conveys to him that I am a young New Economy type earning shitloads for fiddling with spreadsheets and he, poor soul, is but a middle-aged relic who once dared to think that his job would stand him in good stead until retirement age. I can be a shit sometimes when I want to be. He still isn't convinced but knows when to concede defeat and goes away grumpy. I can just imagine him now, doing an impression of me to his dour-faced colleagues. 'A fantastic commercial opportunity has arisen.'

He'll earn brownie points during the enquiry for putting up some resistance. I'm happy for him.

I tick off ‘Pipeline crash - trip Nox’. It gives me satisfaction to know that most of the groundwork has now been done. I page the duty engineer. Then I'm quickly onto the interruptions list. I already have the phone number at hand.

'GoodmorningKilmarnockCallCentreSolutionsLorrainespeakinghowmayihelpyou?' She talks as if it weren't 4:06 on a Wednesday morning. I tell her what I want her team to do. She sounds a bit shocked, as if I have proposed something improper. 'All of your customers?' she says.

'Yes, that's right' I reply, as blithely as I can. 'We've got big supply problems this end and we need all of them to switch over to alternative supplies within two hours or else face the penalty charges. You've already got the list but I'll send you a confirmation one just as soon as I can.'

'OK, we'll do our best. What did you say your name was again?'

'Jacob Black. Energy Trading. Call me back if you have any problems.'

I put the phone down. Within ten minutes I could have anything up to two hundred angry industrialists, airport managers and hospital chief engineers on the phone. Now I was beginning to rattle cages.

Come on Dave. I paged him ten minutes ago now. I really need him out of bed and driving in the opposite direction to where he's actually needed. A faint pinging noise drifts up from downstairs. Shit, I forgot to turn off the alarms in Electricity. I run down to the office again and Moby is still playing his part in all this from under the desk. Three of his screens are flashing up warnings of one sort or another and I quickly turn off all the speakers. The only sound now is that of his snores.

As I'm on the way back Dave rings. He's not impressed at being woken up. 'Dave,’ I say. ‘Sorry to get you out of bed. Alarm's been going off for half an hour now down at Number Two.' Number Two is a fenced-in concrete square with a modest growth of pipework in the wilds of Cheshire.

'That bloody alarm should've been fixed yesterday,' he says. I imagine him running his hand through his beard and frowning.

'It was Dave. That's the only reason I'm calling. It's probably just an owl or something but you know I've got to get it investigated otherwise Matthew will have my balls at the team meeting.'

Dave grumbles and hangs up. I can just see him getting into his van and cursing the day I was born. I make a note of the exact time. I'll do Mouse Click Number 2 in twenty minutes. No, better make it ten.

A frisson of panic ripples through me. Is this what it feels like to wield intoxicating power? I've started a chain of events. There's no going back now. I stuff my few possessions in my small backpack and place it on the floor so that it's ready for me when I leave in twelve minutes.

Two of my phones are ringing at once. I answer them both at the same time, trader-style, and listen. One is the station manager at Nox. He's demanding who he's speaking to. The other is the director of a steelworks up in Sheffield. He's probably sitting on the edge of his bed in his striped pyjamas with his concerned wife lying there. All I hear is 'What the hell?' In stereo. I decide to lay the two phone receivers on the desk together so they can talk to one another while I consult my list.

We're halfway through the dead zone and I need to be out of the building in a matter of minutes. I can imagine Dave speeding down country lanes, flattening rabbits and muttering to himself. He's probably playing Country & Western - I've heard he's into that. He’s the only engineer in the area who could possibly reverse the situation I’ve just put into play and I’ve sent him speeding off on in the wrong direction.

I can smell the bin where I was sick so I move it out of the way into the photocopying room. When I get back I'm so caught up with my cunning thoughts that I don't even hear him coming up behind me.

'Good morning Mr Black.'

My blood freezes.

Shit shit shit. Godric Hemmings. Manager of Strategic Initiatives and workaholic extraordinaire. It's 4:23, which must be a personal record for him.

'Morning Godric,' I am forced to say, turning to him. He's standing there all groomed and businesslike with his briefcase in his hand and his lunchbox under one arm.

'Everything going well in Gas?' He surveys my messy workspace with the phones off the hook and the screens with red alarms flashing silently. 'None of your fucking business,' I want to shout.

'Fine,' I say, 'You're early.'

'Ah,' he says, happy that I've noticed. He wants to score extra brownie points for being in so early when the rest of the office will be in late with hangovers. 'Should be an exciting day what with all this cold weather. I saw the day-ahead prices. What's it trading at now?'

I can't afford this conversation. 'About two-twenty when I last looked. Look, I'm dead busy at the mo.' I nod at the phones from which a distant cursing can be heard.

'Rightyho. Fill me in ASAP.' And with that he walks off. Shit shit shit. This wasn't in the plan. I know what he's going to do next. He's going down to Electricity to ask the same inane questions to Moby. I have to stop him. I have to.

I begin to follow him with no idea what I'm going to do next. Silently I pad along the carpet and watch as he jaunts along, his cheery whistling filling the dead zone air around him. And now I'm lucky. He pauses on the landing, goes down a flight of stairs and turns left into the gents. The door eases slowly back into the frame behind him and I'm left staring at the large handle and wondering where I can find something to wedge through it. I rush into a nearby cubicle and tear around like a madman, looking for a door jam. The only thing I can see is an easel with a large flipchart on it. That will do. I rip off the charts and run back to the toilets, ramming the steel legs through the oversize door handle. It jams quite nicely but I don't have time to wait around and see how effective it is.

Now I'm really getting panicky. I've got to get Mouse Click Number 2 over with but there's still about eight minutes to go.

My hands are shaking as I look at the checklist. There are a couple of luxurious optionals that I skip over. Nice touches but I would have needed more time. At least two phones are ringing in other departments now. I can hear them from afar and I know what it means. People are concerned. People are being got out of bed. People are on their way.

I try to concentrate but my thoughts are as slippery as eels when I try to grasp them. I've got to do Mouse Click Number 2 now. But there's still seven minutes to go. If I do it too early, there will still be time for Dave to turn around and drive like Michael Schumacher to save the day.

A loud crash comes from one floor down. Godric is having a good bash at getting the door open. It occurs to me that he'll use his mobile to phone Security any minute now. Or he could just set off the alarm. That'd be just the kind of thing he'd do. There's no time. I have to do it now.

The system diagram is already up and waiting for me on the screen. Valve 3 is wide open and doing its job. I even know what it physically looks like, having seen it with my own eyes on an interdepartmental daytrip designed to dissolve some of the mistrust between the suits and the hard hats. It's a brute, as far as valves go. If you stand next to it and let your eye follow the pipeline across the sands to the west, you can just make out the box-like form of Anglesey 2 - big enough to power half of Wales. The valve can be closed remotely by the Controller - tonight that's me - but must be opened manually by the Duty Engineer - that's Dave. When it shuts there'll be enough gas pressure in the pipeline to keep Anglesey 2 running for about twenty minutes max. Hopefully, Dave will be at least half an hour away at that point.

But I've got to do it right for it to be effective. I need the network to be virtually on its knees before I deliver the coup de grace. And there it is. Thank God. On the screen, Nox suddenly falters. Its power output trebles and then fizzles to nothing. I know that at this very moment its two colossal generators will be shrieking madly and shedding expensive bits of metal into their turbines as they plunge into a catastrophic uncontrolled shutdown. It will take months to fix. I have to act right now.

I'm terrified to think of the power I have in my index finger as it hovers over the left hand mouse button. I remember my aunt at Christmas when I was a boy showing me how to size up a slab of nutty toffee and select the spot where you will strike it with the little silver hammer that comes in the packet. Just a sharp tap, that's all that is needed to shatter it into small pieces so that everyone can have a bit. It's all in the wrist and knowing where the weak spot is.


ENTER CONTROLLER PASSWORD - p a s s w o r d (yes, it really is)


Just as I push down the mouse button, irreversibly changing my status from lawful citizen to wanted man, an eardrum-shattering pandemonium clatters around me. Godric must have twigged something was up and set off the fire alarm. I grab the bag and I'm up and running. I make it to Electricity in no time at all and lunge at the computers, pulling out cables and pressing 'off' buttons.

There is a grunt and Moby peers out from under the desk, his eyes like a newly born child. I stare at him momentarily. Honest to God I'm sorry about what I've done to him but there's no time now. No time.

As I'm running down the stairs Security is on his way up. He's all muscles and goatee beard and aggro.

'Did you set that off?' he barks.

'There's smoke in the canteen. I think it's one of the ovens,' I say, and he's off.

Now I'm in the nebulous car park and I'm sprinting to the car. A thousand useless lights bathe the tarmac in eerie circles and I'm breathing the icy air and fumbling with the key. There's no problem with the car, it starts first time. I have to drive up a verge to get around the security barrier. It'll all be on the CCTV. Speeding away, the cathedral of light retreats in the rear view mirror. I round a bend and now it's just me and the country lane. Other lights are coming towards me. One set. Two sets. Six sets in all whoosh past me and the road's barely wide enough for two vehicles. I turn my face away from the glare as they approach, my knuckles white on the steering wheel.

I don't stop until I've burrowed deep into the countryside and my pulse rate begins to feel normal again. I pull into the entrance of a field and kill the engine. Apart from the ticking of the cooling motor there is silence. I get out and climb over the gate and there's frozen earth beneath my feet as I walk up to the ridge. From here I can see the sickly orange fuzz of Birmingham seeping across the land and radiating upwards like poison into the sky.

I wait. A minute. Another minute. Almost twenty minutes pass before the flickering starts, gently at first and then more pronounced, like the gentle faraway pulses of a summer storm. And then the moment arrives as silently as snow. The city winks out of existence. The stars reassert themselves and not even the moon is present to bear witness to my crime. I walk back slowly, stumbling a little in the darkness and sit in the car with my eyes closed, feeling the blood running through my veins. When I open them again I see the curious green eyes of a fox glow at me from the darkness. They blink once, twice and then they're gone. I start the engine.


Associated Press. 20 December 2010. For immediate release.

Supplies have finally been restored to residents in Wales after last week’s freak electricity outage. The power cut that left most of England and Wales without electricity for several days is estimated to have cost the UK economy over twelve billion pounds and the lives of several hospital patients following the failure of backup power systems.

The outage, which was thought to have been caused by a voltage surge in the transmission line that runs between France and England, took system controllers by surprise and resulted in power stations toppling off line around the country in a domino effect similar to the situation which occurred in North America during the summer of 2003.

A French government spokesman strongly denied that its electricity grid was the cause of the problem, with one official blaming the outage on ‘policy [in the UK] that places critically important infrastructure in the hands of unaccountable corporations.’ UK electricity industry chiefs reacted angrily to his remarks, citing French protectionism.

In a statement the prime minister David Cameron issued a thinly-veiled attack on the French government, calling upon them to 'admit culpability' and hinting that the UK may consider seeking compensation through the EU. Cameron went on to praise the work of the engineers who worked around the clock to restore supplies, calling their efforts 'Herculean'. Many of the emergency engineering teams which eventually restored the system had to be flown in from Germany and Poland.

The Leader of the Opposition, Ed Miliband, used Tuesday's session in the Commons to call for a full inquiry into the causes of the catastrophe.

© Jason Heppenstall 2011

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Baltic Blue

Down on the beach at Amager Strand yesterday, looking east towards the wind park and Sweden. This is an ethereal ice sculpture that someone has made from the melting sea ice.

Or perhaps it's a Danish 'greeting' to Sweden?

Monday, January 3, 2011

Our house as an ecosystem

Up until about two and a half years ago we lived in southern Spain. We bought an old farm house and tried to live sustainably. Unfortunately we were hit by the downturn and ended up taking paid work in Denmark. Who knows, we might return one day. Here's a chapter from a book I have written that deals with that period.

Greenpeace was founded when I was about an inch long and happily growing inside my mother's womb, blissfully unaware of the perils of the world I was yet to be born into. When I finally emerged in 1971, if I'd been paying attention I'd have noticed that the world was in turmoil. The Vietnam War was at it's height and just a few days before I popped out half a million Americans marched to demand its end. Around the same time a new group called Friends of the Earth was also arising out of a growing awareness that the species I had just been born into was wrecking the planet. Oil prices were sky high, by the standards of the day, and it wouldn't be long before shocks in its supply made people aware for the first time that the human world we had created ran on oil.

Many men had long hair and beards around this time but my father certainly didn't. Back then Britain still had a substantial manufacturing base and my father spent his working life building cars and trains. It's difficult to imagine anyone less like a hippie than my father, but nevertheless the energy conserving ethos of the age was instilled in him and I grew up in a household where we had central heating but it was rarely turned on. During the coldest months of winter we would wear woolly jumpers, and sometimes even gloves, and not being able to see your breath meant that it must be summer. And it wasn't just my father who was like that, his generation was the last one to remember the rationing of the war and the long decades of stagnation and deprivation that followed. Because of this collective memory, and in response to the oil shocks that hit the 1970s, a movement grew up that called itself the appropriate technology movement. Their aim was as simple and sensible as it was laudable: to stop focusing on quick but expensive technological fixes to the oil crisis and develop simple and more cost effective ways to ensure everyone had enough energy to meet their needs.

In intellectual and activist circles the movement was a big success. People rushed to sign up for courses in composting, insulation and animal husbandry. Others built their own wind turbines and solar heaters. The movement went mainstream and even Jimmy Carter, the president of the United States, installed solar panels on the White House. In Britain a sitcom, The Good Life, about a couple who turned their suburban London home into a smallholding and shocked the neighbours, was watched by millions of people every week. I grew up thinking it was normal for people to help birth lambs in their bathrooms.

But then something happened to put a stop to all this fun. The oil price spikes of the 1970s had been caused by supply problems in the Middle East, especially Iran, but by the end of the decade these problems were retreating in the rear view mirror. Margaret Thatcher came to power in Britain and had the incredible good political fortune to coincide her ascendency with the discovery of massive oil deposits in the North Sea. Across the Pond, her partner in crime Ronald Reagan opened up all the spindles on every oil platform he had influence over and the age of cheap oil was upon us. This new era was born on a gusher, and all of a sudden nobody was watching The Good Life, they turned over to watch Dallas instead. The antics of rich and greedy oil barons like J.R. Ewing were far more compelling than watching Richard Briers wrestle with the ethical dilemma of killing a chicken for dinner. The raison d'etre of the appropriate technology movement vanished in a puff of black oily smoke and its acolytes were chased from public view, their ideas banished to the collective Siberia of the mind.

To make matters worse, around my eighteenth birthday the economist Francis Fukuyama proclaimed 'the end of history', meaning that the industrial western model of a consumerist democracy had trumped all other forms of social and economic organisation. Triumphalist free marketeers blew their trumpets from Kuala Lumpur to Berlin heralding a future of endless consumerism and corporate dominance. Mankind had reached an evolutionary pinnacle and idealism had no further part to play, so the wisdom went. I was at a loss. Cheap and plentiful oil had killed the Zeitgeist I had been raised with.

Until now. I stood in front of my house and wondered what I could do with it. In ring binders on my desk I had printed out thousands of sheets of scanned pages from how-to manuals typed out crookedly on old typewriters in the days before citizens had been re-branded as consumers. These were the Dead Sea Scrolls of the appropriate tech movement, abandoned in haste and left lying all but forgotten in dusty corners of public libraries and old boxes stored in the attics of the formerly idealistic.

The basic thing to recognise, I read, was that our home and the land it was on was an ecosystem. And like any ecosystem it was defined by its energy flows and materials. The material bit was easy to figure out as you could see it: walls, doors, trees, soil, lazy cats and the numerous buzzing bees, to name but a few aspects. And material things, if you were clever about managing them, went around in cycles. That was the whole art of permaculture, a contraction of permanent and agriculture: the way to use natural systems to provide yourself with food, wood etc., without diminishing the system. If I wanted any advice on this we were lucky to have one the founders of the philosophy, Patrick Whitefield, as one of our neighbours. Orgiva is that kind of place.

No less of a challenge though was the concept of recognising and harnessing the ambient energy without having to rely on dirty fossil fuels. Although I hadn't been aware of it at the time, the same year we moved into our house, 2006, was also the year of peak oil, according to the International Energy Agency. Whole books have been written about peak oil, and many more will be, but in a nutshell it is the moment when half of the world's reachable fossil fuel reserves have been exploited. 2006 was this moment and henceforth it will be rising demand and diminishing supply, meaning that price rises of a steepness we have never seen before are inevitable.

The harsh glare of the Andaluz sun seemed a most obvious source of energy. I learned that the sun was most readily available for two types of energy; to produce electricity using solar photovoltaic (PV) panels, and to use its rays to heat water in a tank. It seemed crazy that the roads of Andalucia were thick with trucks carrying butane gas bottles - most of it originating in Algeria from where it is shipped to Spain - when the sun could heat up water easily and for no charge. I had no idea how much a solar water heater might cost, but guessed at a couple of hundred euros. I was wrong. The figure was several times that. I couldn’t see how, what I assumed to be a very basic system could cost so much.

Further research turned up some interesting DIY projects that would cost almost nothing. Old radiators, cleaned out and painted black, could be installed easily as could old decommissioned boilers placed on the roof and painted with some light absorbing paint. Indeed, David and Aspen had made a perfectly functional and stylish shower block with nothing but coils of regular black plastic irrigation tubes on the roof. The possibilities extended in every direction with a bit of imagination.

Turning to PV, the options were far more complex. Our cortijo already had a solar system installed, albeit a basic one. A single Franco era panel sat on the roof generating enough power for a couple of feeble light bulbs. The old man we had bought the house off couldn’t see why we should want any more than this. A family of tailless geckos had made their home in the inverter box on the wall and a single truck battery bubbled and hissed away in the corner of what was to be Sofia's nursery. Our house needed to be brought into the 21st century.

The problem was I had virtually no understanding of electricity. I knew it could electrocute you if you stuck your finger in a light bulb fitting and I knew it was comprised of electrons that whizzed around violently banging into other particles. I bought a book that explained PV and electricity to its readers as if it were a kindergarten story. Amps were analogous to packs of huskies pulling sledges and electrical resistance was something to do with sticky snow. It was at my level.

Fully clued up, so I thought, I went off to talk to a solar installer about huskies and sledges and everything else I had learned. The professional engineer from Germany seemed a little puzzled at first but soon saw I was in need of help. He noted down everything that we might want to run in the house, when we might want to use it (e.g. TV and computers at night, sewing machine and iron in the day) and went off to do some calculations. When I next saw him he told me exactly what PV system we needed and where we could get hold of it. It was less painful than I had previously imagined.

Just to be sure I asked another expert and was told something completely different. Another one still came up with a third choice substantially different to the other two. I attempted some of the calculations myself but soon gave up. The task was proving more frustrating than I had anticipated. Surely it couldn't be that difficult? I spent several weeks in this state and a kind of solar paralysis came over me. I didn’t like to talk about our 'electricity situation' because I knew that whoever I mentioned it to would tell me something contrary to the prevailing latest advice. My own calculations were equally as confusing. Scraps of paper littered the dining room table with things written on them like '9 * lghtblbs * 4.5 hrs (avg) + TV (200w?) + 1hr wshng mchn (gen bckup?) = (assmg 8hrs fll sun frm 4 pnls 110w each)…etc'. Worryingly, whenever I mentioned sacrifice to my wife she raised a concerned eyebrow and said things like “Remember we’ve got children,” or “Perhaps we should get a grid connection as, you know, backup.” I was adamant about the grid connection. Plans were afoot to bring the grid to our patch of hillside – which seemed ridiculous to me seeing as everyone was living perfectly fine without it.

And then I got a phone call from someone who said he could help me. I arranged a meeting down on the coast and two weeks later was the proud owner of a solar system put together by an enthusiast and imported from the four corners of the globe. The panels came from Japan, the batteries (monster ones weighing over a hundred kilos each) from Canada, the inverter (the box that sits on the wall and converts battery energy to useful electricity) from Switzerland and the other parts from the UK.

The six panels themselves were high powered ones that sat in two arrays of three on our roof and the inverter was a meaty 4,500 watts – enough to power all the mod cons found in a regular grid-connected house. For backup I bought a petrol powered generator for times when perhaps several consecutive cloudy days have depleted the batteries or we were running every single appliance continuously. In these instances the backup generator would switch on automatically when the inverter detected a low level of battery power without even a blip in the supply. The supply itself was pure sine wave, which meant there would be no annoying hum on audio and video equipment, as could happen with non-sine wave inverters.

The total cost of our ‘overkill’ system was around €12,000. This came out as average when compared with other estimates we had been given, which ranged from €4,000 (a complete DIY job) to €22,000 (a rip off). Given that we would have had to pay €8,000 for a connection to the grid this meant that we had spent an extra €4,000 – with the added bonus that all electricity would be free and we knew that we would be generating very low levels of CO2 (although not zero when one took into consideration the production of the materials and the long distance shipping).

Next on the list of considerations was internal heating. No heating existed apart from a large open fireplace and a blackened hearth in the kitchen. But before considering what type of heating to install I learned that the best way to think about things was to start by asking what kind of temperature would be acceptable and working backwards from that. This might have sounded like a simple question but it may well be the cause of numerous marriage break-ups. Michelle, being Scandinavian, liked to bask in indoor heat. To her anything below 25C was ‘chilly’. I, however, was naturally attenuated to cooler conditions and could wear a tee shirt in conditions that made Michelle turn blue. So, after some horse trading, we agreed that a temperature of between 18 and 20 degrees centigrade was ‘reasonable’ in winter.

How to achieve this target temperature? The first thing we had to consider was insulation. There are many types on the market, some being highly artificial, such as polystyrene, and some being more organic, such as wool and straw. The most important factor to consider with the insulation was the u value. This is simply the measure of the conductive properties of the material – a lower u value means less heat can escape (or get in during summer). Use can again be made of the sun by installing a large south-facing window and building an interior stone wall behind it and painting it with very dark paint. This is an ingenious and simple method for catching heat because the winter sun, being so low in the sky, only falls on your wall during the season, when it’s most needed. The solar rays are absorbed by the heavy stone in the day and the heat radiates out slowly throughout the night, heating the house in the process. During summer the sun is too high to hit the interior wall and you are spared being roasted inside your own home. A similar effect could be had by painting an exterior wall black during the winter and whitewashing it again during the summer.

For ourselves, however, we opted for a regular wood burning stove, primarily because much of the fuel could be sourced from our own land. The key thing here was that wood should be burned at a high intensity to get as much heat from it as possible – a smouldering log was a wasted log, it turned out.

When we had our basic systems sorted out it occurred to me that all we had done was bring the house up to a level of amenity that we had been conditioned to expect from our society. After all, other people had been living there for centuries without any of the infrastructure we had just gone to great effort and expense to install.

This gave me pause for thought about the meaning of technology. Mere mention of the word 'technology' to most people conjures up visions of the latest smart phone, or perhaps technicians working in a laboratory trying to find ingenious ways to fuse atoms. But when it comes down to it, it is the basic technology of everyday life – clean water that flows easily out of taps, interior lighting when it is dark, and a means of disposing of our sewage – that people have forgotten about. To me, that's what technology boiled down to, and it'll be the kind of technology that people will miss the most if it is no longer available.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

A trashy 2011

Okay, new year, new year's resolution to publish more posts on this blog. I was thinking this yesterday as I was going down to take some bits of cardboard to the paper recycling bin that's just outside our flat. Only thing was, when I got to it it had disappeared. That's strange, I thought, before I remembered it was New Year's Eve and the council have to remove all street containers lest firework wielding revellers turn them into impromptu bombs.

I wandered around a bit more until I came to a regular bin with a swing shut metal lid. I opened it up to stick the cardboard in (I wasn't waiting several days just to recycle a couple of pizza boxes) when I noticed the coffee machine that lay within. It was quite a nice one, Kenwood I think, and still in its box. In fact, on closer inspection, it turned out to be brand new. It was probably an unwanted Christmas present or something and someone had snuck out of their flat and rammed it into this bin in the street.

Now, being the scrounger that I am, I would ordinarily have taken it out and brought it gleefully home under my arm. I already have a coffee machine, but this one was brand new and more expensive looking than mine. The only problem was, it was covered in dog turds. Yes, that's right. Danish people, pretty much, all own dogs. Round where I live they also live in flats, hence lots of walkies, and lots and lots of doggy do. Most owners scoop it up by hand in a plastic bag - yes I too find it revolting, but some scoop up with a little spade and chuck it in the bin. I wouldn't be bringing the coffee maker home after all.

This got me thinking about trash, and how to get hold of it. Denmark is a veritable paradise for scroungers like myself. Living in the most wasteful nation in Europe has its upsides when you arrive here, sans everything, as we did three years ago. Early victims of the financial crisis, we rolled up with a small car, a few salvaged pots and pans from our previous life, a suitcase of clothes and two kids.

After a short stint at the mother-in-law's we were allocated a council flat near Copenhagen Airport and moved in shortly afterwards. The flat was spacious and modern and with underfloor heating (this is, after all, Scandinavia) but it was devoid of anything other than some kitchen units, a cooker and a fridge. We had jobs but no money, so the question arose: how do we furnish our flat?

The answer turned out to be: with remarkable ease.

Within only a couple of weeks I had filled it. The first stop was the local municipal dump. Here I found many of the bigger items, as people go there every day with trailer loads of, frankly, brand new stuff. Next I asked around and people were immediately glad that I would relieve them of their sofas, televisions and book shelves as it meant they could buy some new ones. Finally, an acquaintance was clearing out his office having decided it needed a total overhaul. A big skip arrived but before much could be put in it I liberated some of the designer furniture and modern art.

Nobody who has ever visited my flat would have guessed that practically everything in it was scavenged. Some of the furniture is a bit of a mix, especially by the ultra style conscious Danes, but hey - it was free. Of course, some things I had to buy. My laptop was purchased in a real store, as was the children's bunk bed. But most of their toys and clothes were not. Yes, shocking as it may seem, every week hundreds, if not thousands, of toys and bags of clothes (many designer labels) are put in the dump/recycling zone 30 seconds from my front door. There's practically nothing that you can't find there. Usually, once every week or two, someone will put their entire flat there. That's right, everything. TV, furniture, clothes, computers, CD collection - the whole lot will be stacked up neatly awaiting the men in blue overalls who will throw EVERYTHING into a big dumpster for delivery to the incineration plant. I got a new microwave last week - still in its box unused and with the warranty. I asked Michelle, who is Danish, why someone would throw out an unused microwave. "Probably because it's black - you'll be able to see the dust on it," was her reply.

My only regret is that I have no room for more. I have had to turn a painful blind eye to a remarkable amount of stuff that I have no space for. A few weeks ago the powers that be in our block took away everyone's bikes that didn't look like they'd been ridden in a while. the result was a hundred or so bicycles, ranging from creaking old granny bikes, to new-looking mountain bikes tossed into a crusher. And then there is all the furniture, the prams, books, CDs and DVDs (mountains and mountains of these), Xboxes, stereos, fishtanks and goodness knows what else. I've given up mentioning it to people because they look at me in a strange way when I tell them I get stuff from the tip (even though nothing I have taken has been in anything less than great condition). Some of my recents finds have included a complete set of 19th century Dickens's, a couple of antique brass wall clocks and a brand new set of expensive copper cooking pans.

It's remarkable, the level of decent stuff that is thrown out. Neither can it continue. The sheer amount of waste is only a by product of cheap oil and a consumer society geared up for a constant round of purchasing and disposing, both of which are now feeling the squeeze. Perhaps in twenty years time Danes will look back and remember the collosal amount of stuff they got through and wonder why they didn't hang onto some of it.