Want to create a UK power blackout? Turn on your washing machine…

The UK power generation infrastructure is relatively well protected, but the best way to attack it may not necessarily be to attempt it head on.

In a series of three separate blogs, Cloud Computing and Virtualisation specialist, Graham F French, looks at the darker side of these progressive technologies.

The ‘Internet of Things‘ is a catch all title, describing innumerable objects and devices that are directly or indirectly conected to the Web.

Depending on who you believe, there will be something like 26 to 30 billion ‘things’ connected to the Internet by 2020. One of the main areas of growth in this tech sector is home based ‘intelligent’ devices. That could be one of any number of things;

  • Heating
  • Lighting
  • Washing Machine
  • Fridge/Freezer
  • Smart TV
  • Home Security
  • Smart Meters
  • Mains Powered WiFi controlled devices
  • Broadband router

Britain is heading towards a perfect storm of closing power plants coupled with an increase in power usage. Lots of people have multiple smart devices, iPhones, iPads and computers/laptops, all of which need to be charged on a regular basis. Add into the mix the multiplying proliferation of ‘Internet of Things’ and you have an ever increasing power demand from a decreasing number of viable power sources.

Having the occasional outage doesn’t help the situation much, the recent Dicot B Power Station fire removed around 1.3 megawatts of generation from the UK National Grid, which is enough to power around 1 million homes.

Peak usage in the UK tends to occur in the Winter, normally on a Monday at 6pm. A report called “The impact of changing energy use patterns in buildings on peak electricity demand in the UK” from the UK Government Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), pretty much tells anyone with an Internet connection of the typical UK peak usage.

One of the main issues at the moment is the diminishing amount of available headroom capacity that the United Kingdom will have in the winter of 2014/2015. The BBC News website reports on how, as a nation, we’ve gone from 17% to 4% spare capacity over the last three years. This doesn’t bode well for the short to medium term.

On 14th August 2003, the North East and Mid West of the United States and the Ontario area of Canada, experienced a blackout of epic proportions that knocked out the power for 55 million people in one incident. That’s very nearly the entire population of the United Kingdom (63 million at 2011 Census) without electricity!!

Mind you, that was an unintentional blackout, what’s worse is when you’ve got a perfectly functioning power plant and your drunken boss calls to shut it down because he can’t get a free drink..!

But getting back to the UK, the fact that we are now using more energy saving lightbulbs bodes well for the long term, but will the new power stations be online and providing power in time to prevent rolling blackouts?? Time will tell.

In the meantime, if you wanted to create a UK power blackout, the best way is not to choose the difficult option and attack the power plants themselves with some sort of Stuxnet worm, but to hack the home based technology for saving power and spreading the power usage throughout the day, and turn it against itself. There are already devices available to turn appliances on and off according to the time of day or the wholesale energy price. Not forgetting lots of home automation devices like WeMo used to control pretty much any mains powered device and then there’s the control logic behind that in services like IFTTT.com who provide a service to switch your home automation devices on or off, depending on certain criteria, such as the local weather conditions.

Timing is everything, so plan it for a Monday, around 6pm in the winter, especially around a major event. Winter Olympics is always a good bet. There’s always a surge after a main programme when lots of people switch their kettles on to make a cuppa. and then as you’ve already hacked into a wide variety of smart meters and home black boxes, swich everything, and I mean everything, on! Plus, set the washing machine to spin and press go!!

Sit back and say hello to the next major rolling blackout…

Oh, by the way, if you can sustain the blackout for any sort of time, something longer than 48 hours or at least long enough to create enough issues that getting the UK back up and running is a prolonged affair, then you’ve got the opportunity to cause a severe economic issue.

Happy hacking… :-)

Coming soon – The last episode in this series of three blogs about the Internet of Things – We know where you’re going!


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