Nothing will be the same again.
Those are words that challenge the heart and the imagination. The heart because, as in a death or the loss of a job, some things will be very missed. The imagination because it needs inspired speculation to know how the present crisis will reshape the way we live; how we are governed, how we educate, how we do business, and how we play.
Some losses are somewhat predictable. Most of us may never sit in a movie theater again because there may be no movie theaters. They were already having a hard time with the competition from streaming services, now many may just not reopen.
Question: What will be done with those buildings? They are mostly part of shopping centers where many of the tenants for restaurants and specialty shops will also go out of business.
Here’s my answer: In that glorious time when we have licked COVID-19, many new entrepreneurs will get their start in those empty shells. A myriad of yet-unknown businesses will crop up, coming out of these times of ultra-difficulty. Failing shopping centers offer habitat to startups.
We are in a state of war, and in war — despite its horror — there is invention. As we try to defeat this pandemic, there will be inventions aplenty.
War has always spurred creativity, in art and in science, and in its aftermath, a time of optimism and opportunity. Catastrophe shakes up society and reorients it. There is a high price but a great reward.
Needs must, there will be a re-evaluation of values and the goods and services that are essential. High on that list will be electricity. Over and over again we will be asking ourselves if the electric grid is safe and if so, how safe?
As Morgan O’Brien, co-founder of Nextel and now CEO of Anterix, which offers utilities secure communications systems, told me, “The coronavirus pandemic is putting more stress on the infrastructure which keeps our society functioning. Critical infrastructure like the electric grid will be more stressed as it is the essential lifeline for Americans sheltering in place.”
A loss of all or part of the grid is an existential fear that has had experts worried since the first computer hackers had a go at it. Utility presidents have told me that it is grid security that keeps them awake at night. It should. CPS Energy, the utility in San Antonio, gets more than 2 million hits a day, I believe.
Late last year the president’s National Infrastructure Advisory Council warned strongly of the dangers of cyberattack. It said the electric utility industry is good at tackling small, short-term outages but it is essentially unprepared for catastrophic outages lasting a long time.
Earlier this year James Woolsey, a former CIA director and an honorary co-chair of the Secure the Grid Coalition, wrote to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission demanding it order more physical security for transformers, pylons, etc.
Woolsey cited a lack of improved physical security since that became an issue with the sophisticated disabling of Pacific Gas & Electric’s substation in Metcalf, Calif., in 2013.
John Savage, professor emeritus of computer science at Brown University, who is writing a book on cybersecurity, raises a less-mentioned dimension of threat to the grid: the role of GPS. With the advent of global positioning satellites, he explained, the utility industry switched from using atomic clocks to using GPS timing as the basis for its nationwide synchronization.
Savage told me, “Dependence on GPS for timing is a security risk. If GPS timing signals are distorted or lost, serious damage may be done to the grid.
“GPS signals can be lost due to a local jamming, blackouts, produced by a solar flare, or spoofing. A GPS anomaly alone or a cyberattack combined with one can cascade and bring down a large portion of the grid for an extended period of time.”
Gen. James Jones, a retired Marine commandant and NATO commander, told me, “For the past several years, I have been preoccupied by the proximity of threats, particularly in the cyber realm.”
Much will change, but the need for reliable electricity will remain paramount.