Can a secondary fuel economy ever be hardened against attacks?

If a society fully centralized their energy supply to a secondary fuel (artificial energy source like Hydrogen or batteries), the public loses the ability to directly access energy from the earth. This seems to insert a vulnerability, where the secondary fuel production facilities become soft targets. Wind and solar farms, hydroelectric dams, can all be crippled very easily and fixed with tremendous difficulty. (Adding that wind and solar literally can not be enclosed at all). They can never kill our raw materials like a coal supply or wood with a couple bombs, or even natural gas. But it seems they can easily kill any factory that makes a secondary fuel. And by "kill", that means "hard kill" - the lights are not coming on again for a very long time and with enormous effort. It goes without saying you can temporarily knock out anything for an inconvenience.

How can an economy fully migrated to an artificial energy source efficiently harden their energy supply?

Some online definitions are confusing. For this problem, a secondary fuel is something that nature does not produce - it is artificial and contains no energy until we process it in some factory or refinery.

Background

Our pre-industrial society began using primary fuels. We ran trains on coal-fired steam. We heated our houses with whale oil or wood. We lit our homes and streets with oil, and we supplied our food and transportation needs with beasts of burden. We even built cities and dug mines with steam powered excavators and cranes.

Since then we have been moving to secondary energy sources out of ecological concerns, and realizing that primary fuels are not unlimited.

I was thinking about going all in with a Hydrogen economy completely free from fossil fuels. A near environmental and climate utopia. Then I realized how easy it would be to cripple the entire society. Or is it?

• Folks have tried to cripple energy networks before - gas, electric, etc. Some through market manipulation, some through sabotage or terrorism, some through war. When the grid goes dark, folks barbecue their frozen food. After a day or two, they buy small generators. If gas becomes scarce, they move to Aunt Muriel's house for a week or two. If your hydrogen network is so brittle that it will fall over (forever) at the first attack, then it will have fallen over long before it scaled up, and folks will have built resilience and redundancy into it. – user535733 Nov 15 at 4:43
• Why is it easier to "kill any factory that makes a secondary fuel" that it would be to knock out fuel refineries and power generation plants? If Hydrogen plants are the basis of your entire energy and fuel supply, there will be such an incredibly large number of them scattered all across your distribution network that the number that would have to be crippled/destroyed to make a dent in the supply would be pohibitively large. – Michael Richardson Nov 15 at 15:54
• @user535733 - these were the exact thoughts that made me come up with the question. In my mind the answer was "it can't" but I felt this may be a good job for a think-tank before penning a utopian renewable energy world.. – Vogon Poet Nov 15 at 16:41
• I still fail to see the differentiation between traditional energy sources and your "secondary" fuel sources in terms of resilience to attacks. Yes, someone can bomb a solar farm or burn down a windmill. But they can just as easily bomb a refinery or blow up a coal mine. If anything, it seems to me that the things you're calling "secondary" fuel sources are probably easier to restore. You don't have to dig sunshine or wind out of the ground before you can use it. And I could go home right now and build a windmill to generate power from things I have in my garage. – dwizum Nov 15 at 20:07
• @dwizum - Your right, "You don't have to dig sunshine or wind out of the ground". Instead, you have to manufacture expensive and incredibly difficult photovoltaic cells or turbines. The shovel really is the easier of the two. – Vogon Poet Nov 15 at 20:25

I think that @Salda007 has the right answer, but I'd like to back it up a little.

In addition to decentralization, you should also invest in over-production. That is, have so many extra wind/solar farms or whatever you use, that many of them would have to be knocked out to disable any part of the grid. They don't all have to be running and generating at the same time. Redundancy is key to uptime.

Alternatively, if your power source is cheap and easy to assemble, you could just speedily replace downed components. You did say that small interruptions are okay.

• I really liked Salda007's answer but I agree the reserves and redundancy is also critical. Good point. – Vogon Poet Nov 15 at 21:51

Most fuel cells don't take raw hydrogen, but hydrogen containing compound like hydrocarbons on hydrides. This means, you will still be using natural gas in your hydrogen economy, simply to a much lesser extent as the fuel cell is going to be far more efficient than a heat engine.

Secondly, methane (the major component of natural gas) can be generated locally from compost heaps and sewage, and is in fact used to supplement the natural gas supply today. You're not suddenly going to wake up and find all available gas has disappeared.

Thirdly, I don't know how you think the current fossil fuel economy is strategically safe. Fossil fuels are only available in certain parts of the world. MOST COUNTRIES HAVE NO NATURAL RESERVES AND NEED TO BUY THEIR FUEL FROM INTERNATIONAL OIL CARTELS. The reason why sanctions work is that they cut off fuel supplies to the target. The reason why US sanctions work is because you can only use dollars to buy oil, and as the issuer, the US has the capacity to monitor dollar movements.

Fourthly, the oil coming from the ground is not magically fit to use immediately. It needs to be refined in "secondary fuel production facilities [that] become soft targets". No vehicles or factories or power plants can use crude oil. Look up what happened when Katrina destroyed the oil refineries in the Caribbean during Bush II's presidency. The price of petrol shot up worldwide and stayed that way for nearly two years until other refineries scaled up to take on the additional load and some of the destroyed refineries were rebuilt. Consider also what happened during the Middle Eastern oil crisisin the 70s and in Europe during WWII, when Middle Eastern oil supplies were stopped. Oil and natural gas are not strategically safe unless you have your own wells. Coal, ditto, except you can't really use coal in mobile applications.

TLDR: a hydrogen fuel economy won't be any worse strategically than the present situation. In fact, given that anybody with access to water can produce usable hydrogen compounds locally, it is actually strategically safer if you are a small country with no natural hydrocarbon reserves.

• "as the issuer, the US has the capacity to monitor dollar movements" ... I very much doubt so. Once issued they are out, there is no microscopic radioactive tracer coupled with a gps and a 5G antenna on each USD banknote ... and I certainly not report to the US treasury the serial number of every dollar that pass through my hands, I don't think you do either. The only thing they can track, is how many banknote are emmited for a year, how many have been recycled this year, and work out the difference. – Hoki Nov 15 at 14:29
• @Hoki Nobody who has any alternative is buying kilotonnes of oil using physical dollars. "Dollars" are spent by moving money between bank's accounts, not briefcases of notes, for the most part. And the banking money movement is monitored. – Yakk Nov 15 at 16:27
• @Yakk but that capacity to monitor is not exclusive to the US, basically any country with banks can do it. – John Nov 15 at 16:44
• @John The US demands that all banks that deal in US dollars provide it with the ability to monitor money flows. So no, not every country with banks can do it. (If you don't comply, they cut off your right to access US banks and anyone else who complies with US monitoring, hence you cannot practically deal in "dollars"). If you want to know more and fix any errors I made, please feel free to ask on the appropriate stack exchange, as this is off topic here. :) – Yakk Nov 15 at 17:58
• @VogonPoet: You could not, would not and should not be centralizing all consumable energy into production plants, if using renewables. Unless you're a 5 family village in the middle of nowhere, producing ten times what you consume daily, you'd be using up what you produce locally and selling any excess. The grid would only supply large loads like cities and compensate for transient loads in intermittent periods, e.g., wind drops just as you're about to put on the kettle. Industrial hydrogen generation for vehicles etc., would be done at plants with their own dedicated power supplies – nzaman Nov 16 at 8:55

Decentralized rather than Hardened

The thing about hydrogen as a fuel is that all you need to produce it is electricity and water. With solar and wind power becoming more and more widespread, the fuel they're using to generate electricity is literally the sun and the wind, which no military force can disrupt. On the other hand, fossil-fuel power relies on mines or wells to pull the raw material from a very limited number of places, then refineries, pipelines, tankers, railroads, etc., to refine the fuel and ship it to a small number of vulnerable power plants to be converted into useful electricity. There are many more vulnerable places that can be cut to disrupt the system.

With the exception of hydroelectric dams and geothermal plants, today's solar- and wind-based renewable electricity infrastructure is much more decentralized, and I can only imagine this trend will continue further as we move further towards a primarily hydrogen fuel/pure electric infrastructure.

Businesses and homeowners across the world are installing solar panels on the roofs of buildings or on canopies over parking lots. Cities are setting up stands of panels alongside highways or on other unused land. There's no way to defend any of these installations, but there's no reason to -- there's too many to feasibly knock all of them out, and each one is individually too small to bother with. If a proper hydrogen economy develops, I doubt it'd be long before those same businesses and homeowners installed their own small-scale hydrogen electrolysis systems as well -- just add water!

With utility-scale solar plants, unless it's the type of plant with a central tower that gets heated by reflectors, then the only really vulnerable part of the plant are the control buildings, and that's easy enough to stuff in a bunker somewhere. Otherwise, you're looking at several square kilometers worth of individual collectors to destroy.

As far as wind power goes, this is an aerial photo of a large wind farm in the UK: If you want to knock that farm offline completely, you'd need to knock out every one of those turbines -- except that's only about a quarter of the turbines in that farm, so you'd need to knock out quadruple that number. All of these are scattered over an area of several dozen square kilometers, meaning each one would need to be targeted individually. Knocking down that many dispersed targets would not be a small undertaking, and that's just one individual wind farm.

And again, as with solar, many cities that see favorable wind conditions are now putting up a few turbines here and there to cover part of their power needs. So even if you do mount a major operation to flatten a central wind farm, there will still be other turbines powering the system elsewhere.

Granted, for both fossil fuels or renewable/hydrogen, you're still then dealing with some sort of power-distribution infrastructure, but, again, the solar/wind network has thousands of smaller generators delivering power to users close by, rather than the fossil fuel network, which relies on shipping power long distances from a handful of centralized power plants. I'll let you decide which of those would be easier to disrupt.

So, basically, as long as you have sun, wind, and rain you can't cut off the power from a solar/wind/hydrogen network completely. And, to quote a certain theme song, "You can't take the sky from me..."

• This explains well how the basic premise of the question is off. Wind and solar power are in fact much more resilent against attacks than the traditional power generation techniques like coal or oil or even worse nuclear. – quarague Nov 15 at 10:20
• The wind farm is deceptively easy to kill, kinetic weapons are not the only (or even most accessible) threat. An EMP weapon easily forces you to replcae every single generator on that farm. In that regard, the wind farm is still a centralized production facility. A picture of generators in a close 1-km$^2$ field is still a single target. But I see that your point is correct - decentralize and distribute power generation, like the Internet is hardened against communication blackouts. – Vogon Poet Nov 15 at 16:32
• @VogonPoet I fail to see how an EMP wouldn't do the same thing to a conventional power plant. – DKNguyen Nov 15 at 22:13
• @VogonPoet I fail to see the difference. If the wind turbines die the wind is still there just like the if the plant dies the coal is there. But just burning a pile of coal is nowhere near the same as burning it in such a way that it gets back onto a grid. I think you seriously underestimate what goes on at a power plant. – DKNguyen Nov 15 at 22:34
• @VogonPoet, to give a scale to the photo I included, the two points of the crescent-shaped lake are about a kilometer apart. The entire farm, the Whitelee Wind Farm in Scotland, is spread over something like 55 km^2 . A single weapon is not going to take out every one of those generators unless you're lobbing nukes around, in which case your fossil-fuel plants aren't going to survive any better. Another, wider photo of the same farm is at upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/2e/Whitelee_wind_farm_from_the_air_%28geograph_6051699%29.jpg – Salda007 Nov 16 at 6:49

Regardless, whether you run on coal, oil, gas, nuclear, wind, hydro...

at the end of the day you end up with some more or less vulnerable power plants and power grid that's an easy target, even for a madman with an axe.

You are not specially less vulnerable when you have refineries and exposed pipelines.

So how to harden? While usually renewables tend to behave in the most problematic way for grid operator, here they could have some advantages:

• dispersed production (instead of a few big powerplants, you end up with hundreds of windmills - catch... destroy them all)
• even if energy is being produced this way, its conversion to hydrogen could happen in multiple dispersed places, possibly even at tanking stations

(sure, both ideas would cause extra cost, but one could make it rather resilient)

• Destribution of targets would not make them harder to destroy, but much harder to defend. Thats the reason why castles and (for morden times) military bases are. Wile one division of AA missiles can cover one dam or nuclear plant, it will not be able to cover hundreds of "windmills" spread in the area. You will need times more military power to provide equal protection for same power generation. – ksbes Nov 15 at 7:29
• @ksbes Depends on tech level and intensity of conflict. If you include nuclear plants, it means that nuclear warheads are potentially on the table. In asymmetric warfare - dispersion would be a serious weakness, in nuclear warfare - the only way to have any operational infrastructure left on the second day of the conflict. – Shadow1024 Nov 15 at 9:21
• @ksbes With a dam or nuclear plant, there's a central target that the attackers can focus all of their efforts on, meaning odds are good that at least a couple attacks will get through successfully. With a wind farm, the attackers need to knock down dozens or hundreds of turbines, scattered over dozens of square kilometers, to have the same effect on the wind farm's capabilities. So instead of launching, say, 30-40 missiles at a plant (one B-2 bomber's worth) and expecting 2-3 to get through, they'd now need to send hundreds of missiles all at once and hope that all of them are successful. – Salda007 Nov 15 at 10:00
• @ksbes But that's the whole point of distributed anything - the individual pieces don't much matter and can fall over but the system can handle the strain. With a central power plant (nuclear, hydro, coal), one guy with a bomb can feasibly take down that plant, which completely cripples all production - 100% to 0%. With decentralized wind farms, you had to build in some extra capacity anyways, but that means one guy with a bomb just takes down a few plants out of hundreds - so you go from like 110% max capacity to 105% max capacity. Might need to ration to cope, but the grid doesn't fall over. – Delioth Nov 15 at 15:54
• If you're worried about nukes or EMP weapons, your energy distribution infrastructure is probably not the only thing you have to worry about. If some opponent nukes a city, the wind turbines on the hills around town are not going to be your biggest concern. The biggest issue is the millions of dead people in the city (and the fires, and the loss of command and control given that most of the city government is dead). For EMP weapons, having the enemy waste one burning out the transformers of a wind plant is a lot better than having it go off downtown and effecting hundreds of buildings. – Blckknght Nov 15 at 20:34

What you are asking in fundamentally impossible.

Every living organism is an elaborate mechanism to contrast entropy increase, and to do so it depends on a constant supply of energy. If you take this supply away, entropy will win and rise.

If you are a plant you depend on solar light, if the sun goes off you die.

If you are an herbivore you depend on plants, if plants disappear you die.

If you are a carnivore you depend on other animals, if they disappear you die.

If you are a society you depend on an energy supply, be it wood, coal, oil, fusion or fantasium, if that energy supply disappear you vanish.

It doesn't matter the type of energy source, once you depend from it, and you do, there is no way to become less dependent.

Migrating to a secondary fuel is just shifting the problem, not removing it.

• Entropy always wins. A living organism is capable of doing work to locally reduce entropy in its surroundings at the price of increasing entropy through its survival – nzaman Nov 15 at 6:12
• OP did mention a virtual environmental utopia, so it's reasonable to assume they have ways around natural resource depletion (external sources, unobtanium, renewable programs, etc). I think it's therefore also reasonable to assume we're talking a shorter time scale than just entropy. – thanby - reinstate Monica Nov 15 at 16:33
• @thanby is correct. We won the environmental war but... did we endanger ourselves in the process? – Vogon Poet Nov 15 at 17:44
• @VogonPoet That's an excellent way to think of the problem. I'd consider adding that question to your original post in the "background" part – thanby - reinstate Monica Nov 15 at 18:32

Oil often gets pumped from an oil site to it's processing plant via a many-times-miles (or thousand miles) long pipe that is very vulnerable. Pipes burst on their own (Google that for dozens of articles spanning decades) and are generally above ground, so are visible from even the air. They also have pumping stations which are not hardened or even heavily guarded. This also goes into natural gas production, since it's not only a common byproduct of oil refinement, but it's also present at the well and often needs to be removed before the well can be safely tapped for oil.

https://www.enbridge.com/projects-and-infrastructure/projects/~/media/2509CBF391B74FB9B33935264971D1C1.ashx

Coal mines can catch fire and burn indefinitely, if they get out of control. Bombing a coal mine with the right combination of chemical and incendiary device, you could create a massively hot fire that's hard to extinguish while a separate reaction creates a massive amount of oxygen to perpetuate the fire beyond coal miners abilities to control.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Centralia_mine_fire

Nuclear power plants are particularly well built to withstand a bomb blast, since they are typically designed to contain themselves from blowing up, but there's still a lot of damage that can be done to them to prevent them from coming online anytime soon after an attack. The cooling towers and electrical grid tie-in could be severely damaged to the point where it doesn't even matter if the plant went critical, it still wouldn't be able to either produce power at a safe rate without cooling or it couldn't push the power beyond it's own site.

Depending on the level of technology of the nuclear power plant, a hacker can plant a virus/worm that'll take control of machines that operate the facilities and cause the machines to destroy themselves. This relates specifically to centrifuges for separating nuclear material and is just one example of what could be done with the right resources and/or willingness.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stuxnet

Another thing that could happen is to take out a large power relay point, similar to what happened in New York in 2003 that ended up with a domino effect that blacked out several states and provinces. This was due to a bug in the system, but a hacker or a bomb could do the same thing, if the attached grid isn't prepared for something like that happening. Since then, I believe the US grid was upgraded to better handle a major outage like that, but countries with less maintained or older grids might still suffer from a similar problem.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Northeast_blackout_of_2003

There's currently a major problem in California with their aging power grid causing wildfires. A well placed explosive may be able to do considerable damage that would take more effort than can be easily fixed in short order.

https://www.cnbc.com/2019/10/29/pge-power-lines-may-have-started-2-fires-in-california-over-the-weekend.html

Secondary fuel production facilities are just facilities that don't produce the large amount of power and fuel that the primaries do. Because they aren't as entrenched in a civilization's constant need for power sources, they aren't generally as large of facilities. Nor are they as well used as the primary sources. In fact, because they are secondary, they are often times more distributed, which in turn might be why they are the secondary system.

Hydroelectric plants need to be in or near a large river or body of water. That doesn't necessarily help a township that's essentially landlocked. Power transmission over long distance is expensive and decreases the power being transmitted, so a smaller community might want a closer and smaller power source. That said, a bomb to the dam or the power plant will decidedly take a long time to fix, since it's not critical to a larger city needing more resources for more people.

The same thing goes for a coal fired plant. Destroy the plant and it likely won't get rebuilt. There might be political, legal, and environmental reasons for it not getting rebuilt, but it still ends up with not being replaced quickly.

Even a biofuel plant could be destroyed and cause major problems in supply of fuels as well as rebuilding the plant. Because they can be complicated and are under high pressure with sometimes caustic materials, the whole plant would have to be inspected and re-certified even if a fraction of it was demolished.

In the end of all this, there's a lot of ways to take out basic infrastructure that can seriously damage the ability of a country/city/state/whatever to defend itself in a timely manner. As far as a "hard kill", if a power plant can't be repaired in even 1-2 years, as sometimes a major catastrophe such as a high yield bomb can do, the facility might be written off as a total loss, even if it could eventually be fixed or only a portion of the facility was damaged. It may come down to politics or even just money. "Do we spend \$100M to replace a coal fired power plant that we constantly get sued about, or do we spend$250M on something 10x better that won't get us in trouble with the EPA and tree huggers?"