Security updates to the grid essential for terrorist attack prevention


Energy independence has recently been at the forefront of energy industry discussion. Fueled by the shale revolution and a desire to stop depending on foreign countries for our energy resources, we’ve come a long way towards making it a reality.

But imagine that one day you wake up with no power. Suddenly everything from the morning news to ironing that shirt for work aren’t options, and there goes your morning routine. But it isn’t just you. Your neighbors don’t have power. In fact, your entire city doesn’t have power. Maybe it’s a statewide blackout, or worse.

And this isn’t because America doesn’t have the resources it needs to generate electricity. It’s because somewhere in our infrastructure, we left one major part of our grid vulnerable. The part that gets power to you, not to mention other places where it’s vital, such as military bases, banks and hospitals.

The alarm was first raised in 2013, when unidentified snipers took out 17 massive transformers at a substation owned by PG&E in the span of just 19 minutes, cutting power to Silicon Valley.

These aren’t the transformers you usually think about, the ones that sit atop telephone poles to make sure your home gets the proper amount of electricity. Instead, these transformers are the size buses. The damage caused by the snipers in 2013 took 27 days to repair.

Brian Harrell at Navigant Consulting told Marketplace that the grid was never designed to be safe from physical attack, calling that vulnerability “very attractive to terrorist elements.”

Part of the problem is that these transformers are manufactured overseas, which can mean that getting a replacement for a physically damaged unit can take up to 18 months.

The attack in California has done more than just enliven the American imagination to the possibility of further terrorist attacks on our soil. It has agencies such as the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission calling for increased efforts to secure the grid.

A leaked report from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) last year indicated that a coordinated attack on the U.S. grid would only need to take out a few of the nation’s 55,000 substations in order to cause blackouts nationwide until replacements can be installed, according to the Wall Street Journal.

“Destroy nine interconnection substations and a transformer manufacturer and the entire United States grid would be down for at least 18 months, probably longer,” the FERC report reads.

Perhaps most disquieting is the fact that only 30 of the thousands of substations play a critical role in how the country gets its power.

Related: Power grids in U.S., Canada are becoming more reliable: Kemp

Of course, one solution, which was recommended to the Department of Homeland Security in a report by the National Academy of Sciences, is to build up a stockpile of spare universal transformers which can be used in an emergency. This would allow damaged transformers to be replaced more expediently, even if the damaged transformers were custom made for their substations.

This isn’t a new issue, either. The vulnerability of the U.S. electric grid has been a known issue for some 30 years, according to Utility Dive. And according to John Wellinghoff, a former FERC chairman, updating the grid to protect against physical attacks “is neither a monumental task, nor is it an inordinate sum of money that would be required to do so.”

Last year, FERC began lobbying for the authority to remedy some of the grid’s weak points by mandating preventative measures from power companies, according to USA Today. But a physical attack such as the one in California isn’t Congress’ only concern.

The grid isn’t just vulnerable to snipers and other on-site, targeted attacks. The Secure the Grid Coalitionhas fleshed out another potential threat to America’s electric grid: an attack utilizing an electromagnetic pulse (EMP).

If you’ve seen recent movies such as “Godzilla” or “Pacific Rim,” you know that an EMP wipes out power, damaging any and all electronic equipment in its radius. Secure the Grid hypothesizes that countries like Iran and North Korea have the potential to develop nuclear EMP weapons which, if detonated over particular areas of the U.S., would cause widespread and crippling power outages.

The USA Today report notes that a nuclear explosion anywhere from 25 to 250 miles above the U.S. wouldn’t cause serious physical damage nor would it spread a lethal radioactive cloud. It would, however, be enough to allow an EMP to spread out hundreds of miles, wiping out everything from your cell phone to the nearest substations out in a matter of seconds.

With all this in mind, it is clear that the nation’s electric grid is in dire need of some upgrades. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz recently called for upgrades to the infrastructure at the 2015 EIA Energy Conference, noting that everything from natural disasters to physical attacks pose a threat and highlight the importance of shoring up grid security, according to Electric Co-op Today.

“Our energy security approach has been pretty formulaic for a long time,” he stated.

“It is time to take a fresh and comprehensive look at how we define and implement an energy security policy that is based on 21st century energy market changes, challenges and needs,” Moniz said.