“The destruction of more than three transmission substations would cause long-term blackouts in many areas of the country,” energy industry experts said in a report to Congress in June 1990.
Fast forward 24 years, and energy experts say not much has changed.
“We still have the same problem and have not done much to fix it,” said Granger Morgan, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, who chaired a recent study called “Terrorism and the Electric Power Grid” for the National Research Council.
“In 1990 it was pretty serious,” and it’s only become worse, he said. “Our collective dependency on electricity is greater. Phones no longer work when the power goes out. We are more dependent on it than we used to be.”
The electric power transmission and distribution system, known as the grid, is a complex network of wires, transformers and control software that transmits electricity from where it is generated, usually centralized power plants, to end users: businesses and households.
In the NRC report, released to the public in November 2012, the presidents of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering said “the nation’s power grid is in urgent need of expansion and upgrading.”
In the United States, no one is really in control of the power grid, Granger said.
“Different entities own different parts of the system,” he said. More than 90 percent of the U.S. power grid is privately owned and regulated by individual states.
Instead of a single national grid in the U.S., the power system is broken up into three regional grids: The Texas Intersection, the Western Interconnection and the Eastern Interconnection.
The regional bodies have voluntarily been organized by grid operators and are overseen by the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, a nonprofit. Working with the federal government, NERC develops and enforces reliability standards to help ensure power and electricity continue to flow through the continental U.S., Canada and the northern portion of Baja California, Mexico.
With limited links between the systems, Granger said “the risks to any single system are pretty low, but the risk to the entire system is pretty high.”
Natural disasters, cyber attacks and acts of terrorism all pose as possible threats to the power grid. Each type of event poses a different kind of threat, some more serious and longer lasting than others.
Granger said it is hard to see how long-term damage could be done from a cyber attack, while physical disturbance to the grid and its parts by weather events such as hurricanes or earthquakes and physical attacks by terrorists could be more detrimental and last longer.
Solar storms can also cause widespread disruption of the power network, Granger said. “That is probably not too hard to protect against if there is a better sense of solar activity and if companies did a better job of preparing for it.”
A summary of an early 2013 NRC workshop discussing its report on how terrorism could impact the power grid said, “Vulnerabilities in the grid have the potential to cascade well beyond whether the lights turn on, impacting among other basic services such as the fueling infrastructure, the economic system, and emergency services.”
Experts began working on the NRC report in the fall of 2004. Three years later, in 2007, their work was completed and submitted to DHS, the agency the NRC was contracted with to conduct the research.
In August 2008, after NRC submitted their findings to the department for security classification review, DHS said the report and its findings were classified. Four year later, in August 2012 NRC was granted approval to release its research and the report to the public.
According to Granger there are four main vulnerabilities and potential targets for terrorists in the interconnected power grid system:
- Large, centralized power generation sources: If lost would reduce electrical capacity by hundreds of gigawatts. Tend to be heavily secured, so natural disasters are more likely threats than terrorist attacks.
- Transmission lines: Easy targets for terrorists but easily replaced. Natural disasters like hurricanes and ice storms can also do serious damage to the lines.
- Substations: Probably most vulnerable to terrorist attack because are essential to transmission system. Would take a long time to replace.
- Control centers: Considered the brains of the system. Loss of a center can have a substantial impact on the grid. More vulnerable to cyber security threats than terrorist attacks.
The lack of a single national grid and the fact there are many entities in control of the different components further complicates the issue of who is in charge, Granger said. “But, collectively our social vulnerability is high. It requires government and regulators to take control along with public utility commissions and the Department of Energy.”
Earlier this month the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources met to discuss whether the government and private industries are doing enough to ensure the reliability and security of the U.S. electric grid.
During the hearing, Cheryl LaFleur, acting chairwoman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, said most utilities have already taken steps to identify critical structures and protect them from attack.
“A mandatory standard will reinforce these efforts and ensure that all owners and operators of the bulk power system take such important steps where appropriate,” she said.
A development of physical security standards for the grid was also directed to be ready by early June.
The hearing was a month after The Wall Street Journal revealed the U.S. “could suffer a coast-to-coast blackout” if just nine power substations were knocked out.
The main threat to the system lies in having enough replacement parts for the grid on hand, Granger said. Substations with high-voltage transformers are the most vulnerable because they are essential to the transmission system and take a long time to replace.
“The Department of Energy or Department of Homeland Security should get busy having a stockpile of these,” Granger said. Right now, it takes months to get a new high-voltage transformer.
Currently there is a pilot program involving a replacement transformer, but Granger said it would be inefficient to use permanently, though it is compact enough to be moved across the country.
Having more high-voltage transformers on hand and available is just one of the recommendations that came out of the NRC report. Others include:
- Working with the power industry to better clarify the role of power system operators after terrorist events by developing plans and rehearsing response programs.
- Agencies work together to help find ways to ensure utilities and transmission operators have appropriate incentives to accelerate process of upgrading power delivery and eliminating its most obvious vulnerabilities.
- Increase the level of federal basic technology research investment in power delivery.
- Develop a national inventory of portable generation equipment that can be used to power critical loads during an extended outage.
Nick Rosen, a former teaching assistant in Philosophy at Georgetown University, has another idea: off-the grid living.
“It is literally people taking power back into their own hands,” Rosen said. He describes it as power produced at the point of consumption.
According to Rosen, off-grid power makes countries and regions more resilient, “more able to withstand brownouts or far-fetched catastrophes such as solar flares or cyber-terrorism.”
Rosen is writing a study of the potential impact of off-grid living on markets such as energy, housing and leisure. He is also the owner of the website www.off-grid.net.
In June 1990, at the request of the U.S. Congress, the Office of Technology Assessment, provided a comprehensive look at the potential for long-term electric power outages due to natural disasters or “deliberate sabotage.” The OTA closed on September 29, 1995.
“....It would not immediately kill many people or make for spectacular television footage of bloody destruction. But if it were carried out in a carefully planned way, by people who knew what they were doing, it could deny large regions of the country access to bulk system power for weeks or even months. An event of this magnitude and duration could lead to turmoil, widespread public fear, and an image of helplessness that would play directly into the hands of the terrorists. If such large extended outages were to occur during times of extreme weather, they could also result in hundreds or even thousands of deaths due to heat stress or extended exposure to extreme cold.”
More than 20 years later, Granger said, not much has changed and those with the power to do something about it are “not doing enough.”
“This is not an issue they (U.S. citizens) can do much about. Utility commissions and federal regulatory authorities; the Department of Energy and the Department of Homeland Security are the ones who need to get serious about it.”