US Power Grid Vulnerable to Just About Everything

Originally posted by Jen Alic at Used by kind permission.

As Washington hunts ill-defined al-Qaeda groups in the Middle East and Africa, and concerns itself with Iran’s eventual nuclear potential, it has a much more pressing problem at home: Its energy grid is vulnerable to anyone with basic weapons and know-how.

Forget about cyber warfare and highly organized terrorist attacks, a lack of basic physical security on the US power grid means that anyone with a gun—like disgruntled Michigan Militia types, for instance–could do serious damage.

For the past two months, the US Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) has been tasked with creating a security strategy for the electric grid and hydrocarbon facilities through its newly created Office of Energy Infrastructure Security. So far, it’s not good news.

“There are ways that a very few number of actors with very rudimentary equipment could take down large portions of our grid,” warns FERC Chairman Jon Wellinghoff. This, he says, “is an equal if not greater issue” than cyber security.

FERC’s gloom-and-doom risk assessment comes on the heels of the recent declassification of a 2007 report by the National Academy of Sciences.

The National Academy of Sciences on 14 November warned that a terrorist attack on the US power grid could wreak more damage than Hurricane Sandy. It could cause massive blackouts for weeks or months at a time. But this would only be the beginning, the Academy warns, spelling out an “end of days” scenario in which blackouts lead to widespread fear, panic and instability.

Related Article: New Yorkers Challenge LIPA, FEMA over Power Outages

What they are hinting at is revolution—and it wouldn’t take much.

So what is being done to mitigate risk? According to FERC, utility companies aren’t doing enough. Unfortunately, FERC does not have the power to order utilities to act in the name of protecting the country’s energy infrastructure. Security is expensive, and more than 90% of the country’s grid is privately owned and regulated by state governments. Private utilities are not likely to feel responsible for footing the bill for security, and states may not be able to afford it.

One key problem is theoretically a simple one to resolve: a lack of spare parts. According to the National Academy of Sciences, the grid is particularly vulnerable because it is spread out across hundreds of miles with key equipment not sufficiently guarded or antiquated and unable to prevent outages from cascading.

We are talking about some 170,000 miles of voltage transmission line miles fed by 2,100 high-voltage transformers delivering power to 125 million households.

“We could easily be without power across a multistate region for many weeks or months, because we don’t have many spare transformers,” according to the Academy.

High-voltage transformers are vulnerable both from within and from outside the substations in which they are housed. Complicating matters, these transformers are huge and difficult to remove. They are also difficult to replace, as they are custom built primarily outside the US. So what is the solution? Perhaps, says the Academy, to design smaller portable transformers that could be used temporarily in an emergency situation.


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Why was the Academy’s 2007 report only just declassified? Well, its authors were worried that it would be tantamount to providing terrorists with a detailed recipe for attacking and destabilizing America, or perhaps for starting a revolution.

The military at least is preparing to protect its own power supplies. Recently, the US Army Corps of Engineers awarded a $7 million contract for research that demonstrates the integration of electric vehicles, generators and solar arrays to supply emergency power for Fort Carson, Colorado. This is the SPIDERS (Smart Power Infrastructure Demonstration for Energy Reliability and Security), and the Army hopes it will be the answer to more efficient and secure energy.

Back in the civilian world, however, things are moving rather slowly, and the focus remains on the sexier idea of an energy-crippling cyberattack.

Last week, Senator Ed Markey (D-Mass.) urged House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) to pass a bill—the GRID Act–which would secure the grid against cyberattacks.

“As the widespread and, in some cases, still ongoing power outages from Superstorm Sandy have shown us, our electric grid is too fragile and its disruption is too devastating for us to fail to act,” Markey wrote. “Given this urgency, it is critical that the House act immediately in a bipartisan manner to ensure our electrical infrastructure is secure.”

This bill was passed by the House, but has failed to gain any traction in the Senate.

FERC, of course, is all for the bill, which would give it the authority to issue orders and regulations to boost the security of the electric grid’s computer systems from a cyberattack. But it’s only a small piece of the security puzzle, and FERC remains concerned that authorities are overlooking the myriad simpler threats to the electricity grid. These don’t make for the easy headlines, especially since they are not necessarily foreign in nature.

By. Jen Alic of

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Steve Hynd

Most recently I was Editor in Chief of The Agonist from Feb 2012 to Feb 2013. My blogging began at Newshoggers and I’ve had the immense pleasure of working with some great writers there and around the web ever since, including at Crooks & Liars. I'm a late 40′s, Scottish ex-pat, now married to a wonderful Texan, with Honours in Philosophy from Univ. of Stirling, UK 1986. I worked most of life in business insurance industry (fire, accident, liability) including 12 years as a broker/underwriter/correspondent at Lloyd’s of London. Being from the other side of the pond, my political interests tend to focus on how US foreign policy affects the rest of the planet. Other interests include early and dark-ages British history, literature and cognitive philosophy/science.

7 CommentsLeave a comment

  • That’s why Resilient Communities recommends getting either off the grid and onto local power grids. Unfortunately, I have no idea where any local grids are located – they may be as rare as the small independent phone companies that used to service the hinterlands in my younger days.

    From a practical point of view, being off the grid is at least possible. I know 3 families totally solar for power and hot water and heating with wood. I’m headed that way myself but it’s likely to take a couple of years, since I’d also like to build from scratch and haven’t decided exactly what to build.

    • I live under a local grid. My city of 21,000 owns (yes, it’s Socialist and not-for-profit) a small coal generation station. The coal comes in by ship, as the plant is on Lake Superior. We do sell power to nearby electricity co-ops, but otherwise generate for ourselves. We vote on the board of directors, and we pay $0.07/kwh for electricity.

  • “High-voltage transformers are … custom built primarily outside the US.” Oh really? Why? I worked for Allis Chalmers Manufacturing in West Allis WI when they were building the transformers for the TVA. Monstrous things the size of apartment buildings. So, we used to be able to build these things.

    The steam generators that failed at San Onofre were built by Mitsubishi in Japan. Why not here? Have we lost the ability to build these as well?

    Good God Almighty.

  • Poser lines are impossible to protect, because they are everywhere.

    There are NO TERRORISTS. If there were terrorists the power system and phone system would be damaged every day from malicious actions.

    Very low tech attacks. Let me point out some vulnerabilities:

    – Overhead lines.
    – Substations (Fenced yards for transformers).
    – HV Transmission lines (Metal Pylons)

    Buried service is not so vulnerable. In some places service is buried, substations rarely, HV transmission lines almost never, power station themselves, never.

  • Bwahahaha. I love the turrism perspective. You know what the biggest, everyday threat to the grid is? Poor people with giant balls stealing copper. The ground breakers in switchyards and substations are constantly under attack. Those big drums are filled with coils of copper and oil. If the breaker gets too hot, the oil boils off, the copper melts, and the circuit is opened.

    People break into yards, drill a hole in the barrel and let the oil drain out onto the ground (in older breakers, this creates a PCB spill). Then the breaker trips, the circuit is open, and they steal the copper.

    Sure, these nightmare scenarios are real. Generating and operating the grid is a hugely complex task. They’re also at least a little bit overblown, because generating companies do keep spares. After Sandy, generators from all over mobilized to the E. Coast to help restore power; it’s industry standard. So an attack would really need to be huge and well-coordinated. Given that the terrorists have actually attacked us ONCE and have not done large coordinated attacks that would be far more effective (like a week of shopping malls, police stations, and public places all over Middle America being attacked), this kind of stuff is just fear mongering.

    Any, even cursory, knowledge of generation and grid operation should tell us that it’s simply not possible to “secure” the grid without massive redundancies (a few hundred miles of transmission lines cost into the billions) and basically militarizing all of the United States.

    …oh, i get it now.

    All that being said, i’m in favor of local grids instead of the megalith we have now and certainly instead of the idiocy of the “smart grid” that always thrown out as the way to our renewable future.

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