Clearly, many are concerned with the vulnerability of the US power grid, so much so that in 2015 there was a virtual war game, called GridEx III, that tested the strength of the power grid and the preparedness of stakeholders in such situations. But just how safe is the US power grid? Before we look at the threats to the power grid, let’s take a look at what would happen if the grid went down.
The Reality of Grid-Down
I will wager that many, if not most of you have considered what life would be like without a functioning power grid. If you haven’t, now is the time to give it some serious consideration—and believe me, not having internet would be the least of your worries.
There are over 50,000 electrical substations in the US, yet the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has said that it would only take strategically knocking out nine of the system’s stations, as well as taking out one manufacturer of transformers, to plunge the country into total darkness for over 18 months. Without electricity, you would not be able to:
- Use ATM machines or get money from the bank
- Get gas from a gas station
- Watch television
- Listen to the radio (even if you have a battery-operated radio, the radio stations need power to transmit)
- Make purchases at stores (they would close down)
- Use your refrigerator
- Work (chances are your job depends on electricity)
- Send your kids to school
- Get medicine
- Get clean water from your taps
- Use the hospitals (maybe for a short time, until they can no longer run their generators)
- Heat your home in the winter
This list gives me the shivers. It is a wakeup call to what we would face if the power grid was taken down. But what are the threats to the power grid?
There are a number of natural threats to the power grid, some of which are common place and others that occur less frequently. These include:
This is certainly one of the most common threats to the power grid. It is also one of the least catastrophic. When weather events affect the power grid, it is generally over a limited geographic area and usually the situation is resolved within hours, although sometimes it takes days or weeks, depending on the severity of the event. After all, weather-related outages and damage to the grid can be severe if the event is severe enough, such as a large winter storm or powerful hurricane. Still, we usually bounce back easily enough.
Earthquakes also threaten the stability of the power grid, but again this is generally over a limited geographic area and the damage can be resolved relatively quickly.
Believe it or not, a lot of money is spent every year on repairing the power grid due to damage from squirrels! Industry insiders have commented that squirrels are the biggest problem faced by the power grid. These little critters chew on the wires and get electrocuted in the transformers, causing an immense amount of damage.
One natural event stands out as having the capability to do some real damage—geomagnetic storms. A strong geomagnetic storm can generate an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) strong enough to wipe out the power grid and fry electronics. One such storm affected the power grid in Quebec in 1989 and a large portion of the province was blacked out for nine hours. An even larger geomagnetic storm occurred in 1859, causing auroras that were seen all over the world and damaging telegraph systems across North America and Europe. If this magnitude of storm happened today, it could cause massive power grid failure and disruption in communications.
There are quite a few manmade threats to the US power grid and they run a much higher risk of causing widespread and devastating damage. It is these threats that cause the most concern when it comes to the vulnerability of the power grid and these threats are very real. According to USA Today’s analysis of federal energy records, there is a cyberattack or physical attack on the US power grid once every four hours. That’s crazy! Potential manmade attacks are as follows:
Yes, an EMP is a threat from human beings, as well as the sun. Any terrorist or enemy government could wipe out the US power grid by creating an EMP. All it would take would be for the attacker to detonate a nuclear device at a high altitude over the continental US, which would generate an EMP that would damage or destroy the electrical grid. North Korea is now believed to have this capability.
Physical attacks on the power grid can come in many forms and they occur far more often than you might realize. It is common to have physical attacks on substations around the US and the majority of these substations are virtually unprotected. They are surrounded by a chain-link fence and many do not even have security cameras or systems in place. For those stations that do have alarms, the alarm is often unheeded when they are tripped.
In 2015, the Bakersfield, California substation suffered an attack in which wires were cut and the perpetrators got away. In 2013, gunmen attacked a PG&E Metcalf power facility not far from San Jose, California. It is believed they were terrorists and they escaped. A total of 17 transformers were disabled, nearly causing a blackout in Silicon Valley. The Metcalf substation was attacked again in 2014, with a lot of damage done and 14 alarms triggered. No one responded to the alarms.
In addition to on-the-ground attacks, aerial attacks are also a concern. In 2014 in Quebec, Canada, there was an aerial attack on two of Hydro-Québec TransÉnergie’s major power lines. The man piloting the small plane was charged with dropping objects on the power lines, which caused them to short out. This affected 188,000 customers, who went hours without electricity.
The concern of aerial attacks is even more serious now that drone technology is becoming more and more advanced. It would not be difficult to conduct a coordinated attack consisting of multiple drones dropping explosives on power stations and substations. That, combined with on-the-ground bombings, would be devastating to the US power grid and it is an all-to-real threat that terrorists or extremist groups could pull off.
The US power grid is also vulnerable to cyberattacks. That means the system can be hacked and brought down remotely. China and Russia have the capability to accomplish this. It is possible that North Korea and Iran do, as well. This type of attack was unleashed on the Ukrainian power grid in December of 2015. Ukraine’s power system was hacked and seven substations were taken offline for three hours, affecting 80,000 customers.
According to Ted Koppel, at this point it is possible for terrorist groups like ISIS to possess the financial means to hire the people skilled enough to conduct an attack of this nature and the necessary equipment is easily bought. Not only that, but as the US power grid is updated with the latest in digital and Smart technology, it becomes more and more vulnerable to cyberattack. The grid is also now connected to the Internet and the Cloud, increasing its vulnerability.
Why Isn’t the Grid More Secure?
There are measures that must be taken to ensure the US power grid is more secure. However, while the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) can mandate methods for increasing the security of the nation’s power grid, the June 2015 report from Congress stated, “FERC still asserts that it does not have the authority to act quickly in the event of a major cyber event.”
FERC absolutely must begin to coordinate with the Department of Homeland Security and other regulatory and security agencies to improve grid security before an attack even happens. While it seems with the virtual war games conducted last year, they are beginning to take the threat to the power grid more seriously, it simply isn’t enough.
Perhaps it isn’t easy to convince people to take it serious when some industry insiders believe the biggest threat to the security of the power grid is squirrels. And if you live in Canada and think it’s not an issue for you, think again. The Canadian and US power grids are connected and if the US is affected, Canada will be, too. This isn’t just a problem for the US; it is a North American problem.