U.S. Power Grid: A Study in Vulnerability

IMG_0281The power grid. These monoliths have long fascinated me and now a major grid line actually runs through our neighborhood. Great, hulking, carriers of civilization’s life blood. Do you remember reading an article earlier this year about vandalism on a power station California? I remember reading it, but not the details. Still, the story – and the fear – has stuck with me. So, I decided to do a little research and this is what I discovered.

Turns out the time was April, 2013, but an article reporting about the true seriousness of this attack did not appear until almost a year later. The February 2014 article  in the Wall Street Journal finally brought the issue to the public eye. Indeed, at the time, the California  incident was quickly erased from public eye and seemingly blamed on some innocuous vandals – a no biggie kind of thing. In fact, it was a biggie kind of thing. This ‘attack’ was, according to Jon Wellinghoff, then chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission: “the most significant incident of domestic terrorism involving the grid that has ever occurred” in the U.S.

WOW!!!

The California episode exposes the vulnerability of the grid as well as the potential for another incident – a serious incident, or should I say, a more serious one.  An article discussing a recently released report about the fragility of the system stated:

“The entire US power grid could be shut down for more than a month if just nine of the over 55,000 electric substations placed throughout the nation were sabotaged by terrorists or other criminals…”

Other experts say that the “over-a-month” time period is more likely over 18 months. Maybe more.

Our power infrastructure is vulnerable to more than physical attacks. Enter the possibility (likelihood?) of cyber strikes.  The world is filled with brilliant people who have the technological expertise as well as the will, and motivation, to destroy.  In discussing the a potential for a cyber-attack, Gerry Cauley, president of the North American Electric Reliability Corp. said:

I am most concerned about coordinated physical and cyber attacks intended to disable elements of the power grid or deny electricity to specific targets, such as government or business centers, military installations, or other infrastructures.”

These comments were made when Cauley addressed the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee back in April.IMG_0283Jon

Just think about the ramifications if the grid went down. No lights. No computers. No banking. No money. No refrigeration. No gas. Need I continue? Based on the recent catastrophe of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, it can happen anywhere, in a fraction of an instant.

My point here is that though we have already learned to be on high-alert since 9/11, that alert needs to be sharpened.