Terrorism, Cyber Attacks, and the Smart Grid
The United States power grid has more blackouts than any other country in the developed world, according to new data that spotlights the country’s aging and unreliable electric system. The data by the Department of Energy (DOE) and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) shows that Americans face more power grid failures lasting at least an hour than residents of other developed nations. And it’s getting worse.
Going back three decades, the United States grid loses power 285 percent more often than it did in 1984, when record keeping began. The power outages cost businesses in the United States as much as $150 billion per year, according to the Department of Energy.
The power grid is our most antiquated and vulnerable piece of infrastructure. The entire system is teetering on the brink of failure. The grid is often called America’s glass jaw because of the nation’s reliability on it and also due to its many weaknesses, such as its vulnerability to a domino effect because it is interconnected. There are about 5,800 power plants and 450,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines in the US, many of them decades old and a large portion of them connected to one another.
The famous Northeast Blackout of 2003 began with a tree limb falling in Ohio and, after a chain reaction, ended up with 50 million people losing power, including those in New York City and parts of Canada. The electric system has improved some since the blackout of 2003, but not nearly enough. In early 2014, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the electrical grid a grade of D+ when it evaluated the system for security and other vulnerabilities. The D+ grade meant that the grid was in “poor to fair condition and mostly below standard, with many elements approaching the end of their service life.” The report also maintained that a “large portion of the system exhibits significant deterioration” with a “strong risk of failure.”
An excerpt from the American Society of Civil Engineers report reads:
“America relies on an aging electrical grid and pipeline distribution systems, some of which originated in the 1880s. Investment in power transmission has increased since 2005, but ongoing permitting issues, weather events, and limited maintenance have contributed to an increasing number of failures and power interruptions. While demand for electricity has remained level, the availability of energy in the form of electricity, natural gas, and oil will become a greater challenge after 2020 as the population increases. Although about 17,000 miles of additional high-voltage transmission lines and significant oil and gas pipelines are planned over the next five years, permitting and siting issues threaten their completion. The electric grid in the United States consists of a system of interconnected power generation, transmission facilities, and distribution facilities.”
The ASCE report card also stated that new gas-fired and renewable generation issues increase the need to add new transmission lines. Antiquated power grid equipment has reportedly prompted even more intermittent power outages in recent years. The power grid is more vulnerable to cyber-attacks than ever before, with a host of energy experts citing the aging electrical system as the primary culprit. Although the decades-old transformers and other equipment necessary to keep power flowing around America are a major factor in the enhanced vulnerability of the power grid, moving towards a “smart grid” system is not the answer.
During a three-nation test of significant portions of the North American power grid in November 2013, the experts involved with the process simulated a computer virus cyber-attack on the grid.
Government and utility company officials created a scenario where tens of millions of Americans were left in the dark and hundreds of transmission lines and transformers were damaged or destroyed, as a computer virus was injected into the system.
Transformers also were “bombed” during the simulation. The preliminary results from the GridX II power grid drill stated that a death toll of 150 first responders and utility workers occurred as a result of the cyber-attack. The official results did not take into account civilian deaths spurred by the civil unrest which would have resulted as mass panic set in across the United States and the food supply was disrupted. Looting would likely begin as soon as the populace learned about the attack. Credit cards, ATM card, and checks would become worthless. Only those with cash in their wallet would be able to purchase an over-priced can of peaches or bottle of water.
Store owners could shy away from cash out of fear of hyper-inflation brought on by the power grid collapse. Precious metals and tangible goods would become far more valuable than a $100 bill in a grid down society.
A power grid attack occurred in Arizona on June 14, 2014, yet news of the incident barely caused a flutter in the 24/7 news cycle. If the makeshift bomb had functioned as designed, more than 30,000 residents would have been left in the dark and rocketed back to a 1800s existence – at least temporarily. The bomb was placed near a 50,000-gallon diesel fuel tank at a “critical transformer substation” near a border town south of Tucson. The same area has been making national headlines several weeks prior due to the massive influx of young illegal immigrants pouring into America and surrendering themselves to U.S. Border Patrol agents.
The bomb designed to take down at least a portion of the Arizona power grid failed to wreak the havoc envisioned, but clearly illustrated once again how vulnerable the nation’s electrical grid has truly become. The homemade bomb could have fit inside the palm of your hand, according to Arizona investigators. It was placed under a tank and ignited, but did not explode.
The Arizona attack is similar to an incident that occurred at a Tennessee power facility and a California power grid substation last year. National security experts and everyday Americans have asked the same question: “Was this terrorism and merely a dress rehearsal for a larger event to come later?”
“They were able to gain access to the facility illegally,” Nogales Police Lt. Carlos Jimenez told the media. “They had some working knowledge of what that tank is or how it works.” UniSource Energy Services representative Joe Salkowski said that on the morning of June 11, 2013, an employee “discovered that a hole had been cut in the fence of a substation that serves Nogales.”
“The device caused a small, temporary fuel leak and blackened a small section of the surface of the tank, but did not cause any serious damage to the fuel tank,” Salkowski told The Blaze. “We are currently reviewing security in place at that facility as well as others in the area in hopes of identifying potential upgrades or anything that could be done to prevent similar incidents in the future.”