Power Grid Down: Chapter 1 Excerpt - Terrorism, Cyber Attacks, and the Smart Grid

Chapter 1
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 the possibility for a domino effect to occur because of the way the system 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. The outage caused a chain reaction resulting in 50 million people losing power, including residents as far away as 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 (ASCE) gave the power grid a grade of D+ when it evaluated the system for security lapses 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.