Our Nation’s “Inherently Vulnerable” Electric Grid; Preparing for Terrorists, Storms and Time

The National Academy of Sciences’ study Terrorism and the Electric Power Delivery System has spurred a flood of discussion about the fragility of our nation’s electric grid.  This report remained classified by the Department of Homeland Security for five years until last week when it was finally released to the public.  The study provides an in-depth analysis of the dangers a calculated terrorist attack could pose to the US’ electric grid.  It predicts that power outages resulting from attacks could last anywhere from a few days to month or more, and be even more devastating than outages caused by natural disaster.

The information provided in this report reveals just how tenuous the control we maintain of our power system is.  Yes, the US electric power delivery system is in fact “inherently vulnerable” to terrorist attack.  But, that is because the US electric power delivery system is really just “inherently vulnerable.”  The electric grid has been increasingly stressed and out of date for years, and this is something the NAS’ report acknowledges.

It is not surprising that an already vulnerable system like the electric grid would be even more endangered under a calculated terrorist attack.  After all, natural disasters and “superstorms” do not intelligently plan their assault on national infrastructure, but are simply natural Phenomena beyond human control.   Natural disasters, unlike humans, are also unable to pose a security threat to data and system information and signals transmitted via telecommunications, beyond interrupting service due to a power outage or downed wire(s).

The lesson that should be learned from the long overdue release of this report is that the infrastructure of the electric grid is in dire need of updating, not only because of security risks posed by enemies, but also by natural disasters, power surges, or any number of possible malfunctions that can cause cascading blackouts.  The NAS poses seven recommendations to mitigate the risk of an attack causing devastating impacts.  These include tips such as amassing a stockpile of high-voltage transformers to have on-hand in case the need arises for replacements, promoting the adaptation of new technologies to bring the transmission system up to date, and even developing a cache of portable generation equipment that can be used during extended periods of blackouts to power important facilities or loads.

All of these recommendations are important upgrades needed for our electric grid to remain stable, regardless of the threat of terrorist attack.  A planned attack by terrorists who know how to manipulate the grid is a worst-case scenario, and we should be prepared for it.  But, the true lesson from the National Academy of Sciences is that we should not wait for the worst to happen before we update our infrastructure.  Be it a terrorist attack, another superstorm, or simply infrastructure aging to the point of failure, we need to ensure we can keep the lights on.

Jessica Kennedy
Energy Curtailment Specialists, Inc.

Jessica can be found on Twitter and Google+.

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