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Federal Study: America’s Electrical Grid Vulnerable to Sabotage/Terrorism

On February 9, 2014 we reported on the Wall Street Journal’s investigation into an apparent terrorist attack on the Metcalf Substation  of Pacific Gas and Electric  (PG&E) in Silicon Valley, “The Metcalf Incident: California Power Station Terrorist Attack Reveals Highly Vulnerable National Grid”.   We noted:

In the early morning of April 16, 2013, the Metcalf, California transmission substation in Silicon Valley was attacked by what federal investigators believe was a highly professional terrorist team.  That sniper assault caused 17 transformers to crash severing power to Internet Service Providers and other power users in Silicon Valley.  Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) was forced to increase and reroute power to the area served by the disabled transmission station.  Power outages were avoided.  It took 27 days for PG&E to repair and bring the transmission substation back online.

The question of the vulnerability of the national grid surfaced because of the relentless investigations conducted by the former Federal Electrical Regulatory Commission (FERC) head, Jon Wellinghoff, whose term ended November 2013.

Today’s Wall Street Journal had a follow up report on FERC simulation studies conducted  under  the sponsorship of  Wellinghoff that revealed how vulnerable the national grid could be to sabotage of less than 9 critical transformers,  “U.S. Risks National Blackout From Small-Scale Attack.”  Among the concerning revelations in the WSJ investigative report were:

The U.S. could suffer a coast-to-coast blackout if saboteurs knocked out just nine of the country’s 55,000 electric-transmission substations on a scorching summer day, according to a previously unreported federal analysis.

The study by FERC concluded that coordinated attacks in each of the nation’s three separate electric systems could cause the entire power network to collapse.

A small number of the country’s substations play an outsize role in keeping power flowing across large regions. The FERC analysis indicates that knocking out nine of those key substations could plunge the country into darkness for weeks, if not months.

With over 160,000 miles of transmission lines, the U.S. power grid is designed to handle natural and man-made disasters, as well as fluctuations in demand. How does the system work?

“This would be an event of unprecedented proportions,” said Ross Baldick, a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Texas at Austin.

Note these  comments of former FERC Chairman Wellinghoff:

The study’s results have been known for months by people at federal agencies, Congress and the White House, who were briefed by then-FERC Chairman Jon Wellinghoff and others at the commission. As reported by the Journal last month, Mr. Wellinghoff was concerned about a shooting attack on a California substation last April, which he said could be a dress rehearsal for additional assaults.

“There are probably less than 100 critical high voltage substations on our grid in this country that need to be protected from a physical attack,” he said by email this week. “It is neither a monumental task, nor is it an inordinate sum of money that would be required to do so.” Mr. Wellinghoff left FERC in November and is a partner at law firm Stoel Rives LLP in San Francisco.

FERC has given the industry until early June to propose new standards for the security of critical facilities, such as substations.

This latest WSJ report on the vulnerability of the national electrical grid noted in conclusion:

While the prospect of a nationwide blackout because of sabotage might seem remote, small equipment failures have led to widespread power outages. In September 2011, for example, a failed transmission line in Arizona set off a chain reaction that created an outage affecting millions of people in the state and Southern California.

Sabotage could wreak worse havoc, experts said.

“The power grid, built over many decades in a benign environment, now faces a range of threats it was never designed to survive,” said Paul Stockton, a former assistant secretary of defense and president of risk-assessment firm Cloud Peak Analytics. “That’s got to be the focus going forward.”

Watch this Wall Street Journal video  interview with National War College Professor Dr. Richard Andress:

In our February 2014   Iconoclast post  we cited the vulnerability of critical   transformer substations throughout the national grid, the lack of sufficient replacement manufacturing capacity in the US and the dependence on foreign manufacturers in China,  South Korea and Germnay.That more than 100 military bases were supplied by the civilian electrical grid.  We also revealed the differing attitudes of leading electrical industry groups and Congressional lassitude on the matter of passing enabling legislation. We said:

The  North American Electric Reliability  Corporation (NERC), the principal electric utility standard setting organization,  has opposed passage of the Shield Act calling the network “resilient”.  Au contraire  says  an official of Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) cited by the WSJ: “The breadth and depth of the attack was unprecedented” in the U.S., said Rich Lordan, senior technical  executive. “The motivation”, he said, “appears to  be preparation for an act of war.”  When we checked the websites of House Energy and Commerce Committee  Chairman  Fred Upton (R-MI ) and  Energy and Power Subcommittee Chairman Ed Whitfield (R-KY) their major concerns as regards the security of the grid is vulnerability to cyber attack.  According to the WSJ  retiring  House Energy and Commerce Ranking Member Henry Waxman (D-CA) raised concerns  about the lack of federal  authority to undertake protective actions regarding the safety of the national grid during FERC oversight hearings in December 2013.

The revelations of this follow up WSJ report buttress the conclusions of our earlier post:

Whether it is  a terrorist attack like the Metcalf substation incident, the threat of a massive geomagnetic storm during  an EMP caused by either North Korea or Iran , this latest WSJ report should embolden US taxpayers and electrical users to request serious  Congressional  consideration of HR 2417: The Shield Act .   If any of those events occurred  that would  bring us back to pre-industrial times. The estimates are that more than 200 million Americans could succumb to a  pandemic  virus from lack of food, water, sanitation  and  medical treatment caused by the breakdown of industrial , transportation and communications networks.

If you are concerned about this lack of security of the national  grid, you should consider signing  the Protect The US Grid  petition requesting Congressional consideration of the Shield Act, here.

EDITORS NOTE: This column originally appeared on The New English Review.