How Safe is the US Electrical Grid?

All it takes is a hit on nine substations, then it’s lights out for America and back into the 1800’s for at least a decade — on top of up to 90% of American lives being lost due to the domino effects.


Throughout history, inexplicable natural phenomena have tended to instill an understandable fear in people. Accounts of the solar storm of August and September 1859 stand out for their tendency toward the whimsical and delighted.

For telegraph operators in the Americas and Europe, however, the experience caused chaos. Many found that their lines were simply unusable—they could neither send nor receive messages. Others were able to operate even with their power supplies turned off, using only the current in the air from the solar storm.

Since then, that infrastructure has only become more integral. Telegraphs composed a comparatively small and relatively superfluous aspect of life, but their successors today—including the electrical grid and much of the telecommunications network—are essential to modern life.

But is the modern system any more protected from catastrophic interference than the telegraph was? Can the electrical grid handle a terrorist attack, or severe weather events, or a solar storm?

One lesson of the 2003 blackout is actually that the grid is more resilient than you might think, argues Jeff Dagle, an electrical engineer at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory who served on the Northeast Blackout Investigation Task Force. Investigations pinpointed four separate root causes for the collapse, and human error played a huge role. “It took an hour for it to collapse with no one managing it,” Dagle said. “They would have been just as effective if they had just gone home for the day. That to me just underscores how remarkably stable things are.”

But skeptics say it’s the opposite. Jon Wellinghoff, who served a chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission from 2009 to 2013, has sounded the alarm about the danger of an attack on the system, especially since a bizarre April 2013 incident in Silicon Valley, in which a team of attackers apparently conducted a coordinated assault on a substation, knocking out 27 transformers.

Wellinghoff points to the fact that the U.S. power grid is broken into three big sections known as “interconnections”: one each for the East, the West, and—somehow appropriately, out on its own—Texas. (In fact, the East and West interconnections also include much of Canada.)

“If you bring down a limited number of substations in each of those interconnects, you cannot bring the interconnect back up again,” he said. “This isn’t classified information. This is all information that has been in government reports for years and years and years.”

Worse, he says, it could take far longer to return the grid to functioning than it did in 2003.

If you destroy the transformers—all it takes is one high-caliber bullet through a transformer case and it’s gone, you have to replace it,” he said. If there aren’t spares on hand—and in the case of a coordinated attack on multiple substations, any inventory could be exhausted—it takes months to build new ones.

Once your electricity is out, your gasoline is out, because you can’t pump the gas anymore. All your transportation’s out, all of your financial transactions are out, of course because there’s no electronics,” Wellinghoff said.

But why would the aspiring terrorist bother with an elaborate, dangerous physical operation—complete with all the recon, armaments, and planning of a SEAL Team 6 mission—when she could achieve the same effect from the safety of an easy chair?

An effective cyber attack could, if cleverly designed, achieve a great deal of physical damage very quickly, and interconnections in digital operations would mean such an attack could bypass failsafes in the physical infrastructure that stop cascading failures.

Full article: How Safe is the US Electrical Grid? (Nextgov)

Comments are closed.