March 25, 2014

Lights out

I often write about how responsible adults should be prepared to survive a power outage that could extend for several days.  However, we all depend on the government to protect us against longer outages.  If the nation's electrical grid could be so easily sabotaged, shouldn't the government make it a national priority to harden this infrastructure?

The Wall St Journal  U.S. Risks National Blackout From Small-Scale Attack  Federal Analysis Says Sabotage of Nine Key Substations Is Sufficient for Broad Outage

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 the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission concluded that coordinated attacks in each of the nation's three separate electric systems could cause the entire power network to collapse, people familiar with the research said.

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….

No federal rules require utilities to protect vital substations except those at nuclear power plants. Regulators recently said they would consider imposing security standards…..Many sites aren't staffed and are protected by little more than chain-link fences and cameras.
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"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."

Which is why the assault on the California power grid last April by snipers who knocked out 17 giant transformers that funnel power into Silicon Valley before disappearing in the night is so worrying.

What if all the lights go out? The U.S. is at risk of a nationwide blackout — and policymakers and industry have known this for years.

According to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission study disclosed by the Journal, a few dozen of the substations are so important to the flow of energy that knocking out just nine of them would cause a metastasizing blackout that stretched from coast to coast. And replacement transformers for these substations can take more than a year to build, deliver and install, in part because most are made overseas.
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But why did it take almost a year after snipers used a PG&E substation for target practice, and more than 12 years after the 9/11 terrorists showed their affinity for unconventional assaults, before FERC acted? Instead, the commission left its rules unchanged until the news media reported the previously unheralded PG&E attack. …the commission's effort to improve security is a welcome development. But as part of that work, FERC should also address the frightening challenges posed by the grid's reliance on custom-fitted equipment that can take months, if not years, to replace.
Posted by Jill Fallon at March 25, 2014 4:24 PM | Permalink