Power Grid Study Cites “Inherent Vulnerability” to Terrorist Attack, Natural Disaster

November 29, 2012
By Max Cacas

The report on the power transmission system was delayed by government officials for security reasons.

Attention must be paid to the vulnerabilities inherent in the United States’ electric power delivery system, and soon, according to a newly released report from the National Research Council (NRC). The report suggests that along with being potentially vulnerable to natural disasters, as seen recently with Hurricane Sandy, the system overall also is vulnerable to terrorist attack. That, in turn, endangers critical systems upon which most of our technology-driven lifestyle is dependent, including communications, sensors and industrial control systems.

“It’s physically vulnerable in the sense that it’s dependent on structures that are spread out all across the countryside, and it’s impossible to protect and defend all of them,” Professor M. Granger Morgan, chairman of the Department of Engineering and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, says. Morgan, who chaired the NRC panel that wrote the report, adds that of particular concern are one of the most important components in the electrical grid system: the high-voltage transformers that make distribution to local homes and businesses possible.

“Very large high-voltage transformers are things that we (as a country) don’t make, have a significant stockpile of them and they’re very hard to move,” he explains. In recent years, the potential for cyber attack of key control components of the electrical grid have received a lot of attention in the mainstream media. While the NRC report recognizes this as a significant vulnerability, the potential damage linked to an attack on physical grid assets still has broader implications. “If you do physical damage to a bunch of 500 and 765 kilovolt transformers, the power system could be down for more than just a few days, but many weeks or months,” notes Morgan. The failure of electrical transformers has also been associated with widespread power outages linked to solar storms, and scientists are forecasting an upsurge in such storms in the coming year.

The NRC report also delves into the importance of being able to restore the grid quickly, no matter the cause of a failure. One of the keys to a quick recovery of the grid once again involves high-voltage electrical transformers. The report calls for the creation of a stockpile of replacement transformers, available to any region of the country, and on very short notice. “They would not be as efficient as the custom-designed transformers currently in use in most power systems, but they would be more compact; you could move them readily, and you could get the system patched back together and running again,” he explains. The NRC recommendation coincides with the ongoing U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) RecX program, in which the agency is working with the electric power industry to develop and test a next-generation recovery transformer.

Another section of the report recommends that both the government and the power industry take steps to prioritize and plan for the protection and timely restoration of what Morgan calls “key social services” in the event of the failure of the grid. As seen recently during Hurricane Sandy, electrical power companies struggled for weeks to restore power to neighborhoods and communities, because repair crews were unable to perform the simple task of disconnecting affected homes and businesses, which is a must for safety reasons while repair work is being performed. “Smart meters could disconnect them all, and you could reconfigure the distribution system through something called distribution automation and provide power to at least a subset of customers deemed critically important, such as schools, police stations and gas stations,” explains Morgan. The report goes on to call for the federal government to conduct demonstration programs to test the widespread use of distribution automation for grid recovery. Smart meters are a component of larger scale plans to modernize the electrical distribution system led by the Department of Energy and the National Institutes of Standards and Technology.

Although the report was completed by the NRC in the fall of 2007, the council only recently released it publicly. That’s because DHS, the primary government agency sponsoring the report, deemed many of its findings and recommendations to be sensitive from a security standpoint and classified it as secret. The NRC pressed the DHS to lift the classification and was finally successful earlier this month. However, the passage of time, improvements in grid management technology and other policy considerations have prompted a review of the 2007 NRC report, which is now underway, says Morgan. “The plan is to have a workshop to discuss follow-on issues,” especially in the realm of cyber, he explains. At last report, the NRC was expected to hold the workshop to update the power grid vulnerability report sometime in February 2013.

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