Does the risk of terrorism directed at utilities warrant immediate action? And if so, will the federal government take over with predictable inefficiently and unpredictable outcomes? On the other hand, maybe we need the sluggishness that comes with government management to keep the industry from trying too hard and getting a hernia.

From the Wall Street Journal: Grid Terror Attacks: U.S. Government Is Urged to Take Steps for Protection:

Two research groups urged the federal government to take action to protect the electric grid from physical attacks, rather than leave security decisions in the hands of the utility industry.

The Congressional Research Service recommended that Congress examine whether a national-level analysis of the grid's vulnerabilities is needed or if individual power companies' internal security assessments are sufficient.

Separately, a nonprofit research group said efforts proposed by utilities to harden the grid fall short because they don't account for how one region might depend on others. The report from the Battelle Memorial Institute, which operates six of the U.S. Energy Department's laboratories, said attacks could occur across more than one electric system, destabilizing large areas.”

Well, a unified approach makes sense. But are you happy about having government (say taxpayer) funded agencies and consultants recommending that government (say taxpayer) funded agencies expand to take on more work?

The article continues:  “Jason Black, who wrote the Battelle report, which was published in May, said a utility-by-utility assessment is a flawed approach. It would be better to determine which U.S. facilities are critical by looking across many utilities' systems, he said.”

A triage approach. That makes sense. But who’s going to call the shots?

I tossed the discussion out to the Grid Optimization panel of experts and got a good discussion going. This is a rather long discussion but certainly worth reading.

Paul Mauldin
Managing Editor
Grid Optimization center of excellence


Panel Comments:

Vulnerabilities Will Always Remain

This is deja vu all over again.

The security of the electric system was also a big concern in the 70s. Under government pressure we examined how we could protect ourselves against outside attack but never really came up with an answer. After a time the issue seemed to evaporate as other things occupied the spotlight.

It appears now that we have come full circle and security of the electric system from outside intrusion is again in the headlines but with the added feature of cyber-attack in the equation due to electronics and computer control. Although I do not advocate throwing the towel in on this, my pessimism suggests that what one man may invent or put in place another can just as well undo and defeat.

Beyond this, physical attack is still a major threat to electric systems because of the sheer expanse of networks and equipment. Prudent design and precautions can minimize the damage an outside force can inflict but in the end many vulnerabilities will always remain. Unfortunately with rather crude instruments it is possible for almost anyone dedicated to causing damage to disable even the best designed and constructed electric networks. It was true in the 70s and is still true today.

Well what is the answer then? It is simply continuing to do all the things we are now doing to address the issue and doing them as well as we can while hoping for the best. The reality of it all is that there is nothing we can do to guarantee 100% protection from those intent on doing damage to our electric infrastructure.

Matthew C. Cordaro PhD
Trustee at Long Island Power Authority, Former Utility CEO, University Dean

Overall, Coordinated Plan is Needed

As one old enough to have lived through the 1965 Northeast blackout (I was taking a calculus exam), the 1977 New York City blackout, and the 2003 Northeast blackout (I was working at EPRI’s Lenox Lab), and just yesterday a local, substation-fire-related blackout, I’m starting to feel like a fighter who’s been in the ring too long. As everyone has noted, there are no silver-bullet solutions. No 100% guarantees. But something surely needs to be done; we can’t just throw up our hands and hope for the best. Here’s what I would suggest: As war is too important to leave to generals, the security of the nation’s grid is also too important to leave to the utility industry alone. There has to be an overall, coordinated plan to minimize both the risk and extent of major blackouts, whether such blackouts are terrorist- or weather-induced.  Clearly, distributed generation has a role to play here, as does the hardening of critical substations (as Paul noted) and, I would add, the segmenting or regionalizing of communication and control systems. The key, I believe is to be agile, flexible, and innovative in both the development and execution of any such plan, for this is a battle with no end in sight.

Lee Harrison
former editor at McGraw-Hill’s Electrical Week newsletter, editor for Business Week, and researcher with EPR