How Vulnerable Is the U.S. Power Grid to Terrorist Attack?

Americans have become familiar with hearing stories about blackouts due to weather-related events. After hurricanes and super storms, there are reports of millions of households being without power. Repair teams from across the country and even from across our borders descend upon the affected region to assist in getting the lights back on. Generally the number of households without power steadily decreases, with those in remote regions or in extremely damaged areas suffering longest.

These blackouts are due to weather-related events, and generally last a few hours or days. But what if the U.S. power grid were attacked by terrorists? The result could be blackouts that last for months and could cost the economy billions of dollars, and likely with thousands of fatalities in hospitals, senior centers with heat or cooling, road fatalities due to lack of stop lights, street lights and so forth.

To understand the nature of the terrorist threat, one needs to understand the physical distribution of the U.S. power grid. The grid for the lower 48 states consists of two major grids and one smaller grid. Both the Western Interconnection (known as the Western System) and Eastern Interconnection (known as the Eastern System) have connections with Canada. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (also known as the Texas System or ERCOT) has some connections with Mexico. Mexico has been building its power stations near the border as it positions itself to export more electricity to the United States.

Unfortunately, according to a study by the National Research Council (NRC), an agency which is private and independent but which operates under a congressional charter, the U.S. power grid is potentially vulnerable. The grid, like the population and the power sources, is spread across many hundreds of miles, making it difficult to guard. Furthermore, some of the power sources are located in neighboring countries which means that protecting them is a matter that requires international cooperation.

Many key pieces of equipment are so old that they do not have the sensors to keep power outages from cascading. Upgrading them is naturally expensive and requires either public or private investment. Both state and federal budgets have been suffering, so finding the money for upgrades in the public coffers is extremely difficult. Private companies may be reluctant to invest what is needed because they are not confident that the economic recovery is sufficiently robust to make it worth their while.

High-voltage transformers are a particular weakness. Transformers are used to modify voltages. Tiny transformers are inside electrical devices, converting the voltage to the one appropriate for the device. The transformers which people see outside, often enormous and complicated arrangements of coils, cylinder, wires and boxes, are the type which increase voltage. This is necessary because wires have resistance, meaning that they lose energy. However, when power has been transformed to a higher voltage it can be transmitted over long distances, so that the power can be generated far away from where it is consumed.

The high-voltage transformers are often vulnerable to attack from both inside and outside their substations. They are too large to move easily and difficult to replace if damaged, as they are custom built. Furthermore, many of them are no longer made in the United States, which makes replacing them even more difficult. Acquiring portable transformers has been recommended but this is expensive.

In the meantime, the US power grid is so vulnerable that the NRC’s initial report, produced back in 2007, was actually suppressed. The information inside it was considered too dangerous to release to the public, because in that case it would have been available to terrorists as well. This means that the information about the power grid’s greatest vulnerabilities is less available to terrorists, but it also means that the urgency is also not felt by the public. Unfortunately, the grid lock in the US political system is so great that a crisis is often needed before any action is taken.

It is time to tell the U.S. Congress to stop bickering and do the work necessary to find the money to restore and protect the world’s most product electrical grid in the world. This is the moral, and legal, job of Congress: To regulate the flow of tax money to those projects that best serve the U.S. citizens. The next power failure you have to suffer through, consider this question. Can you think of anything more important to you than keeping the lights on at your house? Keep in mind that Congress has an elaborate, expensive backup power system. Do you?

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