14 March 2014

Fears for the US Power Grid

So you enjoy NBC's Revolution? Well, there's a better-than-nothing chance that something a lot like it could happenif you hit just the right parts of the US power infrastructure.

A major federal study on the vulnerability of the U.S. electric grid reportedly finds that taking out just nine of the country's 55,000 electric-transmission substations—on a hot day when they're stressed—could provoke a national blackout

The dystopian, post-electricity world of NBC’s sci-fi show Revolution may be a less fictional possibility than you thought, according to the results of a major federal study on vulnerability in the electricity grid reported Wednesday by The Wall Street Journal.

A coordinated attack on just nine of the United States’ 55,000 electric-transmission substations on the right day could cause a blackout from Los Angeles to New York City, according to the study conducted by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The study’s results have been known for months to select people in federal agencies, Congress and the White House, but were reported publicly for the first time Wednesday. The WSJ did not publish a list of the 30 most critical substations identified by the FERC study.

Ouch. There's more.

One particularly troubling memo reviewed by the Journal described a scenario in which a highly-coordinated but relatively small scale attack could send the country into a long-term literal dark age. “Destroy nine interconnection substations and a transformer manufacturer and the entire United States grid would be down for at least 18 months, probably longer,” the memo said.

OK, so it wouldn't quite be like Revolution since the grid going down isn't the same as killing all electricity - generators and solar panels and batteries and such would still work. But it's not a pretty sight considering how underprepared most of the American public is for even a 3-day emergency. But hey, this is a long-shot, right?

Um. No. As reported last month by CNN, and many other places, there's already been at least one sniper attack on a power substation, in Silicon Valley. And the more you read about it, the more you realize that it was a very intentional, very well-targeted attack to create specific effects, not just random vandal shoot-em-up blasting.

The former chairman, Jon Wellinghoff, now a San Francisco energy law attorney, called the little-publicized April 2013 attack on the substation a "very well planned, coordinated and executed attack on a major piece of our electric grid infrastructure."
While Wellinghoff has expressed concern that the attack may have been a test run for a bigger strike -- possibly terrorism -- the FBI has declared the incident wasn't an act of terror and is still investigating the case, with no arrests made.
The FBI considers the incident vandalism, said spokesman Peter Lee in San Francisco.
"There is no nexus to terrorism at this time," Lee said.

Well, maybe there's no nexus to terrorism at this time but you can surely bet they're paying attention.

In all, 150 rounds from an assault rifle were fired over almost 20 minutes at a Pacific Gas and Electric Company substation south of San Jose, California, knocking out 17 transformers in the post-midnight darkness of April 16, according to PG&E, Wellinghoff and CNN affiliate KTVU.
To prevent a blackout to Silicon Valley, workers re-routed power, but it took almost a month to make repairs, the affiliate reported.
Authorities also found an AT&T fiber optic cable was cut in an underground vault, causing a phone blackout, Sgt. Kurtis Stenderup with the Santa Clara County Sheriff's Office told KTVU.
By the time police arrived, the shooters, also suspected of damaging the phone line, were gone.
At the time, the incident wasn't publicized, but since he stepped down as FERC chairman in November, Wellinghoff is raising public attention to the California sniper's attack to demonstrate the vulnerability of the nation's electricity system.

1 comment:

Brian said...

G. Gordon Liddy, long ago in OMNI magazine (January 1989), wrote a fictional piece about how the United States economy was destroyed by fewer than 200 guerrillas using then-current technology. One part of it was taking out the power grid, much as you describe it.

Just a matter of time, and even without terrorists about, something like this may happen in slow motion, as infrastructure continues to crumble.