As if Hurricane Sandy’s blackouts weren’t worrisome enough, a new federal study warns the U.S. power grid is also vulnerable to terrorist attack. Yet it says fixing the problem won’t be easy.
6:46PM EST November 14. 2012 – After Hurricane Sandy left millions in the dark, a long-delayed federal study Wednesday says the U.S. power grid is also vulnerable to terrorist attacks that could cause months of blackouts and billions in economic damages.
The nation’s grid is spread out across hundreds of miles, and many key pieces of equipment are either unguarded or so old they lack the sensors to limit outages from cascading, according to the study by the National Research Council (NRC), a private independent agency operating under a congressional charter.
“We could easily be without power across a multistate region for many weeks or months, because we don’t have many spare transformers,” says M. Granger Morgan, engineering professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and chairman of the NRC committee that wrote the report. He says a terrorist attack could cause disruptions worse than Sandy and rack up “hundreds of billions of dollars” in damages.
“Most of the report is as relevant today as when we wrote it,” he says, adding the power industry changes slowly. The NRC completed the report in 2007, but the sponsoring agency, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), decided to classify it entirely. In August 2010, the NRC requested an updated classification, and in August 2012, all but a few pages of the report were cleared for publication.
“It was very frustrating,” Morgan says of the delay. He says the committee understood the need to protect national security and was careful not to provide a “cookbook” for terrorists, relying instead on widely available data. He says the authors are now “pleased” the report is public.
The report focuses partly on high-voltage transformers, saying they’re vulnerable both from within and from outside the substations where they’re located. It says they’re huge, difficult to move, often custom-built, and hard to replace, because most are no longer made in the United States. It recommends developing smaller portable ones for temporary use to reduce delays in restoring disabled power systems.
Morgan says DHS has “done a little” to develop and test spare low-voltage transformers but says “there’s a long way to go.”
DHS spokesman Peter Boogaard acknowledged threats to the grid, but added that the agency”continues to work every day with private sector and government counterparts to adapt and strengthen our security and resilience against an ever changing threat.”
The report says the federal government faces difficulty in addressing weaknesses in the nation’s power grid, because more than 90% of the grid is privately owned and regulated by the states. Still, it calls on DHS or the Department of Energy to study where the U.S. is most vulnerable to extended blackouts and to develop cost-effective strategies for reducing their length and their impact on critical services.
“The NRC is right to call for more investment in making our grid both more secure and more resilient in the face of attacks,” says Richard Caperton, an energy expert at the Center for American Progress, a liberal-leaning think tank. He says a terrorist attack is unlikely but, as Hurricane Sandy shows, “Anything that disrupts power supply can have catastrophic consequences.”
Morgan says many of the steps that could protect the grid from terrorism would also protect it from extreme weather. He points to smart meters, saying they disconnect damaged properties so power can be restored more quickly to the rest of a neighborhood without fear of explosions. He says much of Long Island and New Jersey lacks such technology.
DOE estimated Wednesday that 6,000 homes and businesses in the Mid-Atlantic region remained without power because of Hurricane Sandy or the Nor’easter storm. The number, which reached nearly 9 million, was down from 25,061 on Tuesday and 63,821 on Monday.