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The power grid is perhaps the most vulnerable aspect of infrastructure in the United States, and a new federal report states that if just nine of the 55,000 substations failed or were sabotaged, the entire nation would suffer a blackout for weeks if not months.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) report says the United States is at risk of a national blackout from just a small scale attack – an event that would place Americans in a world we did not recognize.
The US has three power grid “regions” – western (west of the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma), eastern and Texas.
“Coordinated attacks in each of the nation’s three separate electric systems could cause the entire power network to collapse,” power grid experts who have seen the report summarized to The Wall Street Journal.
The reason that taking out only nine substations would cause a nationwide blackout is because those nine – and a handful of others like it – play an oversized but essential role in keeping the lights on.
University of Austin Electrical Engineering Professor Ross Baldick said, “This would be an event of unprecedented proportions.”
The Obama administration has known about the FERC power grid findings for months, The Journal said. Members of Congress, White House officials, and administrators of a host of federal agencies were also reportedly briefed about the power grid dangers by then-FERC Chair Jon Wellinghoff.
Wellinghoff has not been shy about sharing his concerns with the public since a 2013 Pacific Gas & Electric terrorism attack at the California substation. In less than one hour, an unknown number of snipers were able to shoot 17 transformers, as previously reported by Off The Grid News.
“There are ways that a very few number of actors with very rudimentary equipment could take down large portions of our grid,” Wellinghoff said. “I don’t think we have the level of physical security we need.
In spite of the vulnerable and overly-taxed nature of the power grid, not a single federal regulation requiring protection of the vital substations exists. Only substations at nuclear power plants are subject to such oversight.
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Some federal officials still insist that the vulnerability level of the power grid is constantly overstated. Energy Department Deputy Assistant Secretary David Ortiz told The Journal that the electrical systems in the power grid are designed to be resilient and would be difficult for attackers to disable at many locations. Former Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano likely would disagree. As previously reported by Off The Grid News, Napolitano said that a power grid cyber attack is a matter of “when” not “if.”
Wellinghoff believes it is possible to protect the grid.
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“There are probably less than 100 critical high voltage substations on our grid in this country that need to be protected from a physical attack,” he told The Journal. “It is neither a monumental task, nor is it an inordinate sum of money that would be required to do so.”
Last year the American Society of Civil Engineers graded a host of infrastructure in the United States, and the power grid earned a D+ grade. In their report the engineers said the power grid is in “poor to fair condition and mostly below standard, with many elements approaching the end of their service life. A large portion of the system exhibits significant deterioration with a strong risk of failure.”
What do you think? Do you think the power grid is our most vulnerable soft target?