America’s power grid is far more fragile than you might think, security expert and strategist Cris Thomas says, but it’s not cybersecurity he is worried about.
Thomas, a strategist at Tenable Network Security who also is known as “Space Rogue,” told Tech Insider that he is skeptical about the potential of a successful cyberattack, which he calls possible but unlikely.
Yet Thomas nevertheless is concerned that the grid can be taken down, coast to coast, in what he calls the “nine substation problem.”
Thomas was referencing a 2014 Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) study that found an enemy could take down the US electric grid for more than a year by destroying nine critical substations out of the 55,000 substations that dot the US landscape. It would require a coordinated attack similar to September 11, 2001, and even could be easier because many substations lack any security.
“Destroy nine interconnection substations and a transformer manufacturer and the entire United States grid would be down for at least 18 months, probably longer,” a FERC memo detailed in The Wall Street Journal stated.
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Substations rely on transformers, which are large, custom-built devices, to move electricity. It can take months or even years to replace one because there is no available stockpile and only a few places around the world make them.
Simple Low-Tech Sabotage Could Take Down Grid
A physical attack on the grid would be easier and simpler than a cyberattack, Thomas said. All the bad guys would need is a few pounds of explosives at each site. Recent history demonstrates such a scenario is possible; Taliban terrorists succeeded in shutting off electric service to 80 percent of Pakistan’s population of 140 million people in January 2015 by blowing up a powerline.
A monkey knocked out power to the entire nation of Kenya, a country of 44 million people, for several hours by falling on a transformer on June 7, The Washington Post reported. The outage lasted four hours, and, incredibly, the monkey survived.
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Grid sabotage has already occurred in the US, Thomas noted. He pointed to an April 16, 2013, incident when somebody caused $15 million worth of damage to a Pacific Gas & Electric substation outside San Jose by simply firing a semiautomatic rifle at transformers.
Koppel, Experts: Cyberattack Threat Is Real
Thomas may not be convinced that a cyberattack is possible, but famed TV newsman Ted Koppel believes it is and wrote about it in his 2015 book, “Lights Out: A Cyberattack, A Nation Unprepared, Surviving the Aftermath.”
“My point is that, if someone succeeds in taking down one of our power grids — and the Russians and the Chinese can do it and maybe the Iranians and the North Koreans — it would be devastating.”
Experts interviewed by Koppel believe it is not a matter of “if,” but “when” the grid is attacked, and it would be down weeks or months, Koppel said.
“When I spoke to Janet Napolitano just after she left as secretary of Homeland Security — and she had been on the job for five years — I said to her, what do you think the chances are of a cyber-attack on the power grid? She said very, very high, 80 to 90 percent,” Koppel said.
Such an attack would lead to mass starvation, Koppel said, adding that he recommends people have a three- to six-month supply of food and water.
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