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How Vulnerable Is Our Electric Power Delivery System? Short Answer – Pretty Darn Vulnerable! Read New Report To Learn The Details.

November 25, 2012

I know…there are so many things that could go wrong at anytime!  Natural disasters, disease outbreaks and of course those manmade fears.  The National Academy of Sciences gave me another reason to be sleepless at night in a report entitled Terrorism and the Electric Power Delivery System.”

Their premise is that terrorists could black out large segments of the United States for weeks or months by attacking the power grid and damaging hard-to-replace components that are crucial to making it work.

How might they go about this?  Well, by blowing up substations or transmission lines with explosives or by firing projectiles at them from a distance, terrorists would cause cascading failures and damage parts that would take months to repair or replace. In the meantime, it warned, people could die from the cold or the excessive heat, and the economy could suffer hundreds of billions of dollars in damage.

Now, none of this is new information.  The grid’s vulnerability has long been obvious to independent engineers and to the electric industry itself, which has intermittently tried, in collaboration with DHS to rehearse responses.

Of particular concern are giant custom-built transformers that increase the voltage of electricity to levels suited for bulk transmission and then reduce voltage for distribution to customers. Very few of those transformers are manufactured in the United States, and replacing them can take many months.

Changes in the electric industry have made the grid more vulnerable in recent years, experts say. The grid was mostly built to serve the needs of individual utilities, but regulators have cut the generation companies loose from the companies that transport and distribute power to foster a competitive market. That has resulted in far more electricity being shipped much greater distances and in difficulty winning consensus to build new lines. Meanwhile, the Sept. 11 attacks and weather catastrophes like Hurricane Sandy have underlined the need for ever more vigilant monitoring and technological improvements.

The report has some interesting suggests such as the development of submersible electric switches that could be operated after a hurricane. Some of the other technologies that have been suggested, like more sensors to help operators determine the status of transformers and transmission lines, would also help the grid on an average summer day.

The report urges that cheaper ways be found to put power lines underground, which would protect them from some effects of storms, and also calls for changes in infrastructure that would reduce the kind of mutual dependencies that result in wider blackouts. For example, more traffic lights could run on high-efficiency L.E.D. lamps and be equipped with batteries, and small generators could be placed in spots where power is needed for pumping water.

The National Academy of Sciences report mainly refers to less sophisticated attacks but also warns of cyberattacks or infiltration of the grid’s transmission operators. The report was originally completed in 2007, however after reviewing it, DHS decided to classify its contents. This latest version was redacted to avoid handing terrorists a “cookbook” on how to disrupt the grid. The PDF version of the report is available for free on line at: http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=12050#toc

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/15/business/energy-environment/electric-industry-runs-transformer-replacement-test.html?_r=0

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