Written by: Daniel Jennings
The power grid upon which Americans depend for nearly every aspect of life is attacked once every four days, an investigative report from the nation’s largest newspaper chain revealed.
Gannett and USA Today reporters analyzed federal energy records and found that a cyber or physical attack takes place so often – nearly 100 times a year – that government officials and grid experts are growing increasingly concerned that it’s just a matter of time before an attack is successful.
The March (2015) analysis by USA Today and more than 10 Gannett newspapers and TV stations drew from “thousands of pages of government records, federal energy data and a survey of more than 50 electric utilities.”
Experts are concerned because a successful attack on just a portion of the grid could create a cascading or rolling power outage that could shut off electricity to large areas of the country.
“Because the nation’s electrical grid operates as an interdependent network, the failure of any one element requires energy to be drawn from other areas,” the report says. “If multiple parts fail at the same time, there is the potential for a cascading effect that could leave millions in the darks for days, weeks or longer.”
Last year, a federal report found that if just nine of the nation’s 55,000 substations failed or were sabotaged, the entire nation would suffer a blackout for weeks, if not months. Members of the EMP Commission that reported to Congress found that if the grid is down for one year, 70-90 percent of the US — between 200 million and 285 million Americans — would die due to starvation, a lack of medical supplies, and civil unrest. One big reason an attack would do so much damage is because there are no backup parts to much of the system; they’re custom made, and it can take weeks or months to replace them.
The danger is far from theoretical: Such an attack cut off power to 80 percent of the population of Pakistan, or 140 million people, in January. That attack involved the use of simple bombs to bring down two pylons which held up electrical lines at a critical node or juncture.
“Those critical nodes can, in fact, be attacked in one way or another,” Jon Wellinghoff, the former chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, told USA Today. “You have a very vulnerable system that will continue to be vulnerable until we figure out a way to break it out into more distributed systems.”
The power grid, he said, is “too susceptible to a cascading outage.”
A great deal of electrical infrastructure is highly vulnerable to gunfire because critical equipment like transformers is often in plain view of streets and roads.
“Shooting at substations, unfortunately, is not uncommon,” Sue Kelly, the president and CEO of the American Public Power Association, acknowledged at a US Senate hearing last year.
Grid is Far More Vulnerable to Attack than We Thought
Reporters from USA Today and Gannett uncovered frightening details about the grid’s vulnerability. Those details include:
- There have been more than 300 attacks upon electrical infrastructure in the United States since 2011. In many of the attacks, suspects have never been identified and arrests have never been made.
- Attacks on the grid often go unnoticed for hours, giving saboteurs plenty of time to get away. Police did begin an investigation of an April 2013 attack on a California substation until several hours after the shots were fired. Those attackers have never been found or identified.
- Oversight for grid security is lax.
- Between 2011 and 2014, there were 348 physical attacks and 14 cyber attacks on the grid that caused outrages or disturbances, according to electric utility data reported to the S. Department of Energy.
Assaults on the grid, including cyber attacks, are growing in sophistication.
“The threats continue to evolve, and we have to continue to evolve as well,” the current chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Cheryl LaFleur, told USA Today.
Thomas Popik, president of the Foundation for Resilient Societies, a Nashua, N.H.-based advocacy group, said local utility companies are given too much freedom by government officials.
“The system is so badly broken,” Popik said. “For physical protection, the standards are very weak.”