Threats to Power Grid Demand More Vigorous Response

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Security, industry and government officials are increasingly warning that the U.S. electrical power grid faces potential widespread failure from broad-based, systemic threats such as a cyberattack or massive electromagnetic pulse (EMP) disturbance.  Indeed, nations as varied as North Korea, Iran, China and Russia have hacked into the U.S power grid.  As for EMPs, a senior Department of Homeland Security (DHS) official recently testified before Congress, “EMP can cause widespread disruption and serious damage to electronic devices and networks, including those upon which many critical infrastructures rely.” These so-called “grid-down” risks have yet to be met with the urgency they demand, but time is not on our side.

On the one hand, following growing awareness of the system’s vulnerability to such threats, Duke Energy recently added EMP threats to its emergency plans.  Even Congress has gotten engaged by passing EMP-related provisions in the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act which, among other actions, directs DHS to include various grid-down scenarios into its planning and exercises.

Yet there has been little progress beyond studies and assessments, many of which conclude that we need more studies and assessments. This is happening even as the potential of conflict this year with Iran and North Korea seems worrisomely high.

If so many authorities agree grid-down cyber and EMP threats are real, why isn’t more being done?  The answer, regrettably, lies hidden somewhere in the conflicting roles and responsibilities held by multiple federal, state and local public-sector stakeholders and the thousands of private sector firms that actually run the power grid. 

Who sets the standards, who pays for the research, who implements the remedies, and who is liable if they don’t work?  The answers, according to most people in each camp, always seems to be the same: “someone else.” 

The confusion makes some sense. For example, the public is so reliant on power for communications, refrigeration, transportation and water, etc., that the cost of secure, resilient power could reasonably be borne by the consumers as the end-users.  But if the threat stems from the decision to go to war it may seem more like a federal responsibility, perhaps a Department of Defense (DoD) issue. 

Then again, energy reliability is primarily the purview of the Department of Energy. Yet DHS has a critical role since both the locus of the threat is critical domestic infrastructure and because effective emergency management will be necessary during any response. On the other hand, most energy providers are privately owned, though they operate through and with state and local governments, public utility commissions, etc., hampering efforts to develop consistent, nationwide approaches to security and resilience. 

With shared interests across all stakeholders, it’s little wonder there is so much confusion.  But when routine processes fail to provide timely and sufficient protection from extraordinary threats, bold leadership is required to achieve necessary results. 

What can be done?

America faces an uncertain global security environment, and experts assess the power grid to be one of the most likely targets. Since we can’t stop all the myriad threats from materializing, we must also focus on making the power grid more resilient.

This includes both infrastructure improvements that make the system less likely to be impacted as well as improving workarounds and planning for recovery solutions such as stockpiling spare parts, designing more modular and portable backup systems, and enhanced recovery plans for living with reduced power for a prolonged period.

The government should initiate a crash program that tests and validates existing commercial solutions such as testing and validation of promising products like advanced surge arrestors and insulating counter-EMP spray concrete.  This most likely falls to the laboratories run by the Department of Energy, repositories of true expertise and who can be shifted away from other less urgent tasks.

Industry and the government also should significantly increase stockpiles of spare parts, especially for high voltage transformers. DoD, in particular, should stockpile extra fuel for generators and spare parts to ensure mission resilience, as should hospitals and other public safety entities. DHS should drive exercises for massive disaster response under low or no-power situations.  And industry should reinvigorate efforts to develop a workable set of insurance policies that reward investments in grid resilience

Such actions cannot happen without political will and adequate resources. But based on the urgency of the threats from North Korea, Iran, and other state and sub-state actors, a push for rapid action is both necessary and already behind schedule.


J. Michael Barrett is head of the Center for Homeland Security and Resilience and a former Director of Homeland Security Strategy in the George W. Bush administration, Naval intelligence officer and Fulbright Scholar. His views are his own.



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