An attack on a PG&E substation near San Jose, Calif., in April knocked out 17 transformers like this one.Talia Herman for The Wall Street Journal
Two research groups urged the federal government to take action to protect the electric grid from physical attacks, rather than leave security decisions in the hands of the utility industry.
The Congressional Research Service recommended that Congress examine whether a national-level analysis of the grid’s vulnerabilities is needed or if individual power companies’ internal security assessments are sufficient.
Separately, a nonprofit research group said efforts proposed by utilities to harden the grid fall short because they don’t account for how one region might depend on others. The report from the Battelle Memorial Institute, which operates six of the U.S. Energy Department’s laboratories, said attacks could occur across more than one electric system, destabilizing large areas.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is considering new safety regulations proposed by an industry-dominated electric power organization. FERC, which regulates the nation’s high-voltage transmission system, told the industry in March that it must act to fortify the grid, after a series of articles appeared in The Wall Street Journal detailing how susceptible the electric system is to attack.
Additional coverage on grid attacks
The first article described an April 2013armed attack on a substation near San Jose, Calif., which threatened electricity supplies to Silicon Valley. Other articles pointed out that transformers are especially vulnerable to damage and that an analysis by federal experts said an attack on as few as nine critical substations could result in a nationwide blackout.
The Congressional Research Service, essentially a think tank for federal lawmakers, last month said there is widespread agreement among experts that high-voltage transformers—the most costly pieces of equipment in electrical substations—are “vulnerable to terrorist attack, and that such an attack potentially could have catastrophic consequences.”
Attacks could cause blackouts lasting weeks, or even months, because it is difficult to obtain replacement transformers, the report said. Utilities keep relatively few spare transformers on hand because they can cost millions of dollars apiece. Each transformer is custom-built for its location so units aren’t easily swapped. Transformers are also heavy, often weighing hundreds of tons, so are hard to move.
The rules proposed to FERC by the industry-controlled North American Electric Reliability Corp. would require utilities to assess their own vulnerabilities and draft security plans for substations. But the proposal doesn’t define the threats against which utility assets should be protected, nor do they require any specific defenses, such as ballistic shields for transformers. The rules would require third-party verification of assessments and security plans, although utilities would be allowed to perform that service for each other.
With over 160,000 miles of transmission lines, the U.S. power grid is designed to handle natural and man-made disasters, as well as fluctuations in demand. How does the system work? WSJ’s Jason Bellini has #TheShortAnswer.
NERC has said that its proposal gives utilities flexibility to respond to differing situations.
Jason Black, who wrote the Battelle report, which was published in May, said a utility-by-utility assessment is a flawed approach.
It would be better to determine which U.S. facilities are critical by looking across many utilities’ systems, he said. A blackout in New York, for example, might require electricity to be rerouted from the Midwest, making some substations in that region critical to the Empire State. But an insular assessment by an Ohio utility might not identify the importance of certain locations to New York.
“Assessments to determine critical facilities would be more rigorous if undertaken at a regional level,” Mr. Black said.
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