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Energy Security

Mar 3, 2023

Gary Smith

Last month I wrote about the rolling blackouts across the southern U.S. and how renewable generation would not solve the problem of shrinking reliable electric reserves. With continuing pushes from environmentalists and liberal politicians to shut down reliable fossil fuel generation and replace it with intermittent renewable generation, we can expect increasing power shortages and power grid blackouts in the future.

The frequency and expansion of these power shortages and blackouts will depend upon the pace of fossil fuel generation retirements, the level of substitution of renewable resources, the speed of the movement to electrify greater portions of the economy, and the frequency of extreme temperatures – cold and hot.

In addition to the threat of less reliable generation, there is also increasing concern about the reliability of the electric grid. The most publicized concern over the past couple of decades has been cybersecurity threats.  

The electric grid is controlled primarily through communications systems owned and operated by electric utilities across the country. Although most utilities deploy their own private communications systems, and access to these systems is protected from both physical and cyber-attacks, there is concern the grid will be infiltrated in some fashion, resulting in the destruction of electric generators or interrupted grid operation.

Electric utilities’ systems monitoring and maintaining the grid are generally separated from public communications systems. Operating system maintenance is almost always limited to physical presence inside a utility’s secure operations center. Communications across the Internet are not generally used for electric operations, making it extremely difficult to hack an electric utility’s operating system.

Electric grid security is regulated by the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (“NERC”) and its subsets, such as the Southeast Reliability Corporation (“SERC”) in the south. Utilities share best practices and technology advances, as well as cyber threats through the agencies. Utilities regularly undergo cyber and physical infrastructure security audits under which security programs and practices are evaluated and tested.

The greatest cyber threat is most likely a disturbed or disgruntled employee who uses their access to, and understanding of, an electric utility’s operating system to damage the system or electric grid. However, I am reasonably confident the electric grid is secure from cyber or hacking attacks from hostile agents.

I am more concerned about the old-fashioned threat of physical damage to the electric grid itself. The U.S. electric grid delivers power to retail consumers across a system containing thousands of miles of transmission lines and more than 50,000 substations. Because the transmission lines and substations are not exactly aesthetically pleasing, they are most often placed in more remote, difficult to monitor locations.

Historically, there have each year been approximately 100 terrorist-type attacks – as opposed to vandalism – on electric grid facilities. Attacks on electric grid facilities appear to be increasing. Last year 107 substations were attacked in a terroristic manner from January through August. In December alone there were two attacks on substations in North Carolina, one in Washington state, and one in Oregon, each of which left thousands of electric customers without service for hours. Just last month, the FBI arrested a duo accused of planning a power grid attack, allegedly terroristic, in Maryland. 

The highest profile substation attack was on Pacific Gas & Electric’s large Metcalf substation outside San Jose in 2013. A well-orchestrated terrorist team cut communications lines to alarm systems and shot 17 transformers with planned precision and knowledge to totally disable the substation. Fortunately, the attack occurred during a period of relatively low electric usage, and outages were not as severe as might be expected from the loss of such a large substation. No group has taken responsibility for the attack, nor have any arrests been made.

Many of the transmission lines carry huge volumes of electricity across long distances. Many of the substations convert the high voltages of that electricity to lower voltages in preparation for retail consumption. The substations are usually open structures with fencing on the sides, transmission lines coming in and out, and, usually, distribution circuits also coming out. The nature of substation function, design and operations makes substation security extremely difficult.

There have been recent discussions about the requirement to place active surveillance or even armed guards around substations. Active surveillance has shortcomings in that most of the attacks are with high-powered rifles at long distances that may not be detected by the surveillance equipment. While armed guards would provide a much greater deterrence to attacks, armed guards are expensive and could be overwhelmed by a professional terrorist team.

Protecting the thousands of miles of transmission lines against a multi-location attack is altogether a different security issue. It will be impossible to fully protect those lines.

Many in today’s world are increasingly willing, if not encouraged, to express their positions and beliefs with violence and destruction, which puts the basic security of our economy and lifestyles at a greater risk than ever.

While a forced political march to renewable energy places our current lifestyle at risk, we are subject to a far greater danger from the terrorist activities of some factions that will express their opposition to any number of issues. Neither our industry or politicians nor experts, have a suitable answer to these risks. I wish I had a better outlook on energy security for you, but greater energy security will require a complete redesign of the industry.

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