There has been a recent flood of reporting concerning attacks on the domestic electrical grid. Reports have provided great, possibly excessive, detail that will not be repeated here. The reports simply reinforce concerns that have been expressed to some degree for decades, such as the United States grid has vulnerabilities to sophisticated attacks, often stated as:
We live in a different world today…a world where bad people ceaselessly seek ways to do bad things to others. They seek to do as much damage in as many ways to as many people for as long as possible. Their goal is to generate significant fear, suffering, inconvenience and damage.
Risks and reality
The historical evolution of the domestic electric system resulted in large generation sources interconnected by a complex grid of transmission and distribution lines. This very interconnectedness, which has served our nation so well for so long, is now a key risk factor for attacks. It is simply not designed to resist coordinated, sophisticated attacks.
The grid is monitored, operated and controlled by complex computer systems. As if physical threats are not enough, the industry increasingly must deal with cyber-attacks. These are increasing in both frequency and complexity.
As early as 1859, utilities have also factored in the risks from our sun, specifically coronal mass ejections (CMEs). In these fortunately rare events, the sun releases massive amounts of electromagnetic energy which collides with the earth. This has the potential to inflict severe damage on any electronic equipment. Similar in many ways to a CME, man-made high-altitude nuclear weapons can also be used to emit crippling, targeted electromagnetic pulses. These are also recognized on the threat list.
Now that recent events have resulted in significant press coverage, the next all-too-predictable phase is underway. People may say, “The government and politicians MUST DO SOMETHING, because the grid is too big to fail.” Where have we heard similar words before?
This typically means regulations will be created and money will be spent. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) has asked the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) to identify essential facilities, define threats and develop protection standards. They are charged with basing the standard on “objective analysis, technical expertise and experienced judgment.” They need these regulations within 90 days.
Our industry responds in amazing ways to new challenges. This case should prove to be no different. We will be asked to assist in generating the new protection standards. Utility engineers will hopefully be part of the discussion and provide objective, reasoned expertise that will prove helpful in crafting these regulations.
Emerging technologies, including distributed generation, energy storage and microgrids, are being suggested as possible solutions to these threats. Implementing any or all of these technologies will provide the opportunity for us to design and operate the grid in new and different ways.
All of this will continue to stretch the already limited pool of technical expertise in our industry. And yet, we will continue to rise to the challenge and provide solutions.