Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

February 8, 2012

The fragility of the electrical grid

Filed under: General Homeland Security,Infrastructure Protection — by Arnold Bogis on February 8, 2012

This past weekend, the Boston Globe ran a great article by Neil Swidey that begins with a narrative about the late fall snowstorm that caused massive power outages in the Northeast and pivots into an investigative piece examining the fragility of the entire electrical grid.

First, however, comes the personalization:

While most of that northwest-of-Boston community – like much of the region – remained in the dark, the Sargent Memorial Library had been welcoming the biggest crowds of Strapko’s decade-long tenure. That’s mainly because restoring power to key town facilities like the fire and police departments had also turned it back on at the nearby library.

When they returned to the library to retrieve her car, it was about 10 o’clock. Strapko was astonished to see that there were still half a dozen cars, sport utility vehicles and Priuses alike, idling in the parking lot, the drivers’ faces lit by the bluish glow of their laptop and smartphone screens. She later learned that all week long, people had been lingering in the parking lot into the early hours of the morning, unwilling to disconnect from the library’s 24-hour Wi-Fi lifeline. A dozen years into the new century, this is how hopelessly reliant we’ve all become on power.

Swidey builds the case that major disruptions in electricity delivery have been few and far between in the recent American experience:

Yet here in this country, we’ve come to expect that whenever we flip the switch or plug in to the outlet, the juice will be there. The power grid has been so reliable over the years that most of us can count on one hand the number of times in our lives when we’ve been without electricity for any significant stretch.

However, the last large non-storm related blackout in 2003 can be seen as a harbinger of future fragility.

If our society is more reliant on power than at any time in history – without it, we’ve got no commerce, no communications, no clean water – and if power becomes less reliable in the future, the big question is: Will we be able to hack it?

He divides particular threats to the grid into three buckets:

Bucket No. 1 involves what the insurance-policy fine print calls “Acts of God.’’ Here we’re talking about all those “storms of the century’’ that seem to be arriving with unsettling frequency.

And as the Halloween storm showed, even people in neighborhoods with underground power lines won’t necessarily escape outages, because those lines are fed somewhere along the route by aboveground equipment. What’s more, Mother Nature can hit us with a lot more than just high winds and heavy snow. Consider the solar storm.

Let’s call Bucket No. 2 “Acts of Terrorists.’’ Among these, there’s the old-fashioned physical attack on the bulk power system, either at its source of generation or somewhere along its transmission route. There’s the newfangled cyber attack on the computers controlling our interconnected grid. And then there’s the otherworldly-sounding attack by an electromagnetic pulse, or EMP, weapon.

Yeah, he went there: EMP.  Luckily, he expends some ink on painting some of the stalwarts of that threat genre as a little extreme and mentions the arguments that paint this as an unlikely event. As a solar storm impacting the Earth is a “when, not if” event, taking the steps to harden the grid that many EMP enthusiasts suggest would seem prudent to me. Trying to build a fanciful missile defense system that would stop any attack conceivable…not so much. Getting back to man-made threats:

But the chairman of the task force, Granger Morgan, says that what continues to worry him the most is the havoc that bad guys could cause with relatively little technological savvy. “If I’m a terrorist, I can shut down the power system in a lot simpler ways than using a valuable nuclear device,’’ says Morgan, an engineering professor at Carnegie Mellon University and a noted authority on the grid.

Natural and intentional man-made threats to the electrical grid are fairly well known in homeland security circles, but the article brings up several structural facets of the system that at least I hadn’t considered before:

Finally, Bucket No. 3 is the “Ailing Grid’’ itself. In many places, the infrastructure is as old and stooped as a pensioner. As it is upgraded and its capacity is expanded, our rapacious need for more electrical power races to max it out once again.

As our electrical thirst grows, the choices we make today about how to quench it will have lasting consequences.  Not simply some combination of environmental and national security concerns, decisions about fuel type and infrastructure capacity will have unforeseen impacts.

A decade ago, 22 percent of New England’s electrical power came from oil-fired plants and 15 percent came from natural gas-fired ones. Today, about half of our electrical power comes from natural gas, while a fraction of 1 percent comes from oil. And our reliance on natural gas promises to grow even more significantly in coming years.

Second, the natural gas pipelines feeding this region were built to serve our heating – not our electrical – needs. Most of the year, there’s sufficient room in the pipeline to supply both. The danger zone, however, comes when the temperature plummets. During stretches of brutal cold, the pipeline capacity can be quickly used up by the natural gas needed to heat our homes and businesses. And unlike oil and coal, natural gas supplies cannot be easily stored in large quantities.

Yet, some important limitations tend to get lost when people rhapsodize about renewables. Although wind and solar power represent a wonderfully clean source of electricity, in energy parlance, they are not particularly “dispatchable.’’ If the weather doesn’t cooperate, you can’t meet increased demand by simply turning up the power spigot and having renewable energy flow out the tap.

As the price of natural gas continues to either hold steady or decrease due to increasing supplies, new oil and to a lesser extent coal (which releases more pollutants into the air than natural gas) burning plants are not likely to get built.  Older plants will  be decommissioned, renewables may not be dependable, and the nuclear renaissance may run aground on the shore of economics (and a bit of safety post-Fukushima–but impacted to a greater degree by the comparative costs of building a new natural gas vs. nuclear plant). Infrastructure concerns will vary with conditions across the regions of this nation, but so will the long term impacts of deciding what sort of system to build.

With current political pressure to cut government spending, the issue of whether it will get built is just as important as what to build. If that isn’t daunting enough, the provision of electricity is a complicated public-private partnership. The issues raised by Phil’s recent posts on supply chain issues apply to the grid as well.

The answer?

Some will choose to get off the grid, or at least decrease their reliance:

FOR A MORE ENCOURAGING GLIMPSE into the future, head up to East Dummerston in southeastern Vermont. There, on 27 acres, Juliet Cuming and David Shaw live with their two children in a beautiful 2,400-square-foot house and run a photo-archive business in a building next door. Here’s a partial list of what you’ll find inside: flat-screen plasma TV, three laptop and two desktop computers, an Xbox, scanner, washer and dryer, dishwasher, toaster, and vacuum. Here’s what you won’t find: a bill from the electric company.

They have lived fully off the grid for 16 years now, producing all the energy they consume, relying largely on a wind turbine and a bunch of solar panels. They estimate that it cost them an extra $20,000 to have their home built so it could be a self-sufficient island of energy, and figure they have already recouped that investment.

The entire article is well worth reading:


Postscript:For good resilience measure, the article includes the standard list of items one should have on hand for blackouts and other types of emergencies.  Strike while the iron is hot, or at least when the reader is concerned.

Post-postscript: For those interested in getting into the weeds of electricity policy, the “Harvard Electricity Policy Group” has been examining these issues since 1993 and allows public access to their extensive research library.

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Comment by William R. Cumming

February 9, 2012 @ 2:25 am

Great post and since private enterprise largely ignores resilience time to return to “public” utilities?
The splitting of electric power companies into generators and transmitters did not help resilience.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

February 9, 2012 @ 5:26 am

Arnold, Many thanks. Along the same lines very much worth reading “Bak’s Sandpile: Strategies for a Catastrophic World“. Lots of grid analysis. Here’s the blurb from Amazon:

Did the terrorist attacks on the United States in 2001, the massive power blackout of 2003, Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and the Gulf oil spill of 2010 ‘just happen’-or were these shattering events foreseeable? Do such calamities in fact follow a predictable pattern? Can we plan for the unforeseen by thinking about the unthinkable? Ted Lewis explains the pattern of catastrophes and their underlying cause. In a provocative tour of a volatile world, he guides the reader through mega-fires, fragile power grids, mismanaged telecommunication systems, global terrorist movements, migrating viruses, volatile markets and Internet storms. Modern societies want to avert catastrophes, but the drive to make things faster, cheaper, and more efficient leads to self-organized criticality-the condition of systems on the verge of disaster. This is a double-edged sword. Everything from biological evolution to political revolution is driven by some collapse, calamity or crisis. To avoid annihilation but allow for progress, we must change the ways in which we understand the patterns and manage systems. Bak’s Sand Pile explains how.

Comment by William R. Cumming

February 9, 2012 @ 8:13 am

James Burk’s book “The Gift of the Ax” or something similiar interesting take on Phil’s double edged sword.

Also like Jared Diamond’s question in his “Collapse of Civilizations”–what was the person chopping down the last tree on Easter Island thinking?

My guess the answer to Jared’s question is the person was NOT thinking. Nor do we when allowing the downside of technology to be so very pervasive.

Comment by William R. Cumming

February 9, 2012 @ 10:43 am

NYC blackouts 1965 and 1977. Biggest grid failure the Northeast Blackout last decade.

Comment by Michael Brady

February 9, 2012 @ 11:50 am

So the grid is so weirdly fragile that a squirrel, grass fire, or snow storm can tip it into a failure cascade that is only understood afterwords. How difficult would it be to create a grid failure on purpose (the EMP weapon boogeyman notwithstanding)? Is there a chance it’s too complex to break on purpose?

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