Almost everyone from across the political spectrum can agree on at least this one thing: the nation’s electric power grid must be made more resilient. The grid has so many vulnerabilities and problems that there is something for almost anyone to latch onto, regardless of area of interest or political perspective.
National security experts point out the danger posed by a nuclear weapon-created electro-magnetic pulse (EMP), the system’s vulnerability to hacking and the potential for physical attack on critical nodes. Meteorologists warn of the possibility of a massive solar flare which, like an EMP attack, could almost without warning shut down the nation’s entire electric grid. Energy experts are concerned about aging infrastructure and diminishing surge capacity. State and local officials focus on threats to the reliability of supply such as major storms and the difficulties of adding generation capabilities and new transmission lines. Environmentalists are unhappy about the grid’s high reliance on polluting sources of energy and the pace at which renewables are being introduced. And, of course, the utility companies are focused on maintaining supply and worried about how to pay for fixing the myriad of problems.
The answer is to take a holistic approach, one that integrates a variety of technologies and approaches with an emphasis on what can (and must) be accomplished at the state and local levels. There is unquestionably a role for the federal government, particularly in providing the defense of the homeland against a high-altitude nuclear missile strike that would produce a nation-ravaging EMP blast.
But the grid’s physical security should be the responsibility primarily of utility companies supported by state and local law enforcement. States and localities are also responsible for setting resiliency standards for the power grid in their locales against any kind of disruption. The centrality of local security and response to physical attacks on the grid was demonstrated by last year’s attack on the Metcalf substation outside San Jose, California which, according to experts, came “very close to causing the shut-down of a large portion of the Western grid.” Physical security of substations and transformers should be a requirement. The cost per individual user would amount to pennies a year.
A number of state and local governments are working with private utilities to address the effects of natural disasters on the supply of electric power. Together with New York regulators, Con Edison has embarked on a plan described as “weather proofing” the state’s electric grid. The company has announced that it will invest $1 billion over a four-year period to harden and make more resilient its electric, gas and steam systems. In addition, Con Edison will undertake a study of the feasibility and cost-effectiveness of expanding the use of microgrid systems, which are small-scale versions of the centralized electricity system, to achieve specific goals such as reliability, carbon emission reduction, diversification of energy sources, and lower cost to consumers.
An even more interesting experiment is being conducted by the City of Hoboken, New Jersey in collaboration with Sandia National Laboratory and the local utility, Public Service Electric & Gas Co. Together, they are developing a microgrid for the city, one which can be activated at peak usage times, taking some of the strain off the larger electric power grid or if that grid goes down. The plan is to network about 100 buildings in the city and provide them with alternative power generation capability. In theory, renewable energy sources could also be part of this microgrid.
Ensuring the security and resiliency of the electric power grid is one of the most important national security concerns the nation faces. As the Northeast discovered during Hurricane Sandy, without power, nothing else works. Southern California is dependent on electric power to pump the tens of millions of gallons of water that the area uses every day. No electricity, no Los Angeles. At one time or another, most Americans have experienced a temporary power outage. It is generally an inconvenience. A protracted failure of the power grid would be a calamity. In some instances, such as after an EMP attack, only prior preparation would keep the situation from turning into a catastrophe.
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