How Vulnerable Is Our Power Grid?

(Photo: Horia Varlan)

A newly declassified report from the National Research Council analyzes the vulnerabilities of America’s electric-power system. Douglas Birch of Foreign Policy explains:

[T]he formerly secret report to the Department of Homeland Security focuses more on the U.S. electric power system’s older technology and lack of spare capacity, saying the “physical capabilities of much of the transmission network have not kept pace with the increasing burden that is being placed on it.” As a result, it found, sophisticated physical assaults against key facilities could damage difficult-to-replace hardware and cause multiple cascading failures with catastrophic results.

Hurricane Sandy wasn’t a “sophisticated physical assault,” but it still did the job. The study was written in 2007 and classified by the Department of Homeland Security, but, in a new foreword, scientists say that its findings are still relevant:

We believe that we have a responsibility to make this report available to the public. Major cascading blackouts in the U.S. southwest in 2011, and in India in 2012, underscore the need for the measures discussed in this report. The nation’s power grid is in urgent need of expansion and upgrading. Incorporating the technologies discussed in the report can greatly reduce the grid’s vulnerability to cascading failures, whether initiated by terrorists, nature, or malfunctions.

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  1. Ron says:

    I am in the industry and over the years my company has attempted to develop infrastructure improvement projects based upon reliability. The NIMBY affect won at the end of the day. Hard to sell a project to people when the light stay on 99.99% of the time. We still push forward as much as we can, but the local governments impede more than they will ever help; but will be there looking for heads when things do fall apart.

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    • Steve O says:

      Please keep up the good work! We need it, and you’re right–when something happens, politicians and pundits will decry the power companies’ and the government’s lack of action.

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  2. Mike B says:

    Wouldn’t these so called advanced grid technologies simply make it easier for a adversary to launch a cyber attack and cripple our power grid remotely? Adding networked general purpose computing devices to our power grid is probably one of the worst things we could do from a reliability standpoint. If the terrorists actually have to get on a plane and blow something up that is a huge win compared to them sitting back in their cave and wreaking havoc with a laptop.

    Perhaps the better solution is to roll back the ill fated energy deregulation experiment so that electric power is generated close to where it is consumed instead of sent all over the grid due to the actions of electricity traders. Yes local energy monopolies would be less efficient, but if your goal is reliability the best solution is to isolate failures and add redundancy at the physical layer.

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    • Brett says:

      “Advanced grid technologies” include advanced security. Which is more “reliable” a manually operated grid in which an operator might be hours away from the switch that needs flipping, or an advanced grid in which that switch can be flipped remotely in seconds.

      If you want to explore the isolation idea, look at Alaska. The “Railbelt” (aka Homer to Fairbanks along the Parks Highway) is on one grid – separate from the rest of the continent. Almost every other community is on their own – mostly on diesel generators. I believe most would benefit – in terms of reliability and cost – from the option to buy power and share in economies of scale.

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  3. Marc says:

    Actually, Sandy was quite sophisticated, if evaluated versus how much effort it would take to replicate the effects – a widespread, nearly simultaneous attack on every physical electrical and communication asset across a 100 mile front. Admittedly we had 5 days warning, but did it really matter for anything but loss of life?

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    • Eric M. Jones says:

      Marc, FYI

      From Wiki: “While it was a Category 1 storm off the coast of the Northeastern United States, the storm became the largest Atlantic hurricane on record (as measured by diameter with winds spanning 1,100 miles)….”

      But generally, yes our power grid (and infrastructure) could do with a makeover.

      Where I live, last winter gave us a devastating snowstorm which knocked out power for a week across a wide area. As a result of the maintenance and repair of that damage, Hurricane Sandy was not as damaging as it might have been.

      The Atlantic coast was a different story.

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  4. Tom P says:

    Urge all to check out Amory Lovins work on everything, microgrids are necessary to protect against widespread power outages

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  5. Damien Ryan says:

    We have the opposite problem here in Australia. Rules for power companies encourage so called ‘gold plating’ of the power network with costs handed to the consumer.
    We are paying for more capacity than we could possibly need!

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  6. avg says:

    I would like to speak to Freakonomics regarding this subject, to provide real time insight into this concern.

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  7. Allen says:

    Note: transmission lines and wires do not generate profit like power plants and power meters do. Upgrading them is pure cost.

    NOTE: The November 9th 1965 New York blackout occured when the system functioned as designed. The system had not kept up with demand. When a circuit breaker tripped, the load went to the other redundent transmission lines which were overloaded and so they tripped offline. Source:

    Note: Power transmission line equipment is not a stock item. Transmission line equipment is specilized and takes weeks to months to manufacture on “an as needed basis” It can not be found at hardware store, Wal*Mart nor electrical supplier.

    Note: newer larger diameter lines is more energy efficient due to less line loss. There can be savings.

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  8. Don says:

    Hogwash! You are asking the wrong question. We squander mountains of cash jumping from one schizophrenic state to another in perpetual fear of wondering how they can hurt us. The islamic extremists have been beating their brains out trying to destroy us for years and have only managed to kill a few thousand. It doesn’t even equate to a drop in the bucket.

    The bottom line is: Americans are their own worse enemy! Give us enough rope and we will surely hang ourselves. A prime example is our own self inflicted near meltdown of the global economy through a simple quest to provide cheap home ownership for the poor. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. If the enemies of the US had any brains they’d quickly realize all they need to do is sit back and enjoy the show.

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    • Val says:

      How true it is! Fortunately the US has been under a grace measure for a long time. Hopefully the rest of the world will stay asleep until the powers that be get it together. I am one of your neighbours to the north who keeps on believing that this too shall pass without too much distruction. A good dose of wisdom wouldn’t hurt. Standing together for victory.

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