Anyone who watches the news, follows social media, or listens in on personal conversations over the last few years have probably heard two interesting words spoken almost in fear: “The Grid.” It was a hot-button political issue in the United States after the wake of a catastrophic cyber attack on the Ukrainian energy grid that left 1.4 million people without electricity. This attack spurred increased interest in the American energy grid, its vulnerabilities, and the consequences of a potentially devastating power outage.
What may have been lost in the conversation, however, is what the national power grid actually is.
What is the “grid”?
Although the term seems to imply the existence of a single, unified energy grid, the United States actually keeps its lights on through two different major — and three minor — regional power grid systems. The Department of Energy breaks the system down into four separate functions.
- Generation is the function by which energy is created at various types of power plants, including solar arrays, coal plants, hydroelectric dams, and other kinds of power plants.
- Transmission is the function by which energy is converted to very high voltages at substation transformers,and then sent into a network of interconnected, long-distance power lines.
- Distribution is the function of diverting available energy out of the transmission network, converting the electricity into low-voltage power at down-step transformers connected to power lines or positioned along city streets, and then sending the power into homes, businesses, and industrial areas.
- The final function is end use, where electricity ran into outlets is used to power our daily tasks.
So what’s The big deal about the grid, then?
The primary concern surrounding the country’s electrical grid system is what would happen should the system fail. A Department of Homeland Security report noted that the fallout of what is termed a “catastrophic” power failure, meaning an outage affecting a large portion of the country and lasting beyond several weeks, would prove to be one of the greatest single disasters in the nation’s history. In such an event, key emergency services like police, fire, and medical would fumble due to non-functional infrastructure. Communications in the country, particularly those on the internet, would also be rendered inoperable, causing economic damage and social disarray.
How could something like this happen?
One of the most pressing risks to the national power grid is the same that sparked the Ukrainian electrical grid cyber attack: The danger of actors utilizing direct hacking of electrical infrastructure, injecting virus code into the computers managing the grid, or human actors damaging the grid themselves. The Department of Energy cites a few key concerns about cyber security in a report published in response to the growth of smart grid technology.
Energy cabinet officials worry that advances in security measures have not kept up with the growth of communications and information protocols controlling the grid. Without addressing these operational security concerns, a larger and larger digital network poses a greater cyber security risks simply by the law of probability.
The Department of Energy also notes that there are multiple potential antagonists towards the energy grid, including foreign state actors, “lone wolf” attackers, and environmentalist and “hacktivist” groups.
Another issue is that national and regional utility companies are often unaware of the extent, efficacy, and scope of their operational security protocols. It is impossible to perform full audits of all threats in a very large and continually growing system. Even worse, many companies do not even have enough staff or resources devoted to cyber security risks to put minimal safeguards in place.
Infrastructure failure and human error
A Department of Energy-commissioned report found that human error, natural events, and outdated infrastructure can critically damage energy grid systems. For example, improper safeguarding of infrastructure led to the catastrophic explosion of multiple turbines at the Russian Sayano-Shushenskaya dam. This explosion killed 75 people and released nearly 40 tons of oil into a local river. All this was caused simply by an accidental change in the settings of a marginal turbine.
Also mentioned in the report is the potential disruption to energy grid transmission due to electromagnetic interference, such as the solar storm-caused outage of the Quebec power grid that lasted 9 hours. Such interferences cannot be planned for, and mitigating the impact of them proves much more difficult than other outages caused by things like downed lines or weather.
A different Energy cabinet-commissioned report found that spontaneous failures of energy grid equipment can result in severe outages that are very costly to fix, as they necessitate brand-new energy infrastructure. In such cases, an outage may last for uncomfortable stretches of time.
To your survival,