How Do We Really Protect the Grid from the Bad Guys?

From David and Goliath to Luke Skywalker and the Death Star, the human race has been reminded again and again that big things have their vulnerable points. The U.S. power grid, sometimes called the world’s largest machine, is no exception.

So it was little surprise when the Wall Street Journal reported earlier this month that the U.S. government had identified nine key substations (out of 55,000), whose coordinated destruction could knock out power coast-to-coast. This would not be a flicker of lights, but an outage that lasts weeks or even months, a blow to our electricity-steeped economy like something from a Dystopian movie.

We’ve heard similar warnings before. As far back as 1982, Amory and Hunter Lovins raised the issue in “Brittle Power: Energy Strategy for National Security.” Talk of the grid’s susceptibility heightened following 9/11, and after the Northeast Blackout of 2003, and again last year when gunmen destroyed 17 transformers in an attack on Pacific Gas & Electric equipment.

These latest threats aren’t being ignored. Federal action is underway to better guard the grid. But with so much awareness of the problem, why are we focusing mostly on fences, sentries and surveillance, instead of fixing the root cause?

The grid’s weakness lies in its interconnectedness, which can lead to domino-like failures that can quickly traverse states and even affect Canada. We can reduce this vulnerability by adding decentralized energy – dispersed generation, energy storage, and microgrids – that supply power even when the grid is down. 

James Newcomb, managing director at the Rocky Mountain Institute, an organization that has focused on this issue for many years, says it would not take a lot of decentralized energy to make a big difference, at least in the early stage of a grid crisis.

 “In an emergency, even a very small penetration of distributed generation, deployed in the right places, can make a huge difference to human welfare by providing essential services, supporting first responders, and enabling supply chains for critical goods. This could be achieved by providing emergency electricity service, delivered by distributed resources, to only 1 percent of the load normally served by the grid,” he said.

While one percent would get us through an emergency, we would need far more dispersed energy if the grid outage lasted weeks or months “to sustain supply chains for essential goods and services,” he added.

Dispersed energy is the term that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission uses to describe distributed generation that is not connected to the grid, and therefore spared when a cascading failure occurs. How much dispersed energy exists now in the U.S.? We don’t really know. The Energy Information Administration does not keep the figures because the data is hard to track. 

Microgrids are another form of energy that can supply power in a crisis. While they are connected to the grid, they also have the ability to disconnect and act as self-sufficient, mini-grids.

“Existing microgrids provide “islandable” power systems — systems that can continue operating on a stand-alone basis if the grid goes down — for some military bases, university campuses, and other facilities. These systems are relatively rare today, but their numbers are rapidly increasing,” Newcomb said. 

What about all of the solar the U.S. has added in recent years? True, the U.S. had enough solar to power 2.2 million homes by the end of 2013, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. But, unfortunately, most of it is connected to the grid. So it goes off when the grid fails.

Meanwhile, much of our dispersed generation uses fossil fuels, according to John Moore, a senior attorney with the Sustainable FERC Project at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

“Unfortunately, most of these systems are simply backup diesel or propane-powered generators, so they are both dirty and vulnerable to interruptions in the fuel supply,” Moore said

Renewables, on the other hand, “are impervious to the supply disruptions and price spikes of coal, natural gas and nuclear fuel,” he said. “To be able to supply a constant power supply, DG should be coupled with energy storage and/or integrated into microgrids to eliminate the need for grid backup power.”

Moore sees the need for “more clean DG, more renewables, more smart grid innovations, and more energy storage” to keep the economy running if widespread grid failure occurs.

“Specifically, DG will have to become more independent of the grid to insulate its users against the effects of blackouts,” Moore said. “Scaling up of energy storage is critical because it reduces DG’s reliance on grid-supplied power as backup. Microgrids also could be a solution; they are community-scale energy networks that generate most of their power from DG and use super-efficient buildings and energy storage to reduce power needs.”

FERC in early March took action to shore up physical protection of the grid through new rules for utilities. Specifically, FERC ordered the North American Electric Reliability Corporation to propose standards in 90 days that will guide how utilities decide to protect their critical facilities.

The order doesn’t require grid decentralization. But in a separate opinion, FERC commissioner John Norris, suggested at least a plan toward bringing greater intelligence to the grid.

Norris said that the U.S. “simply cannot erect enough barriers to protect North America’s over 400,000 circuit miles of transmission, and 55,000 transmission substations.”

Instead, he called for “building a smarter and more agile grid,” which would discourage attacks “by ensuring that power will continue to flow to consumers even if certain elements of the grid are harmed.” Such a grid could “readily integrate intermittent resources, increase demand-side management capabilities, enhance the competitiveness of the wholesale energy market and more,” he said.

It’s clear that grid threats aren’t going away. They are getting worse and evolving beyond physical attacks to cyber assaults. A report last month underscored this new menace. The non-profit Bipartisan Policy Center said that cyber-attacks “are increasing, both in frequency and sophistication” in its report, “Cybersecurity and the North American Electric Grid: New Policy Approaches to Address an Evolving Threat.”

This is “alarming because the potential consequences of a successful large-scale cyber-attack — or combined cyber and physical attack — on the electric power sector are difficult to overstate,” the report said.

The choice seems pretty clear. If we don’t fix the root problem that threatens the U.S. grid by adding more decentralized and intelligent resources, in a few years we’ll likely again be revisiting the issue of security, following yet another calamity that shows the grid is too big not to fail.

Lead image: Transmission lines via Shutterstock 

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Elisa Wood is a long-time energy writer whose work appears in many of the industry's top magazines and newsletters, among them Renewable Energy World and Platts. She serves as chief editor of Her work has been picked up by the New York Times, Reuters, the Wall Street Journal online, Utne, USA Today and several other sites. She is author of the report "Think Microgrid: A Guide for Policymakers, Regulators and End Users." See more of her work at

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