For over a decade, national security and energy experts have warned America’s power grid has grown increasingly vulnerable to natural factors, such as weather-related outages and subversive action. With power outages 285 percent more likely to occur today than in 1984, it is critical that the nation ensure its electric power system is reliable, according to a recent study by Johns Hopkins University (JHU),
Published in the Journal, Risk Analysis, the study, Who’s Making Sure the Power Stays On? said the nation’s electric power distribution systems are so haphazardly regulated for reliability that it’s nearly impossible for customers to know their true risk of losing service in a major storm. The study, which was designed to analyze how reliability is measured, led the researchers to propose new regulatory measures to accurately identify weaknesses within the system.
The JHU researchers revealed critical shortcomings—such as the variation of standards between states, lack of consideration for all relevant measurements and overall lack of accountability at the national level—all contribute to a system which misrepresents the severe security risks posed by deteriorating infrastructure and inadequate performance standards.
The report claimed that if the US does not take immediate action, these shortcomings in power transmission and distribution will be exposed on a more frequent basis. The study defined the transmission system as transporting “… electricity from generation facilities to the distributors.” A distribution system is defined as consisting of “… all power system components at voltage levels below the transmission substations.”
“Service interruptions of power delivery can adversely impact our national security, economy, manufacturing, public health, the environment, and have devastating socioeconomic impacts,” the JHU researchers said.
Although regulations are critical topreventing outages, the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC), the leading transnational regulatory body, has failed to produce measurable and enforceable reliability standards for power systems. NERC, certified by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission as the Electric Reliability Organization, has yet to adequately define what is acceptable as well as considering all measurable outages.
Furthermore, the organization does not adequately account for outages occurring in the distribution system and incidents related to severe weather. According to the study, roughly 90 percent of outages occur in the distribution system rather than in production systems, which is significant because these outages are rarely factored into NERC’s performance reviews, an omission that significantly alters quantifiable results.
The researchers also argue that the methodology for calculating risk portrays a misleading assessment regarding bulk power systems (BPS), a large interconnected electrical system made up of generation and transmission facilities and their control systems.
A key concern is that severe weather incidents are likely to increase, and that the system in place do not measure the potential impact of low frequency and high impact events. Severe weather incidents such as earthquakes, tornadoes and hurricanes have caused severe disruptions in electrical systems.
In the case of Hurricane Irene in 2011, electric companies were criticized for extensive delays in restoring power. Incidents such as this, according to the study, have increased in the last decade, exposing an inability to measure reliability within the current framework.
Other severe impact/low frequency weather incidents such as Hurricane Sandy in 2013, and the October 2011 nor’easter — which caused more than 1.6 million outages in the northeast — illustrate the need to develop more comprehensive measurements of reliability.
NERC expressed similar concern in its own assessment, State of Reliability: 2015, stating, “To the extent that weather is determined as a large impact to day-to-day and extreme-day performance, other metrics that report on BPS reliability (specifically load-loss events) that retain weather impacts should be developed.”
This is not the only concern regarding the United States’ power grid, which has been a target for criticism for some time. Much of the grid is 70 years old and showing significant deterioration. In a 2012 article by the Washington Post, the American Society of Civil Engineers described the grid as a “patchwork system” that is certain to fail minus proper investment.
Similarly, Power Line Vice President Otto Lynch said in 2012, “We’re at a state where we can’t take a line out to fix it. We’ve got poles rusting, we’ve got towers falling down that we can’t take out of service.”
In addition, the United States’ power grid has long been considered a national security risk, with concerns ranging from Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) attacks, cyber attacks from state and non-state actors and physical attacks from state and terrorist groups.
In 2014, former CIA Director James Woolsey commented, “The destructive force of an EMP could knock out the grid for a year, maybe even longer.”
In response, the researchers argued the US should establish a comprehensive, national system to consolidate standards of reliability, include major incidents, shift away from average-based measurements and develop a more complete definition of reliability.
The JHU study does not address all factors in finding a solution. A national standard of reliability would be difficult to effectively create due to the obstacles faced in building a consensus on standards at the federal level.
However, there has been progress. Arizona Rep. Trent Franks reintroduced the National Cybersecurity and Critical Infrastructure Protection Act of 2014 (HR 3696) in March 2015, which, among other things, would address fear of cyber attacks exploiting vulnerabilities in “smart grid” technology–a modernized electric grid.
“Is a power outage due to a … weather event any less disruptive to a customer than an outage due to a technical failure of a substation? We would argue no,” said lead JHU study author Roshanak Nateghi, a post-doctoral fellow in the Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering in the Whiting School of Engineering. “A lost power event is a lost power event if you are a customer … Utilities need to ensure that appropriate measures are taken to protect their systems and mitigate the impacts of disasters.”
What is clear is that a serious problem exists, and if left unchecked, the danger to national security will only increase. The vulnerability of these systems, coupled with dependence on electricity in nearly every facet of homeland security, necessitates action sooner rather than later.
The public remains critical in addressing this issue. Nateghi stated that, “When the power goes off during a storm, a power company might get grief, but in the end, people forget and we go back to business as usual … ”