Guest Post: US Power Grid Vulnerable To Just About Everything

Tyler Durden's picture

Submitted by Jen Alic of,

As Washington hunts ill-defined al-Qaeda groups in the Middle East and Africa, and concerns itself with Iran’s eventual nuclear potential, it has a much more pressing problem at home: Its energy grid is vulnerable to anyone with basic weapons and know-how.

Forget about cyber warfare and highly organized terrorist attacks, a lack of basic physical security on the US power grid means that anyone with a gun—like disgruntled Michigan Militia types, for instance--could do serious damage.

For the past two months, the US Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) has been tasked with creating a security strategy for the electric grid and hydrocarbon facilities through its newly created Office of Energy Infrastructure Security. So far, it’s not good news.

“There are ways that a very few number of actors with very rudimentary equipment could take down large portions of our grid,” warns FERC Chairman Jon Wellinghoff. This, he says, “is an equal if not greater issue” than cyber security. 

FERC’s gloom-and-doom risk assessment comes on the heels of the recent declassification of a 2007 report by the National Academy of Sciences.

The National Academy of Sciences on 14 November warned that a terrorist attack on the US power grid could wreak more damage than Hurricane Sandy. It could cause massive blackouts for weeks or months at a time. But this would only be the beginning, the Academy warns, spelling out an “end of days” scenario in which blackouts lead to widespread fear, panic and instability.

What they are hinting at is revolution—and it wouldn’t take much.

So what is being done to mitigate risk? According to FERC, utility companies aren’t doing enough. Unfortunately, FERC does not have the power to order utilities to act in the name of protecting the country’s energy infrastructure. Security is expensive, and more than 90% of the country’s grid is privately owned and regulated by state governments. Private utilities are not likely to feel responsible for footing the bill for security, and states may not be able to afford it. 

One key problem is theoretically a simple one to resolve: a lack of spare parts. According to the National Academy of Sciences, the grid is particularly vulnerable because it is spread out across hundreds of miles with key equipment not sufficiently guarded or antiquated and unable to prevent outages from cascading.

We are talking about some 170,000 miles of voltage transmission line miles fed by 2,100 high-voltage transformers delivering power to 125 million households.

"We could easily be without power across a multistate region for many weeks or months, because we don't have many spare transformers,” according to the Academy.

High-voltage transformers are vulnerable both from within and from outside the substations in which they are housed. Complicating matters, these transformers are huge and difficult to remove. They are also difficult to replace, as they are custom built primarily outside the US. So what is the solution? Perhaps, says the Academy, to design smaller portable transformers that could be used temporarily in an emergency situation.

Why was the Academy’s 2007 report only just declassified? Well, its authors were worried that it would be tantamount to providing terrorists with a detailed recipe for attacking and destabilizing America, or perhaps for starting a revolution.

The military at least is preparing to protect its own power supplies. Recently, the US Army Corps of Engineers awarded a $7 million contract for research that demonstrates the integration of electric vehicles, generators and solar arrays to supply emergency power for Fort Carson, Colorado. This is the SPIDERS (Smart Power Infrastructure Demonstration for Energy Reliability and Security), and the Army hopes it will be the answer to more efficient and secure energy.

Back in the civilian world, however, things are moving rather slowly, and the focus remains on the sexier idea of an energy-crippling cyberattack.

Last week, Senator Ed Markey (D-Mass.) urged House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) to pass a bill—the GRID Act--which would secure the grid against cyberattacks.

"As the widespread and, in some cases, still ongoing power outages from Superstorm Sandy have shown us, our electric grid is too fragile and its disruption is too devastating for us to fail to act," Markey wrote. "Given this urgency, it is critical that the House act immediately in a bipartisan manner to ensure our electrical infrastructure is secure."

This bill was passed by the House, but has failed to gain any traction in the Senate. 

FERC, of course, is all for the bill, which would give it the authority to issue orders and regulations to boost the security of the electric grid's computer systems from a cyberattack. But it’s only a small piece of the security puzzle, and FERC remains concerned that authorities are overlooking the myriad simpler threats to the electricity grid. These don’t make for the easy headlines, especially since they are not necessarily foreign in nature.

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insanelysane's picture

I think the Sandy experiment showed that Americans can get along quite nicely without the grid for weeks on end. </sarc>

clymer's picture

"like disgruntled Michigan Militia types, for instance--could do serious damage.."

What a bullshit slight against Michigan Militia types.

this is as far in the article that I needed to go

TahoeBilly2012's picture

"Mr. Smith...lets's be reasonable 2012 did you, or did you not, use the UP ARROW button on the website, on a post that read..."

Cognitive Dissonance's picture

You'll have to pry my cold dead finger from my mouse.

<Star Mouse Wars.>

ACP's picture

Must be a politically moderate writer, because he forgot to say, "Racist, bigoted, misogynistic, redneck, angry, hateful, Tea-Party gun nut," which, I believe is the usual prologue for people who even think about disagreeing with the present Marxist "Forward" movement.

The Alarmist's picture

Nowadays it is enough to simply say Tea Party ... the rest are understood.

kaiserhoff's picture

For those with a serious interest in the future, Liddy's book Fight Back, is a virtual road map for bringing down the power grid, and shutting down transport.  I'm surprised it hasn't been banned by big brother.  If you haven't completed your list for Santa...

BKbroiler's picture

FIGHT THE POWER... oh wait, please don't. 

If you haven't been paying attention, storms are getting pretty f'n fierce these last few years.  Anyone who doesn't own a generator by now is a fool.  Get an electric one you can recharge with solar panels and you don't even have to worry about gas.  The basics are simple:

ENERGY - Generator and Fuel

WATER - Berkey Filters, Chlorine Dioxide Tabs

FOOD - Freeze Dried Food, PB, Rice

PROTECTION - large caliber gun and ammo

Got those 4 straigthened away for less than 5K and fared just fine through Sandy.

knukles's picture

Another "Only Big Brother Can Save You from This Shit" meme

Shiver and cringe, hide beneath the covers peasants, glady bestow upon the Sheriff's takes more of the precious Treasure to Fund the Inane and Horriblius Horseshit.

Please, just everybody go fuck themselves.

prains's picture

I thought Enron proved the power grid was inviiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiincible,(pinky finger in corner of mouth)

nmewn's picture

lol...and I could have sworn they just "spent" 870 Beeeeeliyon dollars.

The Alarmist's picture

They'll just crank up the juice to the electrodes on your testicles enough to make you want to let go ... then again, that might bring down our very fragile grid.

Antifaschistische's picture


I have the answer to unemployement in America.   Place one of your civilian guardsmen/women at the base of every single power pole in the US.

If not...then accept your vulnerability to any man with one of these...


kaiserhoff's picture

Wouldn't be my first choice, Sparky;)

willwork4food's picture

Stihl Tools-still made right her in America!!! VB, VA baby!

(When loads of dynamite are not an option)

The Gooch's picture

No Uncle Janet!

It was my cousin- THE GOOCH!

1fortheroad's picture

I agree


The Idahoe militia is much more adept

Oh regional Indian's picture

Fractally the Problems and solutions facing are all the same.

Centralization/Consolidation/Super-sizing = Weak, vulnerable, inefficient.

Distributed (generation/manufacturing/Everything) = Resilient/Redundant/Failsafe/Empowering

Smaller is better, all around.

Especially true for the power question.

Time to change the paridigm before the paradigm collapses on us.


john39's picture

the oligarchy controlling the world doesn't really care about the long term well being of the masses.... infrastructure in the U.S. is falling apart, with huge amounts of deferred maintenance common.  wealth is being stolen, not powed back into productive use...

NotApplicable's picture

I made it one more paragraph before quitting in disgust, as it doesn't take a genius to understand you cannot secure a complex, centralized grid. Only via decentralization can it be made secure, as it would take far too many resources to effectively shut down the whole country.

Of course, given that the mafia runs the world, those single points of failure are way to valuable for control purposes to ever consider getting rid of them.

midtowng's picture

Living here in the Dominican Republic, we get used to blackouts every single day (not to mention a complete lack of natural gas pipes).

People get by. In fact, I forget why people get so upset by it.

Poetic injustice's picture

More likely stray bullets from NY police will take down state powergrid.

TBT or not TBT's picture

White people are all about destroying civilisation, because, you know, they didn't build that.   They're angry at their lack of accomplishment.   Lazy.   Takers.   And we know from TV and hollywood scripts that at the end of the plot, it is always them and not the darkies behind the terrorism.    And life imitates art or something, so there's smoke and so surely fire.

formadesika3's picture

I didn't read the article. I have found that it's much more time-efficient to read the comments first.

A Nanny Moose's picture

Indeed. Sometimes it depends on the article, but you are spot on. An example of the power of distributed dissemination of information vs. the weakness of central editorializing.

Dan Conway's picture

This government is powerless to stop anything like what this idiot writer is blabbering.  This is all BS to have armed soldiers on the streets.  If they were more concerned about this stuff they might do some pretty basic stuff.  But here in the mid-atlantic all you need is a little wind and precipitation and voila no power for days.  I worry more about the government banning coal and what that will do to the electric grid. 

ArrestBobRubin's picture

Yeah, musta been a typo... it should have read "like desperate Meshuggah Mossad types, for instance, could launch yet ANOTHER false flag attack in the USA, this time against the power grid, and then have their owned congress critters blame it on Iran"

There, it's fixed now...

zendome's picture

LOL - we'd beg to differ on that "quite nicely" bit.  Felt like a total electricity junkie, hunting the streets looking for a fix!

Silver Bug's picture

All it would take is one significant solar flare and the whole thing would be wiped out for years.

petolo's picture

Chinese candles, kerosene and Eskimo parkas.

CH1's picture

Or just a generator.

mayhem_korner's picture



...provided you have a store or, or access to, a sustained fuel supply.  That's the ugly bottleneck that folks are going to suffer.

Zaydac's picture

A few years ago some imbeciles chucked a few old tyres over the fence on to the trips of a substation in the Small Heath area of Birmingham, England. The substation caught fire, and was destroyed. An entire industrial estate and several hundred houses lost electricity supply. It took a lot of large mobile generators to restore power. How long did it take to rebuild the substation and get the mains back on? A month. A whole month! That's one substation. In Gloucester in 2007 floods nearly took out the main regional switching station. Fortunately the emergency services had enough temporary flood barriers to hold the waters back but it was touch-and-go and the police were warning a million or more people that all the major residential areas of the county would be uninhabitable within a week if the station was lost. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that we need to build a more distributed power grid so that the loss of individual elements does not bring us down. Everything depends on electricity, including drinking water and sewage disposal. Take those out and we're in serious trouble. (But Zaydac will be OK with her rainwater harvesting, stock of treatment tablets, gravity-fed septic tank drainage, bloody great generator with changeover switch on the main board, and a decent stock of red diesel).

Parrotile's picture

Small Heath - why am I not surprised (however I'm hardly in a position to criticise, being an ex-Sparkbrook resident!!)

These would have been pretty small components too, so reasonably easy to source.

Replacement of 400kV Supergrid transformers / switches is in an entirely different league of difficulty!!

holdingontomypants's picture

In the Phoeniz Arizona area SRP who is the largest electric provider in our state has cheesy unarmed contract security guards sitting at electrical substations in their personal vehicals. To get this juicy contract only requires being the lowest of lowball bidders and the ability to persuade a door greeter from wal-mart to take the job.

At least Tucson Electric was serious about their security at a remote electrical substation in the mountains when they hired our armed guards and our guards carry AR-15's in addition to their sidearm. Mainly we just kepted dam illegals and drug smugglers away so the idiots didn't electrocute themselves and then a family member suing them afterwards.

I laugh everyday when I drive home and pass an remote electrical substation that is owned by SRP and see the dude chilled out in a lawn chair and glasses. I know I piss him off as I blow my horn at him everyday to make sure he is awake and if not, I wake him up. I should bill his company for the supervision I give each day. So far I haven't gotten the bird from him but maybe he is to stupid to know why I blow the horn.

Really, what is this guy going to do to stop a threat at the station he is watching? Throw his radio at the his radio even works. 

Security is a joke for most of our high value infrastructure and even our military bases. When I was in the military it would have been so easy to cause serious damage to fighter aircraft as it was so poorly watched and I bet it still is. You got some E-3 or below pulling flightline watch and nobody watching him. He would stroll out of the shack once every couple of hours and take a stroll around 20-30 aircraft, unarmed of course. Then go back in a take a nap because he had already worked all day and now had a 4-8 hour watch. If I was a bad guy midnight to 4AM is prime.

Being a security company owner for the last 8 years I have seen who and what type of companies are serious about their security and who is just looking for window dressing. 95% are looking to just risk transfer as cheaply as possible and save money on their liability policy by being able to claim they have security.

sink critically's picture

I'm sure you do an important job for your clients, but doesn't it seem strange that a security company owner would yak on an on about the details of their business. Not hating, just letting you know the irony isn't lost on me.

Flakmeister's picture

Reap what you sow...

What else would you expect from a profit driven neglect of infrastructure...

Edit: Carrington Event bitchez!

mayhem_korner's picture



You mean like not-for-profit LIPA???

SilverIsKing's picture

Don't pick on LIPA.  Let me pick on those dick suckers.

mayhem_korner's picture



OK.  Let me spell it out more clearly.  Flaky the lib said that the problem was "profit-driven neglect of infrastructure".  The poster-child of neglected infrastructure subsequent to Sandy is LIPA, which is a not-for-profit entity.  So LIPA's neglect really wasn't profit driven, right?  Bueller?  Bueller?

Flakmeister's picture

There is a lot more to the electrical grid than LIPA....

Nice strawman...

SilverIsKing's picture

The issues surrounding LIPA may be partly due to neglect (not profit driven but could be funding driven) but I think there's a heavy dose of incompetence in there too.

mayhem_korner's picture



Flaky, don't go there.  I've got more knowledge of the electric grid and how it works than you and all your labrats combined.  I was just pointing out the flaw in your linkage between profit and neglected infrastructure.  That's all.

mayhem_korner's picture



I never challenged the issue of neglect.  I only pointed out the flaw in your "logic" that neglect was a function of profit-seeking. 

Flakmeister's picture

Neglect can be willful or from incompetence...

I would argue that a good chunk is willful and related to the bottom line....

Flakmeister's picture

Even since the cancellation of Shoreham (if not before) the electric utility situation on L.I. has been an unmitigated shitshow...

I remember at BNL in the early 90's, that by firing up the AGS and then shutting it down that the BNL reaped a $250,000 "award for cutting demand during peak power demand...


whoopsing's picture

Yes, but we pay dearly for that shitshow

Hippocratic Oaf's picture


This debacle is going to make all other issues trivial.

Our elec. infra. is and has been on life-support.

NotApplicable's picture


I think you mean a political driven neglect of infrastructure. Nobody privately pursuing a profit would undermine their own business with intentional neglect. Thing is, "the grid" is a TBTF "public resource," so there is no rational reason to pay for upkeep when it can all be passed off to Uncle Sugar for "safe-keeping."

As always, Rent Seeking 101.