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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mayhem_korner's picture



Everything enabled by power is disabled when there's none.  That's the lesson that folks in the NY/NJ area should have just learned in spades.  The ability to survive without utility power will prove to be a dominant gene.

Flakmeister's picture

I would argue that it is well nigh impossible in a highly urbanized environment....

mayhem_korner's picture



...which is among a thousand reasons I don't reside there.

Itch's picture

I fart and the lights go out, but im special.

Itch's picture

Who said the calibre of ZH comments has went down a notch?

Bastiat's picture

A red one for "has went."

XitSam's picture

And a red one for you, he was proving his point.

MachoMan's picture

You probably just passed out...  try not to squeeze as hard next time

Bay of Pigs's picture

What happened to all that "infrastructure" spending?

And where are the Green Shoots?

zendome's picture

Think it was Republicans that killed all that during their "anything to keep Obama from getting re-elected" pledge.  They couldn't even get that right.

homonohumanus's picture

I don't know by the look of it it seems that there was barely enough to do a hack job at fixing decaying highways.

odatruf's picture

First it was solar flares and now it is hand guns?

When will I read about the danger that kites pose to our power grid? If only Congress would set aside one billion dollars, we could build a network of sissor like devices that would clip their strings mid-flight.



Joe Davola's picture

Don't forget birds, baseballs, frisbees, aliens (h/t K-man).  Honestly, the biggest concerns should be adequate brush clearing around power lines and the numbskulls who steal the copper grounding from the substations.

Not sure what the utility landscape is outside my locale, but thanks to deregulation it is not the 'electric company' that is responsible for transmission.

odatruf's picture

I want to blame the politicians for this.  I want to blame bankers and lawyers and the unions for this, too.  But honestly, it is the dumb as rocks Americans who read crap like this and then nod in agreement that something must be done to address the menace of people shooting at power lines.  Or solar flares.  And of course, think of the children.

Us. We are the enemy and there is no beating back the stupid.

Manthong's picture

Well, this looks like a good excuse for Homeland Security to start frisking grade schoolers for hidden snippets of malicious PLC code.

After all, they do have access to the Internet and computers just like they have access to airports and airplanes.

Global Hunter's picture

There's gotta be somebody in DC high up that's thinking "probably more cost effective to just take it down ourselves rather than upgrade it"

XitSam's picture

Take it down or let it go down, then blame the terists. This is battlefield preparation.

1fortheroad's picture

We should invade more countries, that will fix it.




AC_Doctor's picture

Electricity is under rated.  Sandy caused absolutely no problems at all.

alentia's picture

Sounds like a "Global Warming" for an army of scientists : More funding and job justification for Office of Energy Infrastructure Security

When new goverment department is created it always justifies its existance and growth.

What's next?

Department of Highway Security

Department of Bridges Security

Department of Food Security (imagine terrorist access Coca-Cola distribution and poison the water)

Department of Toilet Seat Security

Joe Davola's picture

IEEE looking for followup slices of the fed pie after solar and Volts, this is just what's next for them.  Surprised Grainger Morgan isn't all over this.

cougar_w's picture

Listen. In the places I come from two dozen people with chainsaws could put a town in the dark in less then 10 minutes, and it would take a week to fix the damage. And they could turn around and do it again a week after that. Maybe that wouldn't work in New York, but so what? If you could take out the rural countryside with chainsaws then the urban core would become a nightmare in short order.

kaiserhoff's picture

True dat.  It's not rocket science.

NaN's picture

On Sept. 12, 2001, I was hoping people would realize there is no way for the US to plug all the vulnerabilities and then invincibly go on the rampage.  Instead, the bait was taken hook, line, and sinker, down the war-bankruptcy path.  Not clever.

Infrastructure vulnerabilities are only protected by obscurity. We are just one diabolical thought away from another undesirable incident.  Because obscurity is not enough, the next step is to data-mine everything/everyone and suffer the false-positives/mis-use.  


lolmao500's picture

Yeah if you walk around you can see easily what could be taken out by about anybody without getting caught that could cut electricity to millions.

Now let's say Russia/China/Iran infiltrates trained TEAMS of people across any country, they can take down the entire grid within an hour easy.

What needs to be done is protect the grid against EMP and DECENTRALIZE IT.

And this..

Pentagon eyes advanced EMP grenades

Colonel: US Army has working electropulse grenades
semperfi's picture

BFD - so how long would it be down for?  A day or two before most restored?  A week for all?

NoDebt's picture

"means that anyone with a gun—like disgruntled Michigan Militia types, for instance-- could do serious damage."

Wait, stop, hault.  The WHAT types??

All the enemies we have running around the globe and Michigan Militia types get called on the carpet as the example?  Really?

Sorry, but I don't recall the Michigan Militia going around shooting up substations and cell towers.  Perhaps I missed the story.  Whole article sniffs wrong from there out.

clymer's picture

FBI Entrapment Is Inventing 'Terrorists'

Dr. Engali's picture


"As Washington hunts ill-defined al-Qaeda groups in the Middle East and Africa"

Didn't you know al-Qaeda is now our ally? We have always been at war with Eastasia.


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

I'd be disgruntled too if the FBI tried to set me up as a terrorist group only for the case to be dropped silently later while nobody was paying attention. 


Wynn's picture

Tesla had a plan for free energy, what happened to that?

cougar_w's picture

It wasn't free energy, it was energy transmission without wires. There was still a generator, there just wasn't a grid. So maybe it was free as in "free beer". But I'm pretty sure someone could find a way to meter it even without wires.

He was using high-frequency radio waves to transmit power. You could pull it out of the sky with an antenna and get electricity. Of course today we use that same method to cook our food -- called a microwave oven -- so I'm not sure how serious you can take all this.

SoNH80's picture

True.  But the word is, that he had built an electric car that could run on the same wirelessly-transmitted energy, long distances, with no batteries, and speeds of up to 90 mph.  Obviously not a plus for Standard Oil aka the Rockefeller Co.

On the other side of the coin, having that much radio energy flying around might not be the best thing for humans and other living things.  Hey, cell phone radio energy seems to cause brain tumors... I can imagine having your Suburban powered by radio waves might be a quick road to lymphoma for the whole family.

cougar_w's picture

Yeah. And the way we Americans adopt new technology without much discussion or review -- thinking here, the Internet and cable TV -- we'd have 10 million Tesla cars on the road covering every major market before we even knew that everyone man, woman and child within 500 miles of a transmission tower was going to die a horrible, lingering death.

As it happened we do have Tesla cars. Made by Tesla Motors next town over. And they do catch fire and maybe kill people, don't know. But at least at that point it was a personal decision. Everyone can choose how they want to die, is what I think.

Vashta Nerada's picture

If the government would just concentrate everyone into camps near existing urban areas, then there would be no need for an expansive power grid.

RallyRoundTheFamily's picture

And that is sustainable...sounds great.  fuck you

Urban Redneck's picture

Everyone will be begging for the camps if the power grid fails, good thing the US government wisely prepared for such an emergency.

Sextus Empiricus's picture

But...But... Al-Qaeda is going to take over the US if we don't do something quick!


10 years later...

Tsar Pointless's picture

I have seen the future.

It's a cross between NBC's "Revolution" and AMC's "The Walking Dead".

With a little bit of "The Day After Tomorrow" thrown in for good measure.

cougar_w's picture

Well duh of course the day after tomorrow is in the futue.   /s

Rustysilver's picture

In New Haven, CT., Mr Gonzalez (age 24) tried to cut wires at an electrical substation. 3rd degree burns. 3300 out of power. No gun in sight.

Joe Davola's picture

Shame he wasn't Westinghoused.

P.T.Bull's picture

I forgot about that threat: Copper thieves.

XitSam's picture

Wasn't there something about teristos taking down remote transmission towers decades ago? Or shooting the insulators? 

A82EBA's picture

1" cotton rope across low-lying power lines just before rain would be unfortunate as well

strayaway's picture

Big kites should be licensed and their users need background checks.

earnyermoney's picture



You're a fascist boot licker.

P.T.Bull's picture

I don't study these things, but I am not aware of a single negative accomplishment from the michigan militia whom I have never heard of. Have they done anything besides engage in non-marxian ideology and run around with guns on private property?

To the larger point, our greatest danger is the ineptitude of government. The grid will more likely fail due to decay, rot, and failure to address increased capacity needs than any terrorists or libertarians.

Another item of note, buffett has purchased significant investment in power grid companies.