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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RallyRoundTheFamily's picture

There is a fairytale about a retard from Michigan who brought a building down with a ryder truck full of fertilizer.

Many coincidences occured, secondary explosives were reported, missing footage you know like that other NYC fairytale.

Explosive experts say that couldn't happen etc..



Joebloinvestor's picture

France has a similar problem with its' nuclear power.

Since it doesn't have the "snazziness", expect neither government to do anything till a major event.

oddjob's picture

Good Luck on a Cold or Dead restart. Think house of cards.

JohnG's picture

Generators and jerry cans FTW!

A82EBA's picture

1000w 12vdc/120vac inverters..less than $100 (at the moment)

10 deep-cycle 12v batteries and solar panel still affordable


TrumpXVI's picture

So, "Protect the Power Grid!" will be the next battle cry in the war to extinguish what's left of the Bill of Rights.

earnulf's picture

For crying out loud, this is not news!    Any 12 year old kid could take out the electical grid in his neighborhood with his families selection of weapons.

Whoops, wasn't supposed to say that, was I?


falak pema's picture

Hire pussy riot its more apropriate than a 12 year old. 

epwpixieq-1's picture

In a country where most of the power grid distribution lines are on wooden poles, the security of the power grid is something that will bring 10% increment in the GDP in SPENDING.

The problem though, is that it is NOT a new service ( so one can not charge for it), it is just a common sense  and higher quality engineering of the power system, or at least it is, in some of the others more developed parts of the world.

But who will pay for quality, when everyone it talking about quantity.

As a side note, when the fundamental assumption for the power grid ( anywhere ) is that the Earth ( ground ) is negative, what happens if there is a stationary wave, with sufficiently high potential ( that can be engineered at any point on the planet ), that will make the ground to be more positive than any of the distribution power station's, hot wires?

And the hint: it is NOT good at all.


Quantum Nucleonics's picture

Isn't the solution pretty easy?  Unplug the grid from the rest of the internet.  Put it on it's own network.  Sure it would cost a lot, and power plant operators would have to use their mobile devices to surf for porn and amazon deals.  Giving access to the grid to your average tech savvy 14 year old and the Chinese military seems like a costly, bad idea.

Darth Rayne's picture

Is this just an excuse for when you get rolling brown outs? Terrorists did it!


Or a reason to have the military wandering around?


Both, probably. You are being farmed. You are Slaves. Argue to much and you prove that you are  anti-American terrorists or un-patriotic.


Your Government is out of control, backed up by the worlds biggest army and largest prisons. The reserve currency pays for most of that. Best of luck with the global currency devaluation race.

Try and use a different currency to the federal reserve note. Bit coin, gold, silver or even barter if any of you can actually make or produce anything of value. Use ammo as money, at least it is useful.


Can ammo be money?

unit of exchange? Yes, why not. Better than bits of paper with numbers on that you have to borrow into existence (with interest payable).

unit of account? Hell yes. I have got more ammo than you means more than my bits of paper have more zeros than yours.

store of value? Yes. Ammo is ammo. A glock with a full clip is worth more than a glock without, lots more.


I am in the UK so I can't have a firearm. However, I don't need one, yet.


Parrotile's picture

Whilst the panic re. "Internet-mediated infrastructure violation" might be tech. and so sexy, the facts are that the most effective assault on the grid would certainly be physical violation.

The equipment is not armoured, and it is remarkably delicate. Major switching centres tend to be in remote areas ('cause people don't want this infrastructure in THEIR back yard thank you!), and the transmission lines are vulnerable 'cause of their remoteness too.  - You don't even NEED to use noisy power tools either - patience and hand - operated hydraulic shears will work fine on the mild steel transmission towers. For the "extra-adventurous" one can even buy non-conductive hydraulic hose!

The concern is that ALL these resources are but a very quick Google search away, and NONE of these resources are "regulated" purchases.

Mind you the above comment re. destruction of a local substation courtesy of a few old tires should indicate that you don't really need anything even remotely sophisticated to unleash a reign of terror on your neighbours, which MUST be of some concern to anyone with half a braincell!



10mm's picture

I hope the Sun Farts"Really Big".

They Tried to Steal My Gold's picture

Any coincidence the Democratic controlled Senate does not the grid to be upgraded?