America's electrical grid is under protected and with minimal effort terrorists could knock out power to every American home for months. This information is well known in the intelligence community, but a report by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) has led to a fresh round of public debate about how to best protect America's delicate infrastructure.
According to the FERC America has 55,000 electrical transmission substations dotted across the nation. Under the proper conditions of high electrical usage, on that of a Summer day for example, just nine of a possible thirty critical substations would have to be disabled to throw America into total darkness.
How is this possible?
The FERC used software models to observe how America's energy grid performed under a variety of stressors. It found that because the electrical grid was built decades ago, certain areas of the country are using transformers in ways that were not originally intended. As stated in The Wall Street Journal, "A small number of the country’s substations play an outsized role in keeping power flowing across large regions."
Due to the stress placed on these undisclosed substations the FERC found that four Eastern substations, three Western substations, and two critical substations in Texas hold the keys to the entire American electrical grid.
If these substations were disabled or destroyed in conjunction with destroying the facilities of the largest transformer manufacturer in America, thereby depriving the government of the ability to replace the hardware, the loss of electricity could be prolonged for as long as 18-months. Apparently transformers and their subsequent components are difficult to manufacture. The American government has no future plans to procure an emergency stock of transformers in lieu of a natural disaster or terrorist attack. Transformers are custom built for facilities and can take between 18 to 36 months each to produce.
This lack of preparedness by the government begs the question as to why further preparations have not yet been made. Spending money on materials that are politically labeled as excessive has not stopped the government in the past, nor the present. The American government, recently for example, has kept a contract worth $436 million for the construction of tanks which the Army has repeatedly said it does not need nor want. Rather than cancel the contract tanks will instead be sent to local police departments in case any need to quell civil unrest arises. The civil unrest would arise if 100s of millions were left without electricity, so would not the more fiscally sound policy be to protect the grid rather than to prepare for its failure and the Lord of the Flies style of society that would ultimately ensue?
The timing of such an attack against the electrical grid would be complicated, but the scenario is not without precident. There have been two instances of attacks against America's power grid in the last year.
An armed attack against a California PG&E Metcalf electrical transmission substation took place around 1 a.m. April 16, 2013. Over 100 rounds were fired from one sniper rifle that precision targeted critical areas of the transformers to disable their functionality. Foreignpolicy.com reported, "Ten transformers were damaged in one area of the facility", and three transformer banks were hit in another.
The sniper was able to fire, unhindered, for 19 minutes before police arrived on the scene. The shooter disappeared into the night. Part of the delay in response time is linked to a secondary attack which took place 30 minutes before the shooting began. One or two men entered manholes at the substation and cut fiber optic cables used for communication. The substation, along with the entire surrounding area, was deprived of cell phone service, land line service, and 911 services. NPR stated the FBI has declared this attack to not have been linked to any terrorist organizations despite evidence pointing towards the tactics used to not have been the work of an amateur.
Raw video of this attack was released by the FBI and is attached to this article.
Mark Johnson, the former vice president for transmission operations at PG&E, disagreed with the FBI's analysis and said:
My personal view is that this was a dress rehearsal for future attacks.
This coordinated attack may have never come to the public light if not for California Congressman Harry Waxman who referenced the incident during a December 5, 2013 Energy and Power Subcommittee hearing to examine the role of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Waxman said:
This was an unprecedented and sophisticated attack on an electric grid substation with military-style weapons. Communications were disrupted. The attack inflicted substantial damage. It took weeks to replace the damaged parts. Under slightly different conditions, there could have been serious power outages or worse.
A home-grown terrorist named Jason Woodring attacked multiple Arkansas power stations over the span of several months from August through October 2013. Due to the isolated area of the power stations Woodring was able to carry out several attacks before being arrested. Woodring's attacks began August 21 when he loosened foundation bolts for transmission lines and tied a cable around an electrical tower and attempted to affix the other end to a moving train. While failing to connect the cable the transmission lines still collapsed without the train's assistance. On September 29 Woodring set fire to another area substation, causing millions of dollars in damage. The third attack came on October 6 when Woodring stole a neighbor's tractor and used it to knock down power lines which caused over 10,000 individuals to be without power. Woodring was finally apprehended by police on October 12, and not because of superb detective work or the new billion dollar NSA facility that was constructed in Utah. Rather it was due to Woodring's own stupidity of stealing a tractor that led to his demise. Allow a moment for that fact to work its way through your brain.
After the FERC's findings were made public the FERC's acting chairman, Cheryl A. LaFleur, published a scathing press release on March 12, 2014:
publication by The Wall Street Journal of sensitive information about the grid undermines the careful work done by professionals who dedicate their careers to providing the American people with a reliable and secure grid. The Wall Street Journal has appropriately declined to identify by name particularly critical substations throughout the country. Nonetheless, the publication of other sensitive information is highly irresponsible. While there may be value in a general discussion of the steps we take to keep the grid safe, the publication of sensitive material about the grid crosses the line from transparency to irresponsibility, and gives those who would do us harm a roadmap to achieve malicious designs. The American people deserve better.
The FERC specifically scolding The Wall Street Journal for reporting on sensitive security information despite other publications beating WSJ to the punch three months prior was curious. Even more curious was the non-acknowledgement of declassification of a 2007 report titled "Terrorism and the Electric Power Delivery System" published by the National Academy of Sciences in November 2012.
The FERC's position of withholding information from the American public about threats which may endanger their way of life is typical of governmental policy. The Kafkaesque theory goes that the public doesn't want to know what they don't know.
Remedying weaknesses in American electrical infrastructure is not as simple a matter as constructing new transmission routes. Due to a maze of local, county, state, and federal regulations the path to building these routes with any efficiency is a near impossibility. This is to say nothing of the back channel jockeying that would inevitably be undertaken by rival utilities corporations looking to carve out larger market shares for themselves.
While the long-term answer is complex, a short-term answer was offered in 2012 by John Wellinghoff, the former-chairman of the FERC. According to Bloomberg.com Wellinghoff proposed erecting metal sheets to block the view of would-be shooters. Wellinghoff said, "If you can't see through the fence, you can't figure out where to shoot anymore."
In theory Mr. Wellinghoff's solution sounds viable on paper but what if the attackers are clever enough to bring a ladder?
Lou Colagiovanni is the National Crime Examiner for Examiner.com, and is a political columnist. He is also the editor-in-chief of Ruthless-politics.com. His work has been published on thousands of websites across the Internet. He is regularly featured on radio and television including CNN. Please follow Lou on Facebook.