Saturday, March 15, 2014

America's Achilles Heel - US Electrical Grid Vulnerabilities Could Be Catastrophic

America's Achilles Heel - US Electrical Grid Vulnerabilities Could Be Catastrophic

March 14, 2014 | Tom Olago
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Could the United States actually experience a total electrical blackout that would cripple its electronic and infrastructural capabilities, effectively reducing it back to the dark ages in “an event of unprecedented proportions?” Recent studies have shown that the U.S. could suffer a national blackout if attackers knocked out just nine of the country's 55,000 electric-transmission substations on a hot summer day in the East, the West and in Texas.

A recent article by quotes this possibility, based on a previously unreported study by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). The Wall Street Journal, citing people familiar with the agency's research reported Wednesday the study conclusion that coordinated attacks in each of the nation's three separate electric systems could cause the entire power network to collapse.

Former FERC Chairman Wellinghoff had voiced concerns about an April 2013 attack on Pacific Gas & Electric’s transmission substation in Metcalf, California, that lasted 52 minutes and knocked out 17 transformers. The attack started when at least one person entered an underground vault to cut telephone cables, then attackers fired more than 100 shots, causing millions in damage. Workers were able to avert a blackout but it took them 27 days to repair the damage. No arrests have been made in the case. Wellinghoff reportedly briefed senior officials last year in a memo highlighting the following key concerns:

As a result of an attack on just nine of the country's 55,000 electric-transmission substations, "the entire United States grid would be down for at least 18 months, probably longer.”

An attack-induced blackout could be particularly long, in part because each of the three regional electric systems—the West, the East and Texas—have limited interconnections, limiting their ability to assist each other in the event of an emergency.

Conceivably, local backup systems such as fuel driven electricity generators and gas-based alternatives, where available, could provide some emergency relief to some families and businesses but clearly they are secondary, short term and limited solutions in an economy so heavily reliant on electricity.

Based on the defined primary threats, key measures planned to protect the national grid are naturally focused on the improving security capabilities. For instance, Virginia-based Dominion Resources Inc. said it planned to spend $300 million to $500 million within seven years to improve. Meanwhile Cheryl LaFleur, acting chairwoman of the FERC, is said to have expressed concern and displeasure at these revelations being publicized, stating that 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. We take seriously our obligation to the American people to protect the reliability and security of our nation's energy infrastructure and to enhance its resilience.”

These comments though valid, appear to ignore that this information has long been public knowledge following numerous and much publicized incidents targeting the grid. U.S officials and experts have increasingly warned over the years that the electrical grid could be a prime target for terrorists or others seeking to damage the country’s infrastructure and disrupt daily life.

A recent report published by states that, following at least eight “reports of intrusions at electrical grid facilities in New Jersey” from October 2013 until January 2014, the Regional Operations Intelligence Center’s (ROIC) Intelligence & Analysis Threat Unit issued a report warning that the U.S. electrical grid is “inherently vulnerable” to attacks that could wipe out power across large swaths of the country. Key concerns reportedly highlighted in the report are as follows:

Many of the incidents could be a sign that preparations are under away for a larger, coordinated attack on the grid.

Highly sensitive areas of the electrical grid (a network of power generating plants, transmission lines, substations, and distribution lines) were found to be lightly monitored, leaving them “inherently vulnerable” to attack.

Many of the grid’s important components sit out in the open, often in remote locations, protected by little more than cameras and chain-link fences.

Also of concern is that incidents of grid tampering are not localized to one state – besides the incidents mentioned in California and New Jersey (said to have experienced eight separate incidents of a similar nature since last year), a reported case from Tucson, Arizona came to light in January. An unidentified individual “removed multiple bolts from an electric tower’s support structure, increasing the potential for collapse and electrical service interruption.”

Authorities suspect that the goal was “sabotage rather than vandalism” due to the “deliberate manner of the bolt removal, including probable acquisition of the requisite tools.” Sabotage has also been reported in Jacksonville, Arkansas where in August 2013, “an identified suspect … removed bolts from the base of a high-voltage transmission line tower and tried to bring down the 100-foot tower with a moving train”. One month later the subject reportedly “set a fire at a substation control house.” In October of that year, the subject “cut into two electrical poles and used a tractor to pull them down, cutting power to thousands of customers.”

It however isn’t clear from the sources quoted how it was known same suspect, presumably identified via surveillance cameras, was able to escape arrest in all the sabotage incidents attributed to him and in spite of all the security measures that should have stopped him. This type of incident validates public concern that perhaps not enough is being done to secure these highly sensitive and critical facilities.

According to remarks attributed to Counterterrorism expert Patrick Poole, the motives behind the attacks are the most critical for Homeland Security to unearth: “While some of these incidents involving substations can be attributed to metal scavenging, it’s planned attacks, much like the one in San Jose, that have officials worried the most and raises a number of questions…Why was this substation targeted? What were they trying to accomplish with this attack? Was this a test-run for something larger? ...How many more of these incidents are going unreported?”

The further includes several types of suspicious behavior (obtained from the ROIC report) that authorities should be on the lookout for:

- Photographing objects or facilities that would not normally be photographed

- Instances of individuals “loitering in sensitive areas,” and

- Other types of atypical behavior such as “unfamiliar or out of place persons posing as panhandlers, protesters, vendors, [or] news agents.”

New Jersey State Police Spokesman Trooper Jeff Flynn reported told the Free Beacon that ROIC aims to analyze and codify various grid incidents across the country in order to “learn from those incidents and apply them to situations here in New Jersey.”

It isn’t clear to what extent recommendations put forward from lessons learned so far are being currently implemented, or have been integrated into grid security procedures and practice. However it is very clear just how vulnerable the U.S national electricity grid is to attack and disruption, and that there is still a lot to be done: both to adequately secure these installations and to also inspire public confidence in the continuation of uninterrupted electricity-based functions nationwide.

In the now not-so-unlikely event of a successful grid attack on the U.S, many families and businesses unprepared may therefore be left in the dark - holding candles and resorting to firewood for quite some time to come. Sadly, this end result doesn’t necessarily require the typical physical grid attack – for instance an EMP attack executed against the U.S by a rogue or enemy nation would probably do far more damage to the grid than sporadic local attacks could – and it isn’t clear that the U.S is any better prepared for EMP attacks either.

In the light of all these security vulnerabilities, we would perhaps do better to heed the warnings of scripture in Psalms 27:1…

Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who build it; unless the Lord guards the city, The watchman stays awake in vain.


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