transmission_lineby James A. Bacon

It’s easy to spin nightmare scenarios leading to the collapse of the electric grid. North Korea detonates a nuclear weapon a mile overhead, sending out a super-charged electro-magnetic pulse that melts down transmission lines and blows out substations. The electricity overload races ahead of anyone’s ability to control it in a cascading effect that knocks out power for vast swaths of the country. Because key components of the grid take more than a year to manufacture and deliver, electric power takes interminably long to restore. The economy collapses. Millions die.

If you find that threat implausible, how about this one? A massive discharge of radiation from the sun overwhelms the earth’s magnetic field, melts down transmission lines, blows out sub-stations, and…. you know the rest. Or, this: In coordinated strikes, terrorists knock out vulnerable sub-stations, triggering the meltdown of electric lines…. Or cyber-terrorists infiltrate a utility network, overriding the power company’s controls, creating overloads and triggering a meltdown…

Such story-lines sound over-wrought, the stuff of grade B movies or pulp novels. They could never happen in real life, you say. Yet there have been enough deliberate physical and cyber attacks on a small scale, as if someone is probing the system, that many experts deem the threat to be very real. And most of us can still remember the great Northeast Blackout of 2003, caused by sagging electric lines coming into contact with overgrown trees, which demonstrated how a failure in one location can ripple across an entire grid. Fifty-five million people in the U.S. and Canada were effected.

The United States and the Commonwealth of Virginia have been moving in their slow, ponderous way to protect against those threats, and Garry Kranz has written an excellent article in Virginia Business magazine describing what Dominion Virginia Power and others are doing to safeguard against the disaster scenarios.

Writes Kranz:

Dominion plans to spend up to $500 million over the next five to seven years on a variety of security initiatives. The strategy is to harden its transmission substations and other critical infrastructure, add more mobile transmission equipment and boost stockpiles of backup gear. It plans to bolster perimeter security with ultramodern construction and use sophisticated technologies to pre-empt intruders. …

Dominion also is investing in increased grid reliability through the construction of a new systems operations center in Henrico County. Costing an estimated $100 million, the center will be able to perform real-time monitoring of the transmission grid to maintain electric reliability. Projected to open in 2017, the facility will replace Dominion’s current operations center at the Innsbrook Corporate Center in Henrico, which has been around since 1992.

Another tool in the security toolbox is penetration testing.  A standard security technique for utilities and related industries, it allows companies through what is known as a “pen test” to systematically try to defeat internal security controls and procedures to pinpoint any weaknesses.

“We give penetration testers an advantage by moving them inside our network to see how far they get. Sometimes we tell our people the tests will take place, but often we don’t tell them. We want to see if our processes help them detect abnormal activity and report it,” says Engels, who does not share any improvements Dominion has made as a result.

Micro-grid technology also promises enhanced grid reliability, according to Jason Nichols, director of Scitor Corp.’s iSpace lab. Scitor is part of McLean-based defense contractor SAIC. Some military bases in Virginia already deploy micro-grids. Dominion also is funding micro-grid demonstration projects using renewable fuels at several state universities.

“If a portion of Virginia’s public grid goes down, a micro-grid gives the military base the potential to provide local generation to keep hospitals and other critical services running in some sort of degraded state,” Nichols says.

As it happens, while attending freshman orientation earlier this week at a certain unnamed university my son will be attending this year, I encountered a cyber-security professor who had just arrived for his first day on the job. He and I struck up a conversation about this very topic: cyber-security on the grid. What he told me was alarming. Speaking from his personal experience consulting with a major electric utility in the Southeast U.S. (not in Virginia), he found that the control systems cobbled different generations of technology as far back as the 1950s. Vulnerabilities were rampant. I was left with the impression that the only thing preventing infiltration by cyber-enemies was the overwhelming complexity of the chewing-gum-and-bailing-wire system that only a handful of long-time company employees even understood. Whether senior management comprehends the magnitude of these vulnerabilities is an interesting question.

Bacon’s bottom line: Virginia needs to think about grid security as it plans the electric grid of the future. While it helps to harden sub-stations and conduct penetration testing, arguably the most important variable is how we structure the grid.

In Big Grid system, a centralized system of large power plants and large transmission lines, the first line of defense against a disaster scenario is to build significant redundancy into the transmission system — with enough slack that the electric grid can absorb multiple outages and still have enough capacity to re-route electrons through different transmission lines without melting them down. Every section of transmission system is watched by the local utility and a regional transmission organization (PJM Interconnection for our part of the country), which can balance an overload within seconds by taking power generation offline. The idea is that redundancy backed up by more sensors, faster computers and sophisticated algorithms can protect the system from experiencing another cascading blackout like the calamity of 2003.

By contrast, the Distributed Grid vision calls for more distributed power sources, such as residential solar and small wind farms, along with micro-grids like the one Kranz describes for the Norfolk Naval Station. By its very nature, the argument goes, such a system would have fewer choke points vulnerable to sabotage and meltdown. In a worst-case scenario, even if the larger grid collapsed, there would be self-sustaining islands of electricity production to keep parts of the economy functioning.

The question of which path to pursue will become all the more pressing if, as seems likely, the U.S. pushes forward with Clean Power Plan, curtailing coal-generated electricity, which, if nothing else, was reliable, and replacing it with some combination of nuclear, natural gas, wind and solar. The problem is that both wind and solar are inherently intermittent, creating wide swings in electricity generation depending upon season, time of day and weather conditions. It is not clear to me whether wind and solar will enhance or degrade grid reliability and safety. We need answers as we move forward.

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5 responses to “Guarding the Grid”

  1. Ted Koppel’s book is a good introduction to this threat — not over the top scary but seriously worrying. If we ever have to fight another all-out war (including, against fanatics who think we are already in an all-out war against them, like N Korea or ISIS but better equipped) the crippling of our infrastructure through computer hacking is sure to be a part of it, and the electric grid, gas pipelines, waterworks, railroads and even interstate highways are vulnerable.

    Koppel makes the point that the DVPs and other big electrics of the US are taking this threat seriously but there are many little electric companies (including some small municipal works) that are poorly protected, yet through their ‘inside security’ connections to other utilities they offer a portal to terrorists to hack into the larger grid.

    Any way we go, taking down the grid remains a way to harm the US economy and disrupt our lives in a way that strikes fear in ordinary people.

  2. JOHN BR Avatar

    The Distributed Grid vision should not be myopic and look only at wind farms or solar, but can and should encompass fuel cells. Fuel cell systems are in use in places like office parks, large warehouse sites, etc – where they can provided reliable energy for a micro-grid.
    The best thing is they use a lot less space than solar (and infinitely less space than wind farms), therefore allowing for a much more practical placement where they are needed and where they can easily connect to local power needs, without creating hundreds of miles of transmission lines.
    A fuel cell plant the size of a city block could provide electricity for approximately 10,000 homes under current technology. As fuel cell technology should improve (as will solar) this may be underestimating their usefulness.

    1. Fuel cells are an intriguing technology that have been researched for decades. Although, some installations have been made in high-reliability situations (data centers, etc).

      There is a concern that many of the fuel cell types are reliant on fossil fuels, methane, ammonia, etc. The hydrogen fuel cells of the past relied on electrolysis to produce the hydrogen.

      Utility executives are increasingly aware of the cybersecurity issue. Many of the utility of the future components such as smart meters and the internet of things (IoT) increase the opportunity for hacking.

      The mix of old electro-mechanical control devices and new digital controls complicates the management of our systems.

      Many large transformers are custom built and take several years to manufacture. Losing several large transformers would significantly cripple sections of the grid. Perhaps this was being tested by the substation attack in California a while ago.

      I was in Montreal in 1998 when a major ice storm crumpled the transmission towers. Service was out in many areas for 3-4 weeks. We don’t realize how dependent we are on electricity until we go without it for a significant period of time. This will not be an easy or inexpensive issue to deal with.

  3. LarrytheG Avatar

    all this fru fru about “open borders” – cyber is the one we should be worrying about.

    a distributed grid – can be a self-healing grid – in other words – the bad guys cannot bring down the whole “internet” (so far) precisely because it is massively distributed. So they pick at parts of it – to great effect.

    a distributed grid – done right – could also limit damage.

    don’t worry about that Mexican swimming the Rio Grande to get into the USA – put your worry in that guy in bumfut (interesting word) Egypt ..or kookamunga who is opening mocking our “open borders” cyber border security.

    1. Larry, a diffuse generation base with lots of d.g. on a grid that can fragment and continue to work in pieces would be more resilient in some ways, more vulnerable in others. Cyber-security on such a grid would be very, very difficult to maintain and easy to penetrate. And such a grid would be much more “fragile” in the same sense that an interstate highway running at near capacity is more susceptible to slowdowns for such minor events as a police car parked on the shoulder, and to catastrophic jams when something major fails. Yes, it probably would be easier to restore full service in a matter of hours rather than days. But then we are talking about a Third World electric supply (for the United States!).

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