Protect the grid from terrorists

In a Friday, Aug. 15, 2003 file photo, a blackout-darkened New York City just before dawn. (George Widman/AP Photo/File)

Two new studies say the nation's electric grid is vulnerable to catastrophic sabotage, and that industry-directed procedures for protecting it may fall short. Congress should give the matter high priority.

A study by the Congressional Research Service confirms reports that high-voltage transformers in the electric system are "vulnerable to terrorist attack, and that such an attack potentially could have catastrophic consequences." Blackouts from transformer failure could last as long as months because replacements must be custom-made for specific uses and weigh hundreds of tons, making them hard to move.

Transformers are used to convert electricity transmitted over high-voltage lines to the lower voltages needed for local use.

The study recommends that Congress initiate a study of current industry-led plans for protecting the grid to determine whether they will be adequate. The plans by the North American Electric Reliability Corporation are currently under review by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which may not have the necessary authority to require the industry to increase safeguards.

A second study, by the non-profit Battelle Memorial Institute that operates six Department of Energy laboratories, said the ongoing industry-led effort is likely to fall short because it does not adequately take into consideration how outages in one area can affect another area.

The Department of Energy describes the national electric grid as, in effect, three regional grids (east, west and Texas) which also have connections to Canada and Mexico. Each grid is made up of a large number of utilities - 3,200 nationwide - supported by nearly 1,000 generating plants. When a power station in one part of a region suffers failure, the grid is supposed to re-route power supplies to prevent a blackout.

According to Battelle, industry plans for securing transformers and other vulnerable elements of each grid don't necessarily ensure that damage to critical nodes of the interconnected grid won't lead to widespread blackouts.

Jason Black, author of the Battelle study, told the Wall Street Journal, "Assessments to determine critical facilities would be more rigorous if undertaken at a regional level."

The vulnerability of the grid to physical attack was vividly demonstrated in April 2013 when unknown shooters targeted transformers at a power substation near San Jose, Calif., threatening power supplies to Silicon Valley.

While the industry should be commended for addressing this issue promptly, there should be assurance that its solutions are fail-safe. Congress should move quickly to determine what else needs to be done to protect the grid from sabotage.