Terrorist Attack Could Surpass Hurricane Sandy Effects on Power Protection

December 18, 2012

By Michelle Amodio - Power Protection Contributor

Despite it having been almost two months since Hurricane Sandy hit the northeast, many areas are still experiencing the effects of a lack of power protection. What we’re learning from this is that our grids are inherently vulnerable to many forces, and that the risk is not limited to natural disasters.

In fact, the National Research Council says that the nation is in need of some serious strategy planning to protect our grids not just from bad weather, but from such things as cyber attacks that could wreak tremendous havoc on extremely important systems.

The statistics from Hurricane Sandy tell us that not only was this storm one of the most deadliest and destructive, but it was the most expensive in terms of recovery. An estimated $25,000,000,000 in lost business activity was accounted for, and many areas are still in waiting for federal relief to begin the arduous process of rebuilding.

In terms of power, a total of 17 states lost power due to the 900 mile-wide storm, resulting in 8,100,000 homes that lost power.

Essentially, this means that we need to look at the bigger picture in terms of disaster preparedness, including disaster in all of its forms. Having said that, the U.S. electric system as it stands is all too vulnerable, and the economic impact, not to mention the safety concerns of power protection, are too important to ignore. The bottom line is we need to make power delivery less susceptible.

"Power system disruptions experienced to date in the United States, be they from natural disasters or malfunctions, have had immense economic impacts," said M. Granger Morgan, professor and head of the department of engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, in a statement based on a report released last month.

"Considering that a systematically designed and executed terrorist attack could cause disruptions even more widespread and of longer duration, it is no stretch of the imagination to think that such attacks could produce damage costing hundreds of billions of dollars."

Additionally, the current weakness of the U.S. grid makes it wide open for potential terrorist attacks. A blackout as a threat weapon could cause breakdowns of computers, elevators and other mission-critical equipment, as well as result in subsequent dangerous attacks and economic losses elsewhere.

In order to be considered reliable, a power transmission system has to be built with redundancy. This is in addition to upgrading power distribution systems that are still using technologies that date back to the 1950’s or even earlier.

“Officials at all levels of government should work to ensure that structures rebuilt after Sandy are more resilient and energy-efficient than their predecessors. They can do this by continuing to expand smart-grid technologies such as advanced meters, which communicate concise and instant information to repair teams in the event of an outage, instead of relying on customers to report general information via telephone,” wrote George Pataki, former New York governor, in his report on upgrading the power grid systems.

There is much to consider in regards to rebuilding and upgrading the nation’s current grid system, and Hurricane Sandy has certainly done its job of prompting utility regulators to take a fresh look at assessing the vulnerability of our grids from all aspects of attack – regardless of whether it comes from Mother Nature or due to cyber warfare.

Extreme weather is inevitable, and while we haven’t experienced a cyber attack on any of our national power grids, we’ve learned that power grids are far from perfect. A cyber attack may not have the physical damage to infrastructures that come with Mother Nature’s fury, but the NRC report highlights the importance of being able to restore the grid quickly, no matter the cause of a failure.

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Edited by Allison Boccamazzo

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