National Academy of Sciences Report Finds Power Grid Vulnerable to Attacks and Storms

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If Hurricane Sandy’s impact on the power supply on the East Coast is any indication, a terrorist attack on the electrical grid could have devastating effects. A new report released Wednesday by the National Academy of Sciences has only confirmed the need for improved infrastructure protection from both terrorism and natural disasters.

NAS described the current system as “inherently vulnerable” due to its widespread nature and poor security of facilities. The press release on the report stated that things only got worse for infrastructure security in the 1990s when legislation meant to introduce competition ended up putting a strain the high-voltage system. Age and old technology are factors as well.

“Power system disruptions experienced to date in the United States, be they from natural disasters or malfunctions, have had immense economic impacts,” M. Granger Morgan, professor and head of the department of engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University and chair of the committee that wrote the report, said in a statement.  “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.”

Here are some of the recommendations for improvements made in the report:

  • Stockpile recovery transformers that are smaller than our current high-voltage transformers. The report says although these smaller transformers are not as efficient, they would help with restoring efforts.
  • To ensure cybersecurity, limit connections with the Internet, when possible. When it’s not possible, the report recommends high-quality security systems that include measures that can limit operator error and planned attacks.
  • The Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Energy should assess regional vulnerabilities that would occur in the event of an extended power outage and develop methods to reduce identified vulnerabilities. Provide guidelines and tools for municipalities to conduct “self-assessments.”

The New York Times pointed out a few more specific recommendations:

The report urges that cheaper ways be found to put power lines underground, which would protect them from some effects of storms, and also calls for changes in infrastructure that would reduce the kind of mutual dependencies that result in wider blackouts. For example, more traffic lights could run on high-efficiency L.E.D. lamps and be equipped with batteries, and small generators could be placed in spots where power is needed for pumping water. The natural gas system could be equipped with pumps that run on natural gas instead of electricity so that the system would survive an extended blackout.

And if you thought it seemed to take an unreasonable amount of time to restore power to the East Coast after Sandy, the Associated Press looked into comparable storm-related outages and found the timing wasn’t unusual.

National Academy of Sciences Report Finds Power Grid Vulnerable to Attacks and Storms

New York City during the late October power outages caused by Hurricane Sandy. (Photo: Allison Joyce/Getty Images)

After Sandy, New York utilities restored power to at least 95 percent of customers 13 days after the peak number of outages was reported. New Jersey reached that same level in 11 days and West Virginia in 10 days.

Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma in 2005 and Ike in 2008 all resulted in longer outages for customers in Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi and Florida.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

Featured image via Shutterstock.com.