An electric power grid is a reciprocally connected network that can deliver electricity from producers to its consumers. It consists of stations that can generate electrical power. In addition, it has high-voltage transmission lines that can carry power from its sources to demand centers and lines that connect to each consumer. The power stations are sometimes near the sources such as fuel or dams. It is often large enough to accommodate economies of scale, and it is far from the residential area to prevent accidents. Meanwhile, the electric power will step up to a higher voltage and connect to the transmission network of electric power. The power transmission network can move the power even to long distances until it reaches its whole scope, sometimes across the neighboring countries. Once it arrives at the substation level, power transfer will be from the transmission to the distribution level. As it exits the substation level, it enters the wirings for distribution. Lastly, it arrives at the service location and steps down from distribution voltage to service voltage. The electric grids can vary in size. It can cover a single building, national power grids covering the whole country, or transnational grids transmitting power across countries. Thus, the electrical power grids play an important role in the economy of the United States. Electricity is crucial in every American's life, and the government invests money to protect it from threats. In this article, we will discuss the history of electric power grids and how vulnerable it is. We will also tackle the things that could prevent the threats in the power grids are.
History of Electric Power Grid
In the 1880s, electricity competed with hydraulics, steam, and coal gas. It became in demand since coal gas produces poor light, makes rooms hot and smoky, creates wasted heat, and gives carbon monoxide and hydrogen. Several companies took advantage of the economies of scale and began to move centralized power generation, system management, and distribution onwards. They have devised long-distance power transmissions, which made possible the interconnection of stations. This has paved the way to balance and improve the load factors. In 1901, Charles Merz of Merz and McLellan Consulting Partnership
constructed the Neptune Bank Power Station
in Newcastle, Tyne, United Kingdom. By 1912, they had developed the largest integrated power system in Europe. In 1918, he was appointed to be the head of the Parliamentary Committee, and his works inspired the creation of the Electricity Supply Bill of 1919. This became the first step in having an integrated electricity system
. In 1926, the Electricity Supply Act was enacted, which led to the setting up of the National Grid. In 1938, the Central Electricity Board standardized the electric supply of Europe called the National Grid
. They have also established the AC grid, which runs at 132 kilovolts and 50 Hertz.
Electric Power Grid in the United States
Meanwhile, in the 1920s in the United States, companies formed joint operations to share backup power and peak load coverage. The Public Utility Holding Company Act
was passed in America, and electric utilities were recognized by the people as a public good. Thus, they were given an outline of limitations and regulatory oversight of their operations to protect the people's interests. The Energy Policy Act
was penned in 1992, and it requires owners of transmission lines to allow electric generation companies to have access to their networks. It led to restructuring how the electricity industry operates, which soon led to competition in generating power. What the electric utilities built were no longer considered as vertical monopolies where the distribution and transmission of power were controlled by one company. The three stages are split among different companies to have fair access to high-voltage transmission. In addition, the Energy Policy Act of 2005
allowed loan and incentive guarantees for alternative energy production. It also allows having advanced innovative technologies that can avoid the emission of greenhouse.
Threats to the electric power grid of the United States
There are reports which show that hackers from Russia took down the Ukrainian electrical grid. They are honing their skills to take down Ukraine and target the United States power grid soon. American businesses, industries, and homes are dependent on electricity. Thus threats to the power grids will put modern life at risk. Here are some of the threats to America's electrical power grid:
Acts of Terrorism
There are terrorist groups who would always want to bring chaos to the United States. For example, some snipers fired an electrical substation near Silicon Valley, California, in 2013. It took 27 days to reactivate the substation, and until now, there's no criminal action against anyone regarding the incident. Substations are essential in power grids since it makes it possible to move through long distances. Meanwhile, transformers will take over a year to manufacture, and they are not interchangeable. They are built individually specific for their location. Thus, the terror attacks in the United States' power grid could largely affect the economy.
Every day, the threat to America's power supply from cyberattacks increases. The consequences would be devastating even if one major city were attacked by hackers.
The increased networking of power grids all over the world allows simpler operations. However, the money-saving features of the modern grid make it easier for cyber terrorists. Such is what happened in Ukraine. Their power grid was attacked by BlackEnergy Malware
. It disconnected several electrical substations to the main electrical grid. The government blamed Russia for the attack since it caused around 700,000 homes without power for many hours. Meanwhile, in 2010 and 2014, hackers had successfully infiltrated the United States Department of Energy (DOE) computer system more than 150 times. Nowadays, infecting several industrial systems are simple, and there are tutorials available even on Youtube. By network links with traffic, cyber attackers can remove the ability of the utilities to communicate with their electrical grids. After that, this can cause a wide range of blackouts. The price for 24 hours of consisted Distributed Denial of Service (DDOS) attack is about $40. Thus, it makes it available to anybody.
Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP)
The Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) could effectively shut down most electrical gadgets in America for a few months or years. Rogue states that nuclear weapons can cause EMP, and they can wipe out 90% of the population of the United States.
Moreover, the result of natural solar activity can produce EMP that can destroy the grid. In 1859, the sun produced the last known large pulse that created the largest geomagnetic storm. It had caused the sparking of the telegraph machines all around the world and set papers ablaze. In addition, it had produced the same amount of energy equivalent to 10 billion atomic bombs that will fry most of the high-tech electronics today. If the same event would happen today, it could cause about $600 billion to $2.6 trillion of damage to America. It could also destroy the majority of the internet, satellite communications, and the global electrical grid. Whenever our planet would experience another natural EMP, we can only have about 20 hours of caution.
Old and expensive to rebuild
The electric power grids in the United States are now old and expensive to rebuild. 70% of the transformers in America are now at least 25 years old. It would take trillions of dollars to replace the power grids, and sometimes it is not easy since the US government now has $18 trillion debt. The power lines that need to transport the small amounts of power will cost $1.9 to 3.1 million per mile. The power systems that can go with various energy production from solar and wind power can cost 50% more.
Solar And Wind Power
Solar and wind power
will require greater expenditure on the electrical grid. For the power grid to function, the demand for the energy must exactly meet the supply. Power demand is conventional and predictable, just like nuclear and natural gas. In addition, it can adjust its output accordingly and provide power relative to the power sources. During cloudy or windless days, the grid can't supply power coming from wind and solar power. On the other hand, solar and wind can also risk producing too much power that will cause overloading of the power grid. It is necessary to build infrastructure to move large amounts of wind and solar power from the best places to generate it to the places where power is a must. Examples of those are places that experience stress on the grid and are expensive. Furthermore, looking for the best spots for wind and solar energy into the grid means transporting power long distances, but it is very expensive. From West Texas to East Texas, a 3,000-mile network can cost $6.8 billion in 2008, which still hasn't finished even today.
Squirrels also pose a threat to the electric power grid in the United States. It can cause damage to the running up of power lines, wires, and electrocuting themselves inside the infrastructure. Squirrels can cause more power outages versus lighting. For example, utility companies can spend $100,000 per year to protect the power grid from squirrels in Texas. In addition, squirrels can cause an average of $2 million in damage to the power grid of Texas.
The United States Environmental Protection Agency
The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is an agency of the federal government which functions to protect the environment and human health by writing and enforcing the laws from Congress. The USEPA or EPA has attempted to shut down coal and natural gas power plants with several regulations and laws they penned. The agency encourages using alternative resources such as solar and wind power which has put stress on the electrical power grid. Thus, this makes the electrical grid power vulnerable to disruptions. Due to the regulations of EPA, several independent groups believe that the agency could be the one responsible for shutting down an estimated 81,000 megawatts of electric power generation capacity. This power is almost equivalent to the electrical capacity allocated for Colorado, Utah, Nevada, Wyoming, Arizona, and Idaho. Moreover, the EPA now proposes various regulations that would create doubts among investors. This will possibly prevent the construction of additional power plants that could help stabilize the grid.
Solutions to combat threats against Electric Power Grid
One of the solutions to have a reliable and resilient electric grid is synchrophasor technology
. This tool is the size of a mailbox, and it can monitor the condition of the grid, which can report the data 30 times per second. As of today, there are about 900 devices from the investments in Recovery Act.
This technology can help the grid operators to have enhanced visibility of the grid conditions. In addition, they can identify and respond to uncommon scenarios quickly. Then, it can reduce power outages and help with the integration of additional renewable sources of energy in the grid. Another solution is through the use of microgrids. Microgrids
are localized grids connected to the electric grid, although they can be disconnected to operate autonomously. It can help have a resilient and reliable power grid shortly. This innovation uses advanced smart grid technologies and energy sources like backup generators, storage, and solar panels. Microgrids can function during extreme weather conditions, and they can work independently of the grid during outages. During Superstorm Sandy, the Department of Energy partnered with organizations and used microgrids to help keep the power working. Lastly, the government has invested about $100 million to build an advanced grid infrastructure to survive a cyber-attack. The Energy Department collaborated with private and public institutions to create a protective barrier against cyber hackers within or outside the United States.
In sum, electricity plays an important role in the economy of the United States. It makes the government offices, private institutions, factories, hospitals, schools, and homes function. Without electricity, America will be a ghost town. Electric power grids can store and distribute electricity. They can also carry electricity from the source to individual consumers. As stated above, the construction of such grids is costly. Thus, the government is spending efforts to protect them. It is vulnerable to several threats such as cyber-attacks, terrorism, and electromagnetic pulse. However, thanks to modern technology, there are now innovative solutions that can help us combat electric power issues.