Electric Power Grid Vulnerability in the United States

Electric Power Grid Vulnerability in the United States

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 dam. It is oftentimes 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 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, there will be transferring of power from transmission to distribution level. As it exits the substation level, it enters the wirings for distribution. Lastly, it arrives at the service location and it steps down from distribution voltage to service voltage.

The electric grids can vary in size. It can cover a single building, national power grids that can cover the whole countries or transnational grids that can transmit 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 lives 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 what are the things that could prevent the threats in the power grids.

History of Electric Power Grid

In the 1880s, electricity was in competition with hydraulics, steam, and coal gas. It became in demand since coal gas produces poor light, made rooms hot and smoky, creates wasted heat, and gave carbon monoxide and hydrogen.

With the economies of scale, several companies took advantage of it and began to move onwards centralized power generation, system management, and distribution. They have devised long distance power transmissions which made possible the interconnection of stations. This has paved 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 have 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 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 at 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 interest of the people.

The Energy Policy Act was penned in 1992 and it requires owners of transmission lines to allow electric generation companies to have an access to their network. It led to the restructuring of how the electricity industry operates that soon led to the competition in generating of 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 a 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 the 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 business, 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 in the United States.

For example, some snipers have 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 possible for the electricity 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 its location. Thus, the terror attacks in the United States’ power grid could largely affect the economy.

Cyber attacks

Every day, the threat to America’s power supply from cyber attack 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, this 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 computer system of the United States’ Department of Energy (DOE) for 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 own electrical grids. Thereafter, this can cause a wide range blackout. 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 the majority of electrical gadgets in America for few months or years. Rogue states with nuclear weapons can cause EMP and it 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 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 definitely 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 is 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 has now $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 kind of 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 the wind and solar power. On the other hand, solar and wind can also have the risk of producing too much power that will cause overloading of the power grid.

It is necessary to build infrastructure to move large amounts of the wind and solar power from 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 the wind and solar energy into the grid means transporting power on long distances but it is very expensive. In West Texas to East Texas, a 3,000-mile network of transmission lines can cost $6.8 billion in 2008 which still hasn’t finished even up today.

Squirrels

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 electrocute themselves inside the infrastructure. In fact, squirrels can cause more power outages versus lighting.

For example, in Texas utility companies can spend $100,000 per year to protect the power grid from squirrels. In addition, squirrels can cause an average of $2 million 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 the human health by writing and enforcing the laws from the 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 the use of 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 the synchrophasor technology. This tool is the size of a mailbox and it can monitor the condition of the grid which can report the data at 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 an enhanced visibility of the grid conditions. In addition, they can identify and respond to uncommon scenario 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 which are connected to the electric grid, although it can be disconnected to operate autonomously. It can help have a resilient and reliable power grid in the near future.

This innovation uses advanced smart grid technologies plus integration of 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 that can survive a cyber attack. The Energy Department collaborated with both private and public institutions to create a protective barrier against cyber hackers within or outside the United States.

Conclusion

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 it. 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 problems on electric power issues.