Electricity Disruptions a Growing Threat to All Americans

March 20, 2010
By Zachary Hubbard
The Tribune-Democrat

Deregulation of the electric power industry worries almost everyone. Higher energy costs give good reason for concern.

However, there is something even more worrisome about this industry that few citizens consider. Security vulnerabilities in the national electric power infrastructure threaten all Americans.

Concerns over these vulnerabilities reach back to 1998, when then-President Clinton signed “Presidential Decision Directive 63, Policy on Critical Infrastructure Protection.”

It described critical infrastructures as “… those physical and cyber-based systems essential to the minimum operations of the economy and government. They include, but are not limited to, telecommunications, energy, banking and finance, transportation, water systems and emergency services, both governmental and private.”

Unless you’re Amish, life without electricity is tough. Ask any Hurricane Katrina survivor. Americans use electricity in almost every facet of life. Losing electricity in a home creates effects ranging from annoying to catastrophic. Many homes depend on electricity for heating or air-conditioning. A few hours without it can make them difficult to live in.

Losing electricity can disrupt water and natural gas services as well.

Commerce is also affected. Many food supplies quickly begin to spoil without electricity. Cash becomes the only means of paying. ATM machines and gasoline pumps stop working.

The list goes on.

Electricity is particularly worrisome because many other infrastructures depend on it. Disrupting electricity can produce cascading effects. For example, most oil and natural gas pipelines; controls for locks and dams; water purification plants; and sewerage pumping stations need electricity.

Baltimore’s Howard Street tunnel fire in 2001 provides a good illustration of cascading. A train derailment in the tunnel caused a chemical fire lasting five days. Besides disrupting most rail freight traffic along the eastern seaboard, telecommunications were also affected.

The fire burned through a pipe housing fiber optic cables for seven large Internet service providers. This disrupted cell phones, Web sites, e-mail and e-commerce.

Electronic verification services failed across a wide area, making credit card transactions impossible over the Internet, at cash registers, ATM machines and gasoline pumps.

Some secondary effects lingered for weeks.

Internet disruptions can adversely affect the power grid. Many transactions used to control large electricity networks take place via Internet-based supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems. Without Internet connectivity, the SCADA cannot function.

The Internet also provides attack avenues against power grids. Improperly configured firewalls, weak passwords, missing security updates and other mismanagement create vulnerabilities.

In March 2007, Idaho National Laboratory vividly demonstrated how a cyber attack can affect electric power. A video of the attack, which left a million dollar-plus generator belching smoke, drew global attention.

In May 2008, the Government Accountability Office released a report highly critical of the Tennessee Valley Authority, citing poor security practices that left the national power grid vulnerable to attack. Analysis of the report, published in the UK Register, stated, “The TVA had firewalls that were improperly configured or bypassed, used poorly implemented passwords, and relied on logging practices that weren’t up to snuff.”

In April 2009, the Wall Street Journal cited unidentified U.S. officials who claimed cyber spies had penetrated the U.S. power grid and left behind malicious software that could be used to disrupt the system. The attack source was never positively identified.

Tracing a cyber attack to a specific source is difficult, making such attacks attractive to America’s adversaries.

New smart grid technologies being used to modernize America’s power grid have more digital components than current technologies, creating new cyber risks. Cyber attacks are not the only concern, however. There are also physical threats.

Transmission systems make up more than 60 percent of the electric power infrastructure in America. This includes the overhead power lines resting atop giant, steel-lattice pylons crisscrossing the nation.

Transmission lines can be selectively targeted to inflict maximum damage. Well-planned attacks on transmission lines can create extended electricity disruptions.

Most pylons are easily accessible and relatively easy to bring down with small amounts of explosives. A Los Angeles Times article in May 1985 described how one transmission tower had been blown up and rebuilt 44 times during the five-year civil war in El Salvador.

As long as global terrorism and wars continue, America’s national power grid will be a tempting target for her adversaries.

While average citizens have no influence on grid security, they can take steps to lessen the personal impact of extended electricity disruptions.

Gathering a common “hurricane kit” will prepare most homes for an extended electricity disruption as well. The military’s U.S. Southern Command has a hurricane kit content list on its Web site at www.southcom.mil/hurricaneprep/hurricane_survival_kit.htm.

Besides a hurricane kit, homes with electric heat need a back-up source that will burn wood, coal, propane or kerosene.

As the saying goes, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

Zachary Hubbard is a retired Army officer and freelance writer residing in Upper Yoder Township. He is a member of The Tribune-Democrat Readership Advisory Committee.