A Needed Wake-Up Call

In regards to our nation’s energy grid systems and vulnerabilities, what this country needs is a wake-up call. Instead of focusing on what Senator Murkowski stated was “a dangerous leak of highly sensitive information”, the media should instead be focusing on why so little has been done to reduce grid vulnerability. It has been known for more than a decade that the US power grid is woefully dated and in need of major investment to bring it up to 21st century standards. This is an issue that should be truly bi-partisan.

Over the course of the past four decades there has been an increasing of power outages. From 1995 to 1999 there were 76 in the US and Canada and almost double that number between 2000 and 2005, including the major blackout in 2003. This is a very troubling trend and if it is not reversed it could make the Great Recession look like a do-over.

The North American electricity grid is sprawling, with approximately 5,800 major power plants and more than 450,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines. Transmission substations are critical and highly vulnerable links in the system and yet they are basically out in the open, in remote locations protected primarily by chain link fences.

The National Academies of Sciences (NAS) recently released a report that made the grid’s vulnerability crystal clear. They join a rising chorus echoing the same concerns. The American Society of Civil Engineers, for example, has also rated the grid. It’s report shows that the energy infrastructure is in “poor to fair condition and mostly below standard, with many elements approaching the end of their service life.” It further demonstrates that a “large portion of the system exhibits significant deterioration” with a “strong risk of failure.” The Society noted that the grid is more vulnerable to cyber-attacks than ever before with the aging electrical system being the primary reason why. In line with that the NAS report painted a very troubling picture, noting that terrorists could black out large segments of the United States for weeks or months by attacking the power grid and damaging hard-to-replace components that are crucial to making it work.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee released a report in 2013 that reinforced the conclusions of the NAS report, concluding that the threat of a crippling attack on the grid has increased significantly, increasing threat. It is regrettable that Congress, knowing of a real and present danger, has not acted swiftly to put in place a strategy to reduce the grid’s vulnerability and enhance its resiliency.

As the composition of our economy has evolved in the past 20 years, our economy has become pervasively dependent on the grid functioning at a very high level of reliability. Any well coordinated attack on major power stations and transformers could bring economic transactions and our financial system to a halt.

Any plan to correct the faults in a system that has grown haphazardly since the late 1800s will be complex, expensive, and time consuming. A national plan has to not only involve the federal government and utility companies but state and local governments. Striking the right balance between the federal and state governments and private companies will be challenging. That challenge must give proper deference to federalism and our private enterprise system while figuring out how to exercise coordinated and more rapid decision making. The North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) will play a key role and will have to find a way make sure that its standards and recommended practices are developed in an expeditious manner and then implemented in a timely manner by its members.

This article appeared on National Journal’s Energy Insiders weblog at http://disqus.com/wokeefe/

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