Foreign and homegrown cyber and physical attacks upon America’s sprawling, complex, and fragile infrastructure of power lines and control stations were never contemplated throughout the system’s more than century-long creation.
Nevertheless, coordinated assaults upon a small number of these soft targets can produce devastatingly expansive and long-lasting service disruptions.
Add to this power grid switching overloads imposed by increasing insertions of intermittent wind and solar sources, and we are inviting literal power gridlock with massive consequences.
The team of Russian hackers linked to the penetration of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) computer system are believed to be same group behind successful cyberattacks on 17 U.S. energy companies — including four electric utilities — in 2014 that gave hackers access to company industrial control networks. In doing so, the culprits were able to steal data and gain network access which could allow them to remotely adjust equipment settings.
Taking down one or more could destabilize large areas of the network grid.
As recently reported in The Wall Street Journal, FireEye, Inc., a cybersecurity company, said the Russian group has developed advanced its “BlackEnergy” malware with plans for long-term uses. Functioning analogously to a propped-open door, the program platform allows cyber spies to conduct lengthy reconnaissance and to interfere with critical control systems.
They are also believed to have launched successful cyber campaigns against Ukrainian power transmission networks in 2015 and 2016. Someone took remote control of circuit breakers at 30 power distribution utilities, shutting off electricity for about 700,000 people. One attack resulted in a partial outage at a high-voltage substation serving Kiev, Ukraine’s capital city.
In April, 2013, a small group of armed people slipped into an underground vault at the Metcalf, California, power station just outside San Jose.
After cutting communication cables, a sniper knocked out 17 giant transformers that fed electricity to the Silicon Valley. Although power was successfully rerouted to avoid a blackout, the event caused about $16 million in damage and required 27 days to fully restore operations.
In 2013, the response to a slashing of fiber-optic communication and control cables which serve the Liberty substation west of Phoenix, Arizona, occurred more than two weeks after alarm bells — imagined to be false — first began ringing.
The utility company’s security head subsequently reported that a perimeter fence had been cut open, a steel door to a control building was “peeled back like a sardine can,” computer cabinets were pried open, and the security cameras were useless. Eight of the 10 cameras were either broken or pointed to sky, and most had been out of operation for a year or more.
As reported in The Wall Street Journal, James Holler, whose security company Abidance Consulting investigated nearly 1,000 substations in 14 states, found that “At least half had nothing but a padlock on the gate . . . No cameras. No motion sensors or alarms.”
Those with ringing alarms are often ignored. One utility never even bothered to change its substation’s locks after recovery of keys that were in a truck stolen for a joy ride.
Dangerous green energy balancing act
Power grid development and management involve integration and control of a vast antiquated patchwork of power lines and monitoring devices connecting a mix of industrial-scale fossil, nuclear, hydro, wind and solar electricity-generating plants.
Power management challenges and disruption risks increase significantly as segments of the grid become overloaded or under-served by fluctuating wind and solar conditions. Solar variability can sometimes be even more problematic than wind due to rapid and unpredictable cloud changes.
Much of the public is unaware that wind and solar intermittency requires that gas or coal-fired backup “spinning reserve” turbines be inefficiently throttled up and down to balance the grid on a second-by-second basis. This wasteful and costly condition is much like driving a car in stop and go traffic.
Making matters worse, lacking storage capacity utility operators are sometimes forced to dump wind energy produced on blustery days to avoid grid damage when regional power systems don’t have room for it. Nevertheless, taxpayers and ratepayers still get charged.
Even the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) has indicated that there is a “significant risk” of U.S. electricity becoming unreliable because “wind and solar don’t offer the services the shuttered coal plants [resulting from new Obama Administration EPA regulations] provided.”
In this case we have clearly identified the threat . . . and it is wearing green.