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New Report Finds U.S. Electric Grid Vulnerable to Threats, Says U.S. Must Prepare for the “Unimaginable”

August 22, 2017

A recent report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine found that the U.S. electric grid is vulnerable to a range of threats, and called on the federal government to work with utilities and other stakeholders to strengthen the nation’s power system.

Mandated by Congress and funded by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), the report identified potential risks that could cause blackouts over several service areas or states and last at least three days. They included hurricanes, earthquakes, solar storms, cyber and physical attacks, and major operational errors.

The study, prepared by a committee of the National Academies, was blunt in its conclusions.

“The electricity system, and associated supporting infrastructure, is susceptible to widespread uncontrolled cascading failure, based on the interconnected and interdependent nature of the networks,” the panel stated in its 297-page report. “Despite all best efforts, it is impossible to avoid occasional, potentially large outages caused by natural disasters or pernicious physical or cyber attacks.”

It was equally unsparing in its assessment of the current state of grid security planning.

“At present, planning for all types of hazards to public infrastructure is a disorganized and decentralized activity," the report said, noting that no individual entity has the responsibility or authority to implement a comprehensive approach for securing the power system. The committee further argued that while the United States in the past has made progress in resilience by simply “muddling through,” that response is no longer acceptable.

M. Granger Morgan, an engineering professor at Carnegie Mellon who chaired the panel, said resolving concerns facing the grid should be given a high priority – though not in what he termed a “do it tomorrow or we’re toast” sense. But, Morgan added, “in the scale of months, it’s quite urgent.”

The committee said it was now time for industry and government to begin “imagining the unimaginable” and prepare for catastrophic events. Its recommendations to that end included:

  • The electricity industry should broaden its efforts to convene regional emergency preparedness programs. These efforts would be coordinated with the appropriate state, federal, and regional agencies and the North American Electric Reliability Corp., and simulate threats and damages that could result in larges-scale outages.
  • The Department of Energy should provide additional financial support for research, development, and demonstration programs for cybersecurity defense and for grid monitoring and control systems.
  • DOE, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and other agencies should oversee development of “more reliable inventories of power backup power needs and capabilities, like the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ mobile generator fleet.”
  • Investments should be made to expand efforts to maintain and restore essential services such as power for hospitals, first responders, water supplies, and communications systems.
  • DOE should take the lead in stockpiling critical power grid transformers, complementing existing industry programs. The committee said more technology was needed to deal with wide-area blackouts, including control room software that enabled grid operators to recognize and respond to rapidly moving outages.
  • The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the North American Energy Standards Board should ramp up their efforts to coordinate the operations of natural gas pipelines and utilities that depend on gas-fired electricity.

Where and how far the report’s recommendations go is uncertain.

The Trump administration has proposed to reduce the budget of the DHS science and technology arm – which focuses on cyber issues – by 27 percent, to $437 million. DOE’s Office of Cybersecurity for Energy Deliver Systems is facing a 33 percent cut, to $42 million.

But in the U.S. Senate, a bipartisan energy bill includes $200 million per year for grid modernization in the DOE Office of Electricity. One of the sponsors, Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington, said supporters are trying to get the bill to the floor for a vote.

The National Academies report is the latest to raise concerns over grid security. In 2015, for example, Lloyd’s of London estimated that a broad attack on the U.S. system could result in damages ranging from $243 billion to $1 trillion. And a 2012 analysis from the National Research Council found that the grid was “inherently vulnerable” to terrorist attacks.

Industry stakeholders must take notice of this issue and help identify areas of grid weakness. The study also highlights the need for stakeholders to envision the range of innovations – technological and organizational – which affect the industry. Distributed generation, battery storage, and smart meters fall into these categories of innovations that should change the way we think about grid infrastructure. The study recommends to the DOE the advancement of safe and effective distributed energy resources and microgrids, as well as continued research into technology and grid resilience, and the improved customer and societal understandings of energy and grid security – concepts that resonates with ENGIE’s Energy Revolution. For more on Energy Revolution, please visit