An assault on the transmission grid in Arkansas is likely the result of a grievance with the utility or the developer's chosen path. The incident, under investigation by the FBI, underscores the need for greater vigilance of those assets that are the lifeblood of the American economy.
It was last November when the National Academy of Sciences gave warning about the destruction of the transmission network or the substations that convert the voltage levels so that the power can be delivered to homes and businesses. That group said in its study that anyone from vandals to terrorists could damage those assets to the point where they would be unusable for sustained periods. Such assaults would not just affect the health and comfort of customers but also the economic well-being of business communities.
The Arkansas line, owned by Entergy, was necessary to ease congestion and to prevent blackouts. The New Orleans-based utility had testified before Arkansas regulators in 2010 that the line’s route was based on discussions with landowners as well as one was that was the most logistical. That is, it required less new right-of-way acreage and had better access for construction and repair.
However, it appears that someone with a knowledge of electrical grids and perhaps someone with a beef against the line or the utility took matters into their own hands: “Inspection of the line indicated that it was intentionally cut. It is believed that the person(s) responsible climbed the 100 foot tower, severed the line with a saw or similar object, and removed several bolts at the base of the tower,” says an FBI press release says.
Altogether, there are 5,800 major power plants and 450,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines, says the American Society of Civil Engineers. The debate occurring among utilities, regulators and U.S. lawmakers is just how those assets would be protected: voluntary efforts or mandatory laws.
The North American Electric Reliability Corp. has weighed in and in July, it sent a letter to the chair and the ranking member of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. While it dealt with cyber-security, it generally wanted to ensure that Congress facilitated the utility industry’s efforts to upgrade its protection standards.
“Your bill recognizes that these important public-private partnerships already exist and provides further direction to enhancing critical infrastructure protection through voluntary practices, while ensuring no wasteful duplication or conflict,” writes Gerry Cauley, president of the reliability group.
In July, the Senate Commerce unanimously approved a bill to beef up the nation’s cyber-security laws. With the backing of utilities, the full Senate is expected to vote in favor of the measure. The legislation is modeled after a presidential executive order that enables government agencies to work closely with private companies to beef up protocols.
According to the National Academy of Sciences report, the grid is especially vulnerable because it traverses long distances. The problems are compounded because power is getting “wheeled” across the country while important pieces of equipment are decades old.
It says that there are also critical parts such as sensors and controls that are susceptible to cyber attacks via the internet. Because the grid is so interconnected, it adds, high-quality technical and managerial systems should be in place. That includes those practices that would catch internal errors or intentional sabotage.
“Power system disruptions experienced to date in the United States, be they from natural disasters or malfunctions, have had immense economic impacts,” says Granger Morgan, professor and head of the department of engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, and chair of the committee that wrote the report. “Considering that a systematically designed and executed terrorist attack could cause disruptions even more widespread and of longer duration, it is no stretch of the imagination to think that such attacks could produce damage costing hundreds of billions of dollars.”
To that end, more than 200 utilities and several government agencies will take part in an emergency drill in November that will simulate prolonged blackouts from both physical and cyber-security attacks. The North American Electric Reliability Corp. is spearheading the effort.
Utilities have long been mindful of their vulnerabilities. As such, they are continuing to work closely with all the stakeholders to mitigate assaults and any negative ramifications that such attacks might have.