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Lights Out: The Top 7 Threats To America’s Power Grid

Revelations earlier last week that hackers linked to Russia attacked and took down the Ukrainian power grid are bringing to light once again major threats to the American power grid.

“There’s this combination of federal and state-level programs that are aimed at shutting down reliable baseload generation, such as coal, while propping up expensive and unreliable wind and solar power,” Chris Warren of the Institute for Energy Research told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “This includes policies such as the wind PTC, solar ITC, state renewable portfolio standards, and EPA regulations like the carbon rule.”

American homes, industries, and businesses are deeply dependent on reliable electricity, so threats to the consistent delivery of electricity put modern life itself at risk.

“This perfect storm of policies will unavoidably raise electricity prices on Americans and seriously threaten grid reliability,” Warren continued.

From the Environmental Protection Agency’s crusade against to cheap domestic energy and to renegade rodents, here are the top 7 threats to the American electrical grid.

1: Environmental Protection Agency

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has repeatedly attempted to implement regulations that shut down coal and natural gas power plants. At the same time, the agency openly encourages solar and wind power, which also puts stress on the power grid.

Independent groups have suggested EPA regulations could be responsible for shutting down up to 81,000 megawatts of power generation capacity. That is the equivalent of shutting off the lights of Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, Arizona, Colorado and Idaho. Such action makes the power grid more vulnerable to other disruptions.

And the agency proposes so many new regulations that it creates uncertainty among investors, which effectively prevents the construction of additional conventional power plants that could stabilize the grid.

2: Terrorism

Snipers opened fire on an electrical substation supporting the power grid in April, 2013, near Silicon Valley, California. Substations are critical links in the power grid which make it possible for electricity to move long distances. It took utility workers 27 days to make repairs and successfully reactivate the substation. No one has been arrested or charged for this crime.

Jon Wellinghoff, former chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, called the incident “the most significant incident of domestic terrorism involving the grid that has ever occurred.”

It takes more than a year to manufacture a new transformer, and transformers aren’t interchangeable, as each one must be individually built specifically for its location. The country’s roughly 2,000 very large transformers are expensive to build, often costing millions of dollars each, and hard to replace. Each is custom made and weighs up to 500,000 pounds.

3: Cyberattacks 

“The threat to America’s power supply from a cyber attack increases every day,” Republican Rep. Lamar Smith, chairman of the House Science Committee, told TheDCNF. “If just one major city were attacked in this way, the economic and societal consequences would be devastating.”

The increased networking of electrical grids worldwide allows for various time and money-saving features which make the day-to-day operations simpler, however; they also make it easier for the grid to be hacked.

This is exactly what happened to Ukraine. The country’s power grid was hit by well-engineered malware called BlackEnergy, which disconnected electrical substations from the main power grid. The Ukrainian government has publicly blamed Russia for the attack, which left approximately 700,000 homes without power for several hours on December 23rd. Similar malware was used against Ukrainian media organizations during 2015 local elections.

A Freedom of Information Act request revealed that hackers successfully infiltrated the Department of Energy’s (DOE) computer system more than 150 times between 2010 and 2014. The DOE was targeted 1,131 times over the same period.

Infecting industrial systems, such as power grids, with malware is so simple that there are5-minute YouTube tutorials on how to do it. By overwhelming network links with traffic in a Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attack, Internet users or cyber-terrorists can and have removed the ability of utilities to communicate with their own electrical grids, effectively causing a blackout. The estimated price for 24 hours of consistent DDoS attack is a mere $40, making such attacks available to pretty much anybody.

4: Solar And Wind Power

“Our power grid works well today. Some complain, but blackouts are rare and large-scale blackout are really rare,” Daniel Simmons, Vice President for Policy of the Institute for Energy Research, told TheDCNF. “The power grid was set up for the [electrical] generation we have. Building a lot of new wind and solar requires much greater expenditure on the grid.”

In order for the power grid to function, demand for energy must exactly match supply. Power demand is relatively predictable and conventional power, like nuclear and natural gas plants, can adjust output accordingly. Solar and wind power, however, cannot easily adjust output. They also provide power unpredictably relative to conventional power sources.

On an especially cloudy or windless day, the electrical grid can’t supply enough power from solar or wind alone. Wind and solar also run the risk of producing too much power which can overload and fry the power grid. Building the infrastructure to move large amounts of solar or wind power from the best places to generate it to the places where power is needed is both incredibly expensive and puts stress on the grid.

Furthermore, plugging the best spots for solar and wind into the grid means transporting power across long distances, which is very expensive. For example, building a 3,000-mile network of transmission lines capable of moving power from wind-rich West Texas to market in East Texas proved to be a $6.8 billion effort that began in 2008, and still isn’t entirely finished.

5: Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP)

A series of properly deployed EMPs could effectively shut down most electrical devices in the United States for months or years. Such an attack could wipe out 90 percent of America’s population, can could be done by a rogue states with only a small nuclear-weapons program.

However, the kind of grid destroying electromagnetic pulse can also be the result of natural solar activity.

The sun last produced a large pulse that struck Earth during the summer of 1859, which created the largest geomagnetic storm on record. The storm was so powerful that it caused telegraph machines around the world to spark, shocking operators and setting papers ablaze. The event released the same amount of energy as 10 billion atomic bombs and would fry most modern electronics. A similar solar event occurred in 2012, but missed Earth.

Researchers estimate that a similar event today would cause $600 billion to $2.6 trillion in damages to the United States alone. National Geographic found that a similar event today would destroy much of the internet, take down all satellite communications, and almost certainly knock out most of the global electrical grid.

In the event of another natural EMP, the Earth would only get about 20 hours of warning.

6: Old and expensive to rebuild

The three power grids that supply the United States with electricity are old and extremely expensive pieces of infrastructure.

According to the Department of Energy, 70 percent of the transmission lines and power transformers in the country are at least 25 years old. The power grids are valued at trillions of dollars, and can’t be replaced in a timely manner when the U.S. government is more than $18 trillion in debt.

The kind of high voltage power lines needed to transport even relatively small amounts of power cost $1.9 to 3.1 million per mile built. Additionally, the kind of “smarter” power systems which can be adjusted to varying energy production created by wind and solar power can cost up to 50 percent more.

7: Squirrels

Squirrels do immense amounts of damage to the power grid by running up power lines, devouring wires, and accidentally electrocuting themselves inside sensitive infrastructure. Squirrels cause more power outages than lightning.

In Texas, utilities companies spend more than $100,000 annually protecting the power grid from squirrels. Squirrels are estimated to cause roughly $2 million worth of damage to the Texas power grid each year.

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