Study: US Power Grid Is Vulnerable To Hacking And EMP, But Only Texas Is Taking It Seriously Faelchle

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Andrew Follett Energy and Science Reporter
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America’s power grid is vulnerable to electromagnetic pulses (EMPs) and cyber attacks, and only Texas is taking these threats seriously, according to a new report by a conservative think tank.

Researchers backed by the National Center for Policy Analysis found the U.S. electric grid was highly vulnerable to both cyberattacks and EMPs from other countries and small terrorist groups. They also determined Texas was the only state dealing with the threat since it has a self-contained power grid.

“The entire U.S. electric power system is a prime target of cyberattacks from hostile governments and terrorist organizations, but the Lone Star State is in a unique position to act,” Luke Twombly and David Grantham, the report’s authors, said in a press release. “Texas plays a unique role in America’s infrastructure as the only state with a self-contained electric grid.”

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

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.

Cyberattacks have already shut down Ukraine’s power grid with a 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 Dec. 23. Similar malware was used against Ukrainian media organizations during 2015 local elections.

“There are readily available and cost-effective shielding technologies designed to safeguard electric grid components from an EMP, and detailed steps on implementation,” Grantham said. “But getting multiple states to cooperate on a plan to harden the other, multi-state grid systems is a daunting task.”

An EMP could result from a high-altitude nuclear explosion or triggered naturally from unusual solar activity, causing a short burst of electromagnetic energy. This burst would interact with every electrical device, effectively frying the power grid, and cause blackouts across much of the country.

A congressional commission created to study and address the threat of EMPs published two reports in 2004 and 2008 laying out measures that could harden the power grid. Eight years later, few of its recommendations have been implemented.

The Pentagon considered using EMPs during the Cold War as a “first strike” weapon that would take out critical military command and control infrastructure. Although the U.S. military has spent decades hardening its infrastructure, civilian power infrastructure is still mostly vulnerable.

The 2009 congressional commission estimated that within 12 months of an EMP or serious cyber attack that decimated the power grid, up to 90 percent of the American population could perish from starvation, disease and societal breakdown.

A natural EMP last hit Earth during the summer of 1859 when the Sun 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.

Researchers estimate that a similar event occurring in 2011 would have caused $600 billion to $2.6 trillion in damages to the U.S. In comparison, Hurricane Katrina only caused $125 billion in total economic losses.

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, according to a study by National Geographic. The Earth would only get about 20 hours of warning. A similar solar event occurred in 2012, but missed Earth.

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