Let's not wait for a crippling cyberattack before we strengthen the grid

Let's not wait for a crippling cyberattack before we strengthen the grid
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“Grid emergency” is not a household term. At least, not yet. A grid emergency is an event that threatens to shut down all electric power in a specific area, which could be a few states or the entire country.

A grid emergency could come from a cyberattack from an enemy state, terrorists, or just hackers. It could also come naturally from our neighbor in the galaxy: the sun. An electromagnetic storm on the sun — called a Carrington Event — could shut down all electrical systems on Earth.

On Dec. 17, 2017, no enemy — just a fire in an electrical switch room — caused a blackout at the Atlanta Airport stranding thousands of passengers in the dark terminal and disrupting thousands of flights all over the country. The power outage lasted 12 hours. That nightmare was just a micro-example of what could happen in a grid emergency.

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The Federal Power Act (FPA) gives the president the authority to declare a grid emergency and to delegate the authority to deal with it to the secretary of Energy. In 2015, Congress passed a law with a delightful acronym: the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act, or the FAST Act. This law authorizes the Energy Department to issue rules governing the secretary’s actions in a cyberattack.

 

After deliberating for about three years, the U.S. Department of Energy issued a final rule two weeks ago defining the powers of the secretary if the president declares a grid emergency.

Let us say that an enemy state realizes that they could never physically invade the United States, but that they could bring the country to its knees by detonating nuclear weapons overhead at high altitude creating electromagnetic pulses (EMPs) that would cripple our power grid. (Best selling author, Brad Thor writes about this scenario in his 2014 novel Act of War. Over 30 years ago, another novel, Warday, also dealt with high altitude detonation of nuclear weapons knocking out our power.)

And so we learn of this threat. The secretary of Energy gets a grid emergency declaration from the president. As the threat gets closer, the secretary orders all electrical generating and distribution systems — all power systems — to shut down to avoid being fried by the EMP.

When this happens our power goes out. What happens to those running businesses from their computers? What about those on life support devices like dialysis machines or medical monitors that suddenly quit or go dark?

Next the secretary advises all electrical systems that deliver critical human services — such as drinking water — to go to back-up power, such as generators, that would not be so vulnerable.

There are over 52,000 community water systems in the United States. Many are very small. More than 31,000 systems have fewer than 10,000 customers. How many of these small systems do you think have back-up power?

The common denominator with all of these consequences of grid emergency scenarios is to realize what could happen and to take preventative action today, long before the trouble starts.

With the dialysis machine or health monitors it’s a battery or a home generator. With a business, there’s a real problem. A battery or generator will get the computer back on, but if the Internet is gone, what good will it do?

What about fuel for a generator? If someone doesn’t have it, they have to get it. Drive to a gas station? An EMP will fry the electrical system in their car. No driving; they’ll have to walk.

 Finally, when people get thirsty from all of this anxiety and hassle, they go get a drink of water. They turn on the tap. Nothing happens. The board of directors of the water system in their small town didn’t want to raise rates to pay for a back-up generator.

What’s the secretary of Energy going to do about the dialysis machine or the health monitor, internet businesses, and drinking water? Some of these problems — like the dialysis machine — are easy. Others like the businesses can be very difficult. The drinking water problem is a question of money. 

So what advice should we give ourselves today, before there is any threat of a grid emergency?

“Let’s not wait until the cyberattack happens!”

Michael Curley is a lawyer and visiting scholar at the Environmental Law Institute in Washington, D.C. He teaches and has written four books about environmental and energy law and finance. He has published over 40 articles. He served on the Environmental Financial Advisory Board at EPA for 21 years under four presidents. He is also on the Advisory Board of the 501(c)(4) corporation “Protect Our Power”.