On April 16, 2013, saboteurs attacked a power substation near San Jose, California, the Wall Street Journal reported on February 5. They cut fiber optic cables in a manner designed to maximize repair time and shot up 17 transformers, causing them to leak their oil coolant, overheat and fail.
It took them less than an hour, after which they disappeared into the night, leaving no fingerprints on more than 100 cartridges. It took 27 days to get the substation back online. Thankfully, grid operators were able to reroute power and avoid blackouts. Otherwise we could have repeated the 2003 transformer failure that triggered a cascading blackout affecting 50 million people in the eastern USA and Canada.
Former Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) director Jon Wellinghoff called the attack “purposeful, extremely well planned and executed by professionals who had expert training.” Other utility experts said it could have been a “dress rehearsal” for much bigger operation. One called it “preparation for an act of war,” in which a few terrorists with cheap bolt cutters and bullets unleash a real weapon of mass destruction – not an imaginary one – as calamitous as what an electromagnetic pulse or hacker-initiated computer system meltdown could inflict.
Many substations are in rural areas, with no human staff, protected only by cameras and chain-link fences. On a hot summer day, by destroying or disabling a dozen carefully chosen interconnection substations and transformers, terrorists could set off cascading blackouts, taking down much of the US or even North American power grid for an extended period.
Communications, jobs, food, safe drinking water and other benefits of modern civilization would quickly disappear. The United States would be plunged into darkness, chaos, crime, anarchy and widespread deaths. Even smaller, less coordinated attacks could be devastating across entire regions.
Replacing these huge, 40-ton, high-voltage, multi-million-dollar transformers could take weeks, months, a year or more, depending on many factors. Few American companies make the big transformers, and those factories could be affected by the blackout. Replacing one behemoth recently took nearly two years and a 7,000-mile journey from Korea. Bringing one of these monsters in on rush basis could require a jumbo cargo plane that only one country builds: Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
Who could launch such an act of war? Al Qaeda, Iran and North Korea certainly come to mind. Even Mexican drug cartels are suspects, after an attack on power installations in Mexico’s Michoacan State.
Nevertheless, within weeks of the first WSJ article, Russia invaded Crimea, Secretary Kerry said the “aggression” would bring “serious repercussions,” President Obama worked on his short game and March Madness “bracketology,” and 28 Senate Democrats held an all-night gabfest to rant and obsess about – climate change! None of them mentioned the threat of terrorist attacks on our grid and nation.
Just as maddening, responsibility for protecting the grid is apparently not in the job description of any US government agency. Homeland Security says it is the utility industry’s job, and FERC recently gave the industry until early June 2014 to propose new standards for securing critical facilities against threats of this nature and magnitude.
Thankfully, the industry is taking the challenge very seriously and is examining ways to improve both site security and the equipment replacement process. Mr. Wellinghoff says “there are probably less than 100 critical high-voltage substations that need to be protected from physical attack. It is neither a monumental task, nor would it take an inordinate sum of money to do so.”
Defining “inordinate” is not easy, however, especially in the context of other regulatory demands. Utilities will have to find the money, while also spending billions to comply with countless environmental rules of dubious value. The Congressional EMP Commission estimates the cost of hardening the national grid will be about $2 billion. But all the necessary precautions will likely run into the tens of billions.
Virginia’s Dominion Resources alone plans to spent up to $500 million over the next seven years to harden its facilities, the WSJ reports. Multiply that and 24/7/365 monitoring times numerous other utility companies, facilities and weak points, and the price tag is significant. But the Obama Administration and many members of Congress are intent on spending billions for climate change “prevention” and health and environmental rules that will bring minuscule benefits, because the risks are exaggerated to illusory.
Responsible federal and state legislators, utility companies and citizen groups need to make protecting America’s electrical transmission system and civilization against terror attacks a high priority – and a central topic in the 2014 campaign debates and elections.
If others want to make “dangerous manmade climate change” their central them, voters will decide which issues truly merit our uppermost attention.
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