Editor's Note: Why Our Electric Grid Is Vulnerable

Spring 2018 Insider

Editor's Note: Why Our Electric Grid Is Vulnerable

Apr 16, 2018 2 min read

Much like the final scenes of Raiders of the Lost Ark, our cover story this issue involves the utterly fantastic crashing into the completely mundane. You may recall the adventure’s coda: Professor Brody advises a government official that the Ark of the Covenant, now in American hands, possesses unspeakable powers that must be researched. The official assures Brody and Indiana Jones that he has top men working on it. Who? Top men. In the closing shot, we see the relic carefully crated up and stashed among thousands of similar crates in a warehouse. Bureaucratic inertia wins again. 

The full powers of the Ark are unknown but we know it can melt faces, so they must be terrible indeed. The curious force described in these pages can do much worse: An electromagnetic pulse (EMP), set off by a nuclear detonation in the atmosphere or by extreme solar weather, could burn out the electric grid over many hundreds of miles from ground zero. It could take months if not years to restore electricity to up to half the continent. 

Without electricity, our modern comfortable lifestyles would come screeching to a halt. Most worrisome, the communication and transportation networks that deliver food, medicine, and other necessities would be severely hampered. Many thousands, perhaps millions, of Americans could die—all because some electrons moving around in the atmosphere create a giant electromagnet in the sky for a few nanoseconds. 

Now here’s the part of the story that will sound familiar: Little has been done to address the risk and the reason is not merely that there is disagreement about what should be done. Fundamentally, most of the parties who could take action believe that EMP is somebody else’s problem. 

Power companies typically think an EMP would be caused by a nuclear detonation; that would make it an act of war, and thus a national security threat for the federal government to deal with via missile defense. This view holds that since EMP is a low-probability, high-risk event, the electricity sector should focus on more immediate challenges like cyber security. Others believe that electric companies should take steps now, guided by standards set by government regulators, to harden the key elements of the grid so that they are shielded from an EMP. 

An additional problem is that within the government, the knowledge, competencies, and responsibilities related to the problem are dispersed among different agencies. These include the Department of Energy, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the Department of Defense, and the Department of Homeland Security. 

Numerous ad hoc bodies have weighed in with reports, studies, and demonstration projects on EMP over the past decade. The subjects on which the experts disagree include the cost of hardening the grid (between $2 billion and $1 trillion), the right strategy (piecemeal v. fast track plan), and which assets should be prioritized.

One thing is certain: Talking less about the problem isn’t going to solve it either. Government and industry need to get together and agree on what roles each will play in protecting the grid. By itself, that can go a long way to removing barriers to action. While taking that first step requires leadership from the President and Congress, policymakers should remember that electricity companies are likely to know more about how their assets are vulnerable than the government does.

In fact, at least one private company is already doing EMP planning. Duke Energy has launched a pilot project with Clemson University to isolate its coal, nuclear, and hydropower plants at Lake Wylie on the
North Carolina-South Carolina border so that they are protected from an EMP.  

It may turn out, after all, that the top men on EMP work outside the Beltway.  

Alex Adrianson

Alex Adrianson edits The Insider.
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