American power grid vulnerable to catastrophic failure -

American power grid vulnerable to catastrophic failure

As I mentioned in my previous column on this topic, I was recently introduced to an organization called Energy Huntsville (the city of Huntsville being where I currently “hang my hat,” as it were).

The goal of this organization is to establish our community as the go-to technology center for solutions to energy programs and projects. Since its inauguration around three and a half years ago, Energy Huntsville has grown from being a local industry organization to having a national footprint.

Energy Huntsville has a meeting on the third Tuesday of each month, which explains why I was to be found meandering my way around the US Space and Rocket Center earlier this week.

The first person I bumped into while grabbing a coffee (thank goodness for coffee) was Michael E. Gomien from Shearer & Associates, a company that bills itself as “Specialists in Facility & Security Engineering.” After complementing me on my Hawaiian shirt du jour (which, it has to be acknowledged, was rather spiffy), Michael enlightened me as to to some very interesting work he is involved in regarding protecting equipment and facilities against electromagnetic pulses (EMPs), with particular attention to the possibility of events caused by terrorists or naughty nation states (I added the “naughty” qualifier).

Most electronic engineers know that older technologies such as vacuum tubes are much less susceptible to damage from EMPs than are modern technologies such as transistors and silicon chips. Paradoxically, the smaller, faster, and more power-efficient we make modern electronic components, the more vulnerable they tend to become to EMPs.

As an aside most people have heard of early computer memories called magnetic-core stores, in which the 0 or 1 value of each binary digit was stored by magnetizing a tiny ferromagnetic donut-shaped core in one direction or the other. In addition to being able to retain its contents indefinitely without power, core store also had the advantage of being relatively unaffected by EMPs and radiation.

What is less-well-known is that magnetic cores can be used to implement logic functions that offer extremely high reliability and adaptability to extreme environments, including high-intensity radiation and EMPs. I have a book from 1969 called Digital Magnetic Logic sitting here in my office that makes for some very interesting reading, but we digress…

Of course, we don’t only have to protect ourselves against hostile forces — we also have Mother Nature to contend with. A major solar storm or lightning strike can cause a lot of damage to all sorts of things, including power grids. The reason I mention power grids in particular is that the topic of this month's main presentation, which was given by Sean P, Williams, President of Protection Strategies, Inc., was the TVC Secure Grid Initiative , where TVC stands for the Tennessee Valley Corridor — an area that encompassed 10 congressional districts, 32 research institutions, lots of private industry, and a plethora of DOD, DOE, NASA, and Air Force installations and bases in East and Middle Tennessee, North Alabama, Western North Carolina, Eastern Kentucky, and Southwest Virginia. (Phew! Try saying that last sentence ten times quickly.)


Sean started off by explaining why the North American power grid could rightfully be viewed as one of the seven wonders of the modern age. Unfortunately, he then went on to explain that the grid could not be more vulnerable if we'd set out to design it that way — it's highly complex, highly centralized while also being distributed across great distances, and highly interdependent on a global industrialized society (people, materials, and equipment). For example, some of the 500 KVA sub-systems upon which we rely can only be obtained from China (am I the only one who thinks this may not be the best idea?).

Just to add to the fun and frivolity, only around 20% of the grid is controlled by the government — the rest is owned by a large number of private companies. If this is anything like other organizations with which I've been involved, trying to get everyone to agree about something that involves spending money will be like herding cats.

Sean went on to consider the possibilities of damage caused by Mother Nature, Cyber Attack, and Physical Attack, including insider threats and domestic, foreign, and state-sponsored actors. He also discussed how the chances of a massive grid failure are moving toward the “critical” and “catastrophic” portions of the probability envelope.

I recall when we lost power for more than a week due to tornados taking out the feeds from our local power station back in April 2011, and I have to tell you that I've had enough cold showers to last me a lifetime. It really gives you a different perspective when you can’t buy gas or food or water, and your heating and cooling and refrigeration systems are out for the count, and your smartphones and TVs don’t work. And this affected only a relatively small area in the scheme of things — now try to imagine a large portion of the national grid being out of action for 6 months, 9 months, or even longer.

I'd like to tell you the good news, but there really wasn't any. The only tiny glimmer of hope is that we actually have the TVC Secure Grid Initiative . We can but hope that those who don the undergarments of authority and stride the corridors of power have a clue as to what's what, and also that they “pull their fingers out” and free up the scientific, technical, and engineering resources necessary for us to secure the grid against as many threat vectors as possible. “Of course, if I were a betting man…” said Max, sadly.

13 thoughts on “American power grid vulnerable to catastrophic failure

  1. “It is reasonably easy to keep going through a localised outage due to storm damage etc. For example, refrigerated goods can still be brought in from where it is still electrified (maybe 100 or 200 miles away).nnIt is entirely different matter when a lar

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  2. “Can you imagine if the entire fab capacity in Taiwan and S Korea would be out for 6-9 months? Armed conflict, natural disaster or w/e else.nIt was a topic after the recent earthquake and i do wonder if govs have strategic war reserves for chips. Any clu

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  3. “Keeping reserves of oil or diesel might make sense because those are one-size-fits-all commodities.nnComponents are another thing. What chips would you store? What would you do when they get obsolete? It is frankly not possible to do this right.nnNor

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  4. “You are not thinking nearly far enough.It's much much worse than it used to be and do remember that in my scenario it would be a global crisis.nYou got machines mining copper in Chile, machines transporting that ore and so on, lots and lots of machines a

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  5. “So yeah, i know it's not very practical to keep a strategic reserve of civilian chips but not having one could be very costly. Grains and oil might have worked 100 years ago when productivity was much much lower while the supply chain and our needs were 1

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  6. “One doesn't have to resort to exotica like EMP for potential damage sources. I suspect there are places vulnerable to a single squirrel, and there's no Denial of Service attack like an enthusiast with a backhoe. nnPeople regard “preppers” as wing-nut,

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  7. “The disasters are potentially real, but the proposed mechanisms are often over dramatised.nnAs you say, a squirrel can take out a grid, as can just boring old human mistakes like forgetting to close an inspection hatch and letting water into a transform

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  8. “One of the engineers I used to work with back in the 60's, whose name we only knew as “Zeus”, tried to convince the people at Bell Telephone that their microwave communication facilities were subject to an EMP attack, but they didn't believe him. Undet

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  9. “I was just thinking about the comments below “…a squirrel can take out a grid…”nnMaybe I should have titled this column “American power grid susceptible to catastrophic squirrel attack” LOL”

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  10. “Yup, short range/small area EMP is highly effective. This will often only cause a reset rather than kill the equipment.nnNearby lightning strikes will do the same.nnOne thing I've seen cause a lot of problems is the gas “spring” in office chairs. W

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