The greatest threats to our Nations power grid
When you think of the current threat environment that developed nations face, one of the last things normally mentioned is the power grid. Power grids are an essential part of any developed and developing countries in so that without it, the country would be unable to operate like it should. Communications would be cut off, hospitals and other essential services would slowly be weened off generators with thousands being directly affected, and curfews would need to be introduced to maintain law and order. It is a grim reality, but for those in policy, the reality is something they have been planning for. In this article, we are going to dive into the variety of threats that could affect a power grid such as conventional weapons, natural disasters, cyber attacks, grid failures, EMP attacks and even solar flares.
In terms of current threats, the most direct and fatal attack that could happen to a power grid is a conventional weapon. This could be a bombing run, a nuclear strike or any other attack that would destroy, or inhibit a nation’s power grid to work. In 2013, a group of snipers attacked a Silicon Valley power station, knocking out essential equipment, and disrupting the power grid in Northern California with a coordinated attack. Although no arrests were made, the simple fact that snipers could disrupt the grid showcased that even the most conventional weapons could have a devastating effect on power in the United States. This realization led to numerous changes in the way that power stations and substations are protected by federal entities.
Natural disasters are impossible to predict, and each type of disaster has its challenges. From hurricanes to tsunamis and even earthquakes, no country in the world is safe from these forces of nature. Let us take Japan for instance. In 2011, a large earthquake occurred off the Japanese coast, which led to a devastating tsunami that directly hit the Fukushima Nuclear Plant. These events led to a plant shut down which in turn led to a massive shortage of power to the entire country, leading to rolling blackouts in Tokyo and on the other islands. However, due to the issues the grid faced in 2011, Japan has balanced its power output to all four islands within the chain, thus if a plant is to go down again, the other plants will be able to produce enough to ensure the power grid is still active.
Cyber attacks are a current threat to all developed and developing countries, and in fact, the American power grid is attacked up to four times a day from foreign entities according to the FBI. A cyber attack could lead to damns or nuclear plants being shut down, leading to a disruption in the power grid, or at the worst, a destruction of the facility. 2015 was the first example of a successful cyber attack on a power grid when 230,000 Ukrainian power customers were left in the dark for up to six hours. The company lost control of its information system, and allowed hackers to shut down 30 substations while also accomplishing a denial of service attack on the company’s website to limit information to the public. Although small-scale, today’s hacker farms could work to shut down power companies across the Eastern seaboard leading to mass outings, and a complete failure from Vermont to Florida.
Grid failures are not an act of god or an attack by a foe, but rather the issue of a lack of maintenance and infrastructure within the grid itself. We have seen these kinds of failures in systems that are not well maintained and have long stretches of land to cover. For instance, India is struggling to maintain the power to their billions of people, and due to routine grid failures, the country experiences rolling blackouts that ensure cities come to a crawl. Most developed countries do not have these issues, but a lack of funding or care could easily lead to issues of grid failure in any Western nation.
An Electromagnetic Pulse, otherwise called an EMP, is a future threat to any modern-day power grid. An EMP is a burst of radiation that is detonated at a high altitude that interacts with the Earth’s magnetic field and atmosphere which can lead to widespread issues. Communications would the be the first thing to go, as any connection to satellites would be impossible. Further to this, an EMP would lead to a powerful electrical current that would make its way to the ground, causing severe shocks to electrical infrastructure and electronic devices that would sustain major damage or simply be destroyed. These kinds of weapons have not been deployed in the world yet, but have been developed past the testing phase. It was estimated in a 2008 Congressional report that an EMP detonated in the DC-Baltimore corridor that damages 10% of communication systems and 20% of electronic devices would inflict up to a $3 4billion dollar loss, and take a month to recover from.
Otherwise called a solar event, a solar flare is a natural threat that we have yet to see the full effects of on mass. Solar flares are the remnants of a solar storm which sends a large amount of radiation towards the Earth from the Sun. This radiation has a similar effect as an EMP attack but on mass. The last recorded major solar flare to hit the Earth happened in 1989, where Hydro Quebec in Canada experienced a full grid failure due to the radiation. This outage saw over three million people without electricity for nine hours. These flares are unpredictable, and according to many leading scientists would have a greater effect on a developed nation than an organized EMP attack.
So, what now, well for those who are charged with defending our power grids, it means that the work never stops. Countries such as Germany, Canada and Sweden have been leaders in producing more robust power grids to better prepare themselves for issues. Japan, for instance, has created a backup system that will keep the lights on, even if one of their main plants goes down. The key to power grids is redundancy and the quicker nations realize this, the easier it will be to react to a current or future threat.
Safeguarding the grid
Improvements to the electric grid in order to reinforce and safeguard it are expensive. A cost-effective and scalable solution could lay in electric vehicle technology. During the 2011 tsunami and earthquake in Japan, rolling blackouts prompted many hybrid owners to use the auxiliary AC plugs available in their cars (but not sold on United States models) as a source of emergency energy, essentially turning them into generators. This disaster prompted Mitsubishi Motors sought to make electricity from its i-MiEV readily available to power more homes. The result of this thinking was the MiEV Power Box. The power box is the size of two shoe boxes, weighing almost 25 pounds and can be placed in the trunk of a car to ensure electricity is available at any moment. Nissan also created a vehicle to grid system for their LEAF electric vehicle. In a test and demonstration, the LEAF to Home V2G system powered dealership showrooms over several months. Systems were also donated to each of Japan’s 47 prefectures for use at local rest areas. An office building was also powered by a fleet of six LEAF electric vehicles.
Following the impressive display of vehicle to grid systems in Japan, various automotive and utility companies around the world endeavored to create their own vehicle to grid technology. In addition to creating smart systems which are capable of power entire households in the event of a grid outage, brownouts or disaster, vehicle to grid technology could help the grid on a daily basis. Electric vehicle batteries can also provide voltage support, offset peak energy costs, and avoid service interruptions. Customers could experience lower electricity bills or even possibly make money as a result of selling power back to the grid.
There are, as with any new technology, a number of issues to overcome before roll-out. First, the widespread adoption of electric vehicles for sufficient grid coverage and local grid support. Second, the management of electric vehicle charging through smart charging systems to ensure load balancing and proper resource management. The development of decentralized micro-grids with renewable energy generation such as solar panels. Finally the use of electric vehicles and home battery banks for surplus energy storage and voltage support discharge system. Vehicle to grid technology could be the solution our grid needs to improve security, resilience, and efficiency.