Homeland Security and Public Safety

Threat of Massive Grid Shutdown Increasing in Face of Disasters

The nation's aging, vulnerable power grid and the threat of natural disasters and terrorist activity make a long-term collapse that could leave millions of Americans in the dark a growing likelihood.

The nation's aging, vulnerable power grid and the threat of natural disasters and terrorist activity make a long-term collapse that could leave millions of Americans in the dark a growing likelihood. — To experts, it's not if, it's when. — Parts of the nation's system have gone down. — In 2003, human error and a computer bug plunged 50 million people into darkness for up to two days after high voltage lines brushed against foliage in Northern Ohio. Multiple interconnected systems went down as one failure led to another in a cascade of collapse that sparked about $6 billion in economic damages in the northern U.S. and Canada. Eleven deaths were attributed in part to the failure. — No system is immune.

"The sky is not falling, but we're not bulletproof," says Massoud Amin, director of the Technological Leadership Institute and professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Minnesota. Aminalso is chairman of the Smart Grid Newsletter for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

The nation's power grid problems are fixable, he says, but that would require a change in culture in the utilities industry, which is more focused on short-term goals and scrimps on research and development. It also would require policy changes at top levels of government and a broader view of a segmented industry.

"The solution deals with policy and technology and we can do it," he says. "We need to. We can and we must do this if we are going to remain an economic superpower. Bottom line is that this is not something to pass on to the next generation."

Efforts to prevent or mitigate a major breakdown are under way, including in Colorado.

At Fort Carson and the U.S. Northern Command, engineers and experts work on SPIDERS, a mini-electric grid backup system that will kick in if the bigger grid collapses for mission-critical structures.

It's in its infancy, but the project passed key tests in September and October at Fort Carson.

In El Paso County, Commissioner Peggy Littleton works on "Lighthouse," a network of community communication hubs that would be activated in the event of a major power-grid killing catastrophe or attack. She got the idea from a similar program in Seattle.

Her work has drawn interest from Denver and state officials, FEMA and area military bases.

The week of Nov. 11, Canada, the United States and Mexico took part in the largest-ever emergency drill simulating terrorist and cyberattacks on power grids called GridEx II. The massive exercise includes more than 150 companies, organizations and key business executives, antiterrorism experts, government officials and thousands of utilities employees.

Most recently, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti on Oct. 30 signed an executive directive creating a Cyber Intrusion Command Center to help protect that city's computerized infrastructure against attacks from hackers and cyberterrorists.

The center will provide "a rapid reaction force to cyberattacks," Garcetti says in a news release. "Today, our traffic lights, our routing system for trash pick-up, and so much more are electronic. Cybersecurity means protecting the basic services at the core of city government, and it means protecting our critical infrastructure like our port and airport, which we know are top targets."

Warns the mayor's directive: "It is difficult to overemphasize the significance of cyber threats."

'A matter of time'

Threats include cyberterrorism, extreme weather and natural disaster. Thousands of cyberattacks hit power grids in the United States every day. Also, the sun is in a violent, 11-year cycle of increased activity, belching out turbulent storms that impact Earth. And, in Colorado, catastrophes such as wildfires and flooding have reached historic highs.

In the most recent spate of flooding, an entire community in northwest Colorado was cut off from the rest of the state by washed out roads and massive flooding.

At a recent Reuters summit on cyberterrorism, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers said the only thing holding terrorists back from launching a massive cyberattack on U.S. infrastructure is that they don't have the ability. If a terrorist group finds out how to do it, he said, "it's a game changer. My concern is it's just a matter of time."

It might not take much.

Studies show that the nation's grid system is failing with growing frequency. From 1965 through 2009, there were 57 major grid failures in the United States and Canada, according to a study by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, a trade organization. Of those, 41 were in the U.S. and 14 in Canada and two were shared. Each failure affected at least 30,000 people.

The report concludes that "incidents of major power outages have been increasing everywhere, especially over the last 20 years." From 1965 to 1988, there were three major breakdowns, the study says. From 2000 to 2005, there were 11 and from 2006 through 2009, there were 33. Most of those failures were weather related.

Experts these days, however, aren't just concerned about weather on earth. Space weather also is drawing concern.

A solar storm or flare that cooks computer chips "could happen," says Capt. Jim Terbush, with NorthCom Science and Technology Directorate Innovations and Experimentation. "That's not an unrealistic sort of threat."

It's a monstrous threat to everyday life because virtually everything — cars, cellphones, computers, traffic signals, airplanes, water systems — run on computer-chip technology. And if they're fried by a solar storm, everything dies.

Evaluating threats is part of the mission at NorthCom. Terbush does it every day. "We have to be aware of all kinds of threats," he says. "We have some no-fail missions for which 'the power is off' is no excuse."

Physical terrorist attacks also are an ever-present threat and El Paso County is fertile territory for them, says Littleton. It's home to NORAD, Schriever Air Force Base, Peterson Air Force Base, the Air Force Academy and Fort Carson.

Major Department of Defense contractors with a Colorado Springs presence include behemoths such as Lockheed Martin Corp., Raytheon Co. and Northrup Grumman Corp. It's a region rife with secrets and people with top security clearances.

"We have some high value targets right here in Colorado Springs, which makes us prosperous, but also makes us vulnerable," says Lorin Schroeder, emergency preparedness officer for Penrose-St. Francis Health Services in Colorado Springs. Schroeder, an experienced HAM radio operator, is a volunteer member of Lighthouse. His membership is not related to the hospital.