Terror and the Electric Grid

October 17, 2001

The Sept. 11 attacks should remind reporters of the vulnerability of the electric power supply system not just to terrorism, but to other natural and man-made disasters that could bring serious outages. While California's woes have focused media attention on generating capacity, bottlenecks in the grid of transmission lines are also a key issue.

Few today remember the outage of Nov. 9, 1965, which blacked out 30 million users in the Northeast. It led to many technical improvements in the grid and ultimately formation of the North American Electric Reliability Council. But deregulation has led to a new power environment that depends more than ever on transmission lines, and where many local utilities are losing their self-sufficiency. The wholesale power grid, which was not built for this much inter-dependence, is emerging as a weak link.

Power lines -- remote, spread-out, and undefended -- are vulnerable to terrorist attack. But the grid is perhaps equally vulnerable to a number of other man-made and natural disasters: hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, transportation accidents, fires, etc. One possible solution advanced by industry, more transmission lines, could require federal siting authority that Western states tend to oppose.

  • North American Electrical Reliability Council: Ellen P. Vancko (press contact), 609-452-8060.
  • Edison Electric InstitutePat McMurray, 202-508-5074.
  • The "Electric Power Risk Assessment," conducted by the Clinton White House's National Security Telecommunications Advisory Committee in 1997 looked at the vulnerability of the grid's electronic control system to hackers. It concluded that physical threats ranging from ice-storms to "amateur sharpshooters" were more worrisome. See the Executive Summary.
  • The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission announced Sept. 14, 2001, that it would approve applications for passing along to electric ratepayers "prudently incurred costs" for security upgrades. Will your local utility apply? FERC: Tamara Young-Allen, 202-208-0680.
  • The disaster potential from outages is most felt by crucial users. See, for example, EPA's Sept. 2001 "Chemical Accidents from Power Outages." What about your local hospitals, nursing homes, tall buildings, server farms, police and fire agencies, etc. Are they prepared?