US Electricity System in Regulatory and Terrorist Crosshairs

US Electricity System in Regulatory and Terrorist Crosshairs
March 25, 2014

Paul Driessen

Paul Driessen is a senior policy advisor with the Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow and... (read full bio)

Government agencies are forcing us to spend countless billions on illusory risks and anti-fossil fuel mandates, while ignoring real threats to our livelihoods, living standards and lives.

America runs on electricity. Our lights, refrigerators, air conditioners and furnace controls, computers and internet, social media, radios and televisions, banks and ATMs, cell phone chargers and transmitters, electric cars and gasoline pumps, hospitals and schools, offices, factories, refineries, farms and water purification systems – all run on electricity. 68% is generated by fossil fuels, 20% by nuclear and 7% by hydropower.

Electricity reaches its billions of destinations through a complex, interconnected system of power lines, substations and transformers called the power grid. The entire United States is divided into just three separate grid segments: East, West and Texas

Without abundant, reliable, affordable electricity, America would sink into Third World status. If our electricity were cut off for a prolonged period, the nation would collapse into survivalist chaos.

And yet President Obama insists that electricity prices must “necessarily skyrocket” and the United States must be “a global leader in the fight against climate change.” Secretary of State John Kerry calls climate change “the world's most fearsome weapon of mass destruction.” EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy says there is “no more urgent threat to public health than climate change.”

In response, using faulty computer models and secretive pseudo-science, federal agencies are imposing “social cost of carbon” analyses, carbon dioxide emission limits and “carbon capture and storage” standards. They are implementing stringent pollution, drilling, mining and other regulations – and requiring costly power grid upgrades to accommodate expensive, unreliable, intermittent electricity from wind and solar installations. They are compelling the early closure of efficient, low-cost coal-fired power plants, with many remaining years of productive life, thereby raising electricity prices for businesses and families, and forcing ratepayers to pay for mothballed plants and new ones to replace them.

They are spending 20 billion taxpayer dollars a year just on climate change initiatives, while forcing the electric power industry to spend billions of dollars every year to comply with a plethora of rules. The Heritage Foundation calculates that EPA’s proposed climate regulations alone will cost our economy $2.2 trillion between 2015 and 2038.

Meanwhile, the Obama Administration is ignoring real threats.

On April 16, 2013, saboteurs attacked a power substation near San Jose, California, the Wall Street Journal reported on February 5. They cut fiber optic cables in a manner designed to maximize repair time and shot up 17 transformers, causing them to leak their oil coolant, overheat and fail.

It took them less than an hour, after which they disappeared into the night, leaving no fingerprints on more than 100 cartridges. It took 27 days to get the substation back online. Thankfully, grid operators were able to reroute power and avoid blackouts. Otherwise we could have repeated the 2003 transformer failure that triggered a cascading blackout affecting 50 million people in the eastern USA and Canada.

Former Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) director Jon Wellinghoff called the attack “purposeful, extremely well planned and executed by professionals who had expert training.”  Other utility experts said it could have been a “dress rehearsal” for much bigger operation. One called it “preparation for an act of war,” in which a few terrorists with cheap bolt cutters and bullets unleash a real weapon of mass destruction – not an imaginary one – as calamitous as what an electromagnetic pulse or hacker-initiated computer system meltdown could inflict.

Many substations are in rural areas, with no human staff, protected only by cameras and chain-link fences. On a hot summer day, experts fear, by destroying or disabling a dozen carefully chosen interconnection substations and transformers, terrorists could set off cascading blackouts, taking down much of the US or even North American power grid for an extended period.

Communications, jobs, food, fuel, safe drinking water and other benefits of modern civilization would quickly disappear. The United States could be plunged into darkness, chaos, crime, anarchy and widespread deaths. Even smaller, less coordinated attacks could be devastating across entire regions.

Replacing these huge, 40-ton, high-voltage, multi-million-dollar transformers could take weeks, months, a year or more, depending on many factors. Few American companies make the big transformers, and those factories could be affected by the blackout. Replacing one behemoth recently took nearly two years and a 7,000-mile journey from Korea. Bringing one of these monsters in on rush basis could require a jumbo cargo plane that only one country builds: Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

Who could launch such an act of war? Al Qaeda, Iran and North Korea certainly come to mind. Even Mexican drug cartels are suspects, after an attack on power installations in Mexico’s Michoacan State.

Nevertheless, within weeks of the first WSJ article, Russia invaded Crimea, Secretary Kerry said the “aggression” would bring “serious repercussions,” President Obama worked on his short game and March Madness “bracketology,” and 28 Senate Democrats held an all-night gabfest to rant and obsess about – climate change! None of them mentioned the threat of terrorist attacks on our grid and nation. 

Just as maddening, responsibility for protecting the grid is apparently not in the job description of any US government agency. Homeland Security says it is the utility industry’s job, and FERC recently gave the industry until early June 2014 to propose new standards for securing critical facilities against threats of this nature and magnitude.

Thankfully, the industry is taking the challenge very seriously and is examining ways to improve both site security and the equipment replacement process. Mr. Wellinghoff says “there are probably less than 100 critical high-voltage substations that need to be protected from physical attack. It is neither a monumental task, nor would it take an inordinate sum of money to do so.”

Defining “inordinate” is not easy, however, especially in the context of other regulatory demands. Utilities will have to find the money, while also spending billions to comply with countless environmental rules of dubious value. The Congressional EMP Commission estimates the cost of hardening the national grid will be about $2 billion. But all the necessary precautions will likely run into the tens of billions.

Virginia’s Dominion Resources alone plans to spent up to $500 million over the next seven years to harden its facilities, the WSJ reports. Multiply that and 24/7/365 monitoring times numerous other utility companies, facilities and weak points, and the price tag is significant. But the Obama Administration and many members of Congress are intent on spending billions for climate change “prevention” and health and environmental rules that will bring minuscule benefits, because the risks are exaggerated to illusory.

Responsible federal and state legislators, utility companies and citizen groups need to make protecting America’s electrical transmission system and civilization against terror attacks a high priority – and a central topic in the 2014 campaign debates and elections.

If others want to make “dangerous manmade climate change” their central them, voters will decide which issues truly merit our uppermost attention.

 

By Paul Driessen and Roger Bezdek

Paul Driessen

Paul Driessen is a senior policy advisor with the Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow and... (read full bio)