Secure the Grid Now
Threats to our security dominate today’s headlines — terrorist attacks on innocent people, cyberattacks on airlines and nuclear plants, missiles being launched by North Korea, and Russian malware designed specifically to disable key infrastructure, to name a few. But a major internal threat to the health and prosperity of the United States is sitting right out in the open, visible to every citizen every day: our electricity system, known as the grid. This critical national asset is vulnerable to a wide variety of clear and present threats.
The grid is a complex system of power plants, wires, poles, transformers, and cables that deliver our nation’s lifeblood — electricity — to hundreds of millions of homes, businesses, and critical service organizations every minute, every day. Much of the grid sits above ground, built in piecemeal fashion over the last 100 years, at risk to the intentions of man and the forces of nature. The system works quite well under normal circumstances. But in today’s perilous world, where normal seems to change every day, our electrical grid is not as well-protected, robust, or resilient as it should be.
This situation is well-documented. In fact, every U.S. President since 1990 has acknowledged that U.S. infrastructure risks are high and that the threats are real; and each has pledged to address the looming potential risks. Unfortunately, little has changed. According to March 2017 report on U.S. infrastructure risks from MIT’s Center for International Studies:
Relative to the increased resources and sophistication of criminal and nation-state attackers, it is doubtful that the defense has improved at all. Attacks are still easy and cheap to launch and difficult and expensive to defend against.
Like those of the recent past, the new administration has acknowledged the severity of the situation. President Trump even issued an executive order on cybersecurity threats, including threats our electrical infrastructure. A report is now due from two cabinet agencies in less than 60 days and will surely verify what is already documented: System vulnerabilities and potential threats are well known; and regardless of what type of major grid disruption occurs — whether cyber, physical, or natural — the impact could be devastating.
In fairness, many entities have been working to make grid improvements, from the nation’s electric utilities, which own and maintain much of the grid, to system operators who oversee the generation and flow of electricity across the nation, to state and federal regulatory agencies and the Departments of Energy and Homeland Security. But those efforts are not well coordinated or funded on a national scale and, absent cohesive, focused leadership, they will likely only achieve limited success over an extended period of time.
Most importantly, those efforts do not identify appropriate funding mechanisms to pay for what must be done to protect adequately the backbone of our society and economy. Establishing a comprehensive plan for funding major electric grid improvements must be a top priority in any infrastructure legislation.
Improving the grid also supports and ensures resilience in other key infrastructure areas, such as transportation, air traffic, finance, communications, healthcare, technology integration, and energy development. All of these rely on an adequate and reliable supply of electricity. Simply put, our nation and our economy cannot function without electricity.
After more than 25 years of presidential acknowledgement, the time for comprehensive, coordinated action to improve the grid is now. With the same sense of urgency and focus that led our government to put a man on the moon, we must begin today to make our national electrical grid less vulnerable, more robust and more resilient.
This will require four components:
1. A thorough and candid assessment of exactly where improvements and upgrades are needed, in order of priority, to be completed as soon as possible.
2. Development of a collective national plan, driven by Congress and the administration, in partnership with the full range of infrastructure entities, to drive key short- and long-term grid improvements.
3. Regulatory reform, including the North American Electric Reliability Corporation’s establishment of improved and consistent standards for the North American bulk power system adequate to the threats we face.
4. Identification of public and private funding mechanisms to raise the necessary financing in an equitable manner.
Advances in technology have brought significant improvements in electrical efficiency in the last decade. We must continue to use that spirit of innovation not only to extract ever more energy from every kilowatt of power produced, but also to drive electric grid improvements that significantly reduce vulnerabilities. We have the technical prowess to develop solutions.
The timing is critical. As the great military strategist Gen. Douglas MacArthur said, “The history of failure in war, or in any other human endeavor, can be summed up in two words: ‘too late.’” On this critical endeavor — with real threats, favorable public opinion, and the necessary technology at our disposal — there is no excuse for acting too late.
James Cunningham, a former senior electric utility industry executive, is Executive Director of Protect Our Power, a not-for-profit organization seeking to build consensus among key stakeholders, decision-makers and public policy influencers to launch a coordinated, comprehensive and adequately funded effort to make the nation’s electric grid more resilient and more resistant to all external threats.