Vulnerability of National Power Grids to Electromagnetic Threats: Domestic and International Perspectives

By Schnurr, Avi | Energy Law Journal, January 1, 2013 | Go to article overview

Vulnerability of National Power Grids to Electromagnetic Threats: Domestic and International Perspectives


Schnurr, Avi, Energy Law Journal


Synopsis: Rapid evolution of the national power grid and the bulk power system in size, scope, technology, and structural complexity has been accompanied by a substantial increase in sensitivity to electromagnetic disturbances, both natural and malicious. This increasing sensitivity will be further exacerbated by extensive grid renovation in the next ten to twenty years. When combined with new evidence of infrequent but Severe Space Weather events and with rising concerns from international political instabilities and proliferation trends, this expanding sensitivity has introduced a new dimension of risk to power grid reliability and security. This article, following a technical and historical summary, reviews some of the fundamental electromagnetic threat (e-threat) issues and complexities being considered by policy makers and regulators, and summarizes grid hardening options. This article explores unique challenges associated with an issue which affects many government functions, highlighting perspectives expressed by different agencies in the United States and allied governments. The article concludes with a short menu of regulatory considerations and industry-initiative measures that could help address e-threat concerns.

I. INTRODUCTION

A. Overview

1. The Critical Role of Power Grids in Modern Societies

Of all the basic utilities and infrastructures essential for the functioning of modern society, the power grid system has become, by far, the most critical.

Throughout history, societies depended on co-located, independent producers for their most fundamental resources, and in the early days of electric power the situation was no different. Today, after nearly a century of living with an integrated national power grid delivering reliable, easily available electric power, our homes, factories, social institutions, and the basic tools of commerce cannot survive without it. In the modern world, national growth is paced by the rate of cost effective development of the power grid.

This revolutionary change has led to unprecedented growth in the nation's integrated electric grid. Over the last few decades the electricity sector has experienced massive growth while taking advantage of new technology to limit costs, as power companies systematically replaced armies of electrical engineers with Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA)1 computer control systems; planned and implemented smart equipment innovation at generating stations, power line substations, and homes; and moved power over continental distances using ever higher voltage Extra High Voltage (EHV) transformers and longer transmission lines.2 Today, it is fair to view the nation as spanned by three, enormous, highly organic power systems with power generation and use typically separated by huge distances, made possible by a grid of long, high voltage transmission lines overlaid by layers of ubiquitous computer control networks.

2. Protecting the Power Grids: The Role of Regulatory Institutions

In developed countries, the importance of the nationwide, organic power grid, and the consequent potential for highly leveraged negative impact associated with losses of essential utilities and services, almost invariably results in regulatory structures which attempt to manage such risks. Bulk power systems, broadly recognized as the foundation for most or all other essential utilities and services, are subject to such regulatory control.

In the United States this control is implemented at both the federal and state levels. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) has authority to impose mandatory reliability standards, working through the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC), the Congressionally-mandated Electric Reliability Organization (ERO), which develops and enforces compliance standards and applies penalties.3 The individual states then maintain their own regulatory utility commissions - governing bodies that regulate the rates and services of local power companies. …

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Vulnerability of National Power Grids to Electromagnetic Threats: Domestic and International Perspectives
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