September 11th was a wake-up call. Our national infrastructures are more vulnerable than we thought. One of the most critical infrastructures is the electric power grid. The grid has been designed to minimize disturbances caused by natural hazards, but it is susceptible to physical and electronic attacks. Redundancy is built into the grid, but only from a capacity standpoint. The contingencies in the grid that provide alternate sources of power are independent of route, location, and facility access. Despite these vulnerabilities, few utilities have implemented protection measures to tighten security or deter attack.

As 9-11 reminded us, the greatest threat is physical attack. A person hell-bent on wreaking havoc could do considerable damage to the power grid. In 1998, the National Security Telecommunications Advisory Committee (NSTAC) performed an electric power risk assessment. The findings noted that transformers, microwave communication towers, and transmission substations can often be found in isolated, unpopulated areas. This is also true for multiple-circuit transmission corridors. These locations may be difficult or impossible to secure.

The NSTAC assessment mentions some possible methods of attack, including the use of pipe bombs and high-powered rifles — small, easily obtainable devices. An individual with a basic understanding of power systems and one of these weapons could shut down a substation or bring down a transmission structure. It doesn't take much imagination to think of other ways for someone to severely cripple the electric grid.

The assessment also addresses the possibility of electronic attacks. Committee members could find no outages caused by electronic intrusion, but they did find that a majority of utility members believe an attack causing widespread disruption in excess of 24 hours is feasible.

According to Joe Weiss, technical manager of EPRI's Enterprise Infrastructure Security, many existing monitoring and control systems are vulnerable because they're legacy systems designed for functionality rather than security. Weiss also cites a number of other factors that increase the risk of outside intrusion, including:

  • The migration from stand-alone data acquisition systems to Internet-based, real-time monitoring and control.
  • Deregulation and the breakup of the vertical utility, which requires more data transfer between operating units and can lead to erroneous data or the loss of confidential information.
  • The push for more open systems that interface with customer energy management systems and smart field devices.

Power reliability is critical to everyday business and our nation's economy. We must take preventive measures to better secure our facilities. I believe that state regulators should require each utility to conduct regular risk assessments that identify weak areas in their existing systems and address future needs. These assessments should consider the grid's design, location, and security access — and be kept confidential. Of course, if high-risk areas are found, prudent measures should be taken immediately. Let's not wait for trouble to arrive before we take action.