Power cut in Manhatten

Resilience of US electricity grid scrutinised by committee

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A report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, mandated by Congress, argues that the US electricity grid is vulnerable to attacks, failures and disasters, and that efforts must be made to improve its ability to withstand these challenges.

The grid is an intricate, vital system transmitting generated electricity from power plants to homes and factories. Due to its complexity, it is vulnerable to threats such as cyber attacks, physical attacks, natural disasters and major operational errors. These could result in long-term outrages that affect huge areas and cost billions of dollars, even leading to loss of life.

“Outrages of this scale leave millions of customers without power, resulting in economic damages estimated in the billions of dollars, posing serious threats to health and public safety, and also potentially compromising national security,” said Professor M Granger Morgan, an engineer at Carnegie Mellon University who chaired the committee.

“Outages caused by natural disasters are more common than one might think. While the US has not been subject to a large physical assault or cyber attack, both pose serious and growing risks.”

Ukraine has suffered numerous cyber attacks on its power grid, which have left hundreds of thousands of citizens without electricity since 2015. The widespread damage caused by these attacks has brought to the world’s attention the vulnerability of national power grids.

The difficulty of responding to such attacks is exacerbated by the US electricity grid having no single entity responsible for overseeing its operation or regulation. In order to improve security and resilience, the committee advised, the US Department of Energy and US Department of Homeland Security must coordinate with utility operators and regional and state agencies to prepare for emergencies, such as by running simulation exercises of cyber and physical attacks.

Attention should be given to developing technologies and strategies to minimise the chance of an outage, the committee suggested, and to reduce speed of recovery in emergencies. The many bodies responsible for the grid must be responsive to changing threats and how these may be addressed.

The committee called for increased public and private investment in resources to ensure that critical grid infrastructure is robust; for instance, through the development of reliable inventories of backup power needs and capabilities, and greater efforts towards maintain power for critical services like hospitals.

Networks of electricity users with a local source of supply – such as solar panels – could benefit by operating as an island during outages, the report suggested.

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