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Can America’s Power Grid Survive an Electromagnetic Attack?
Last month, federal agencies and utility executives held GridEx IV, a biennial event where officials responsible for hundreds of local utilities game out scenarios in which North America’s power grid could fail. Potential calamities both physical and cyber are reviewed, with participant responses analyzed to better prepare for any future attack.
This year, the event took on an added urgency given growing concern with a weapon straight out of the Cold War: an electromagnetic pulse, or EMP, emanating from a nuclear blast—specifically, one delivered by a North Korean missile or satellite detonated miles above the Earth. Though GridEx IV didn’t pose this exact scenario, industry experts concede there’s no clear plan to deal with it.
An EMP could damage electronic circuits over large areas, depending on the configuration of the weapon and how high it was detonated, though there’s disagreement over how effective such a tactic would be. Scientists also emphasize that a nuclear bomb that hits a ground target is much more worrisome. Nevertheless, with North Korea’s increasingly successful missile and warhead tests in mind, Congress moved to renew funding for the Commission to Assess the Threat to the U.S. from Electromagnetic Pulse Attack as part of the National Defense Authorization Act.
In September, the commission’s top officials warned lawmakers that the threat of an EMP attack from a rogue nation “becomes one of the few ways that such a country could inflict devastating damage to the U.S.”
GridEx IV participants said the use of an EMP, however improbable, has been very much on their radar. Lisa Barton, executive vice president of Columbus, Ohio-based American Electric Power Co.’s transmission unit, said the Electric Power Research Institute, an industry research arm, was analyzing the risk. An EPRI report published this week emphasized that widespread damage was indeed possible from such an attack.
“It’s certainly more about North Korea now,” said Rob Manning, vice president of transmission and distribution infrastructure for EPRI. “In the past it was more about multiple potential threats.”
The new challenge comes as the industry grapples with a host of costs tied to keeping the lights on in extreme weather, and bouncing back when there’s an outage. In the past five years, Superstorm Sandy, tornadoes, hurricanes and intense cold have all tested grids in unprecedented fashion. Regulators are seeking ways to improve reliability and resiliency, including a potential multibillion dollar payout to coal and nuclear generators to keep plants online as grids add gas, wind and solar.
John Norden, director of operations at ISO New England Inc., which manages a grid serving six states, said the industry is unprepared for a full-scale electromagnetic attack. The power industry doesn’t really have any standards or tools to handle “black sky events’’ such as an extreme cyber or EMP attack, or even conventional war, Norden said at a recent conference.
GridEx IV involved 6,300 participants from 450 organizations, including utilities, government agencies, financial services firms, telecommunications companies, and gas, water and supply chain industries, said Kimberly Mielcarek of the North American Electric Reliability Corp., a non-profit that develops standards for grid reliability and oversees the excercise. Cybersecurity has grown to rival physical infrastructure attacks as a focus of the event, and a new scenario introduced this year involved false reports, or “fake news.” But the best experience utilities have had in preparing for an EMP is tied to a natural phenomenon: solar flares.
While astronomers can see solar events, such as a coronal mass ejection, they don’t have a true picture of its magnitude until it’s about 90 minutes from Earth. The U.S. Space Weather Prediction Center will issue solar storm warnings in anticipation of these events. Grids are alerted to dangerous solar activity and geomagnetic storm watches are called. But with so little time to react, hardening networks ahead of time is more practical.
PJM Interconnection LLC, operator of the power grid serving one-fifth of America's population, has a lot of experience protecting systems against solar activity. PJM has also been working with transmission owners to protect against other threats, many of which have two specific characteristics: low probability and high potential for catastrophe, said Mike Bryson, vice president of operations for the Valley Forge, Pennsylvania-based operator. An EMP is one of them.
Power companies have made a few moves to protect against electromagnetic interference. Some grid operators and transmission infrastructure owners are putting in place so-called Faraday enclosures, shields of conductive material used to protect electronic equipment and facilities. Utilities have also started stockpiling spare parts to replace any that are damaged by an EMP event, storms or other disasters.
“I don’t think we have an illusion we will prevent it,” Bryson said in an interview. “That’s really the government’s job.”
During the Cold War, a blast and EMP high over the U.S., either on its own or as a prelude to a first strike by the Soviet Union, was seen as a very real threat. But back then, priority was given to hardening military infrastructure to maintain the promise of retaliation. Duke Energy Corp., one of the country’s largest utility owners, has been working with EPRI to study its threat to civilian infrastructure. Lee Mazzocchi, Duke’s senior vice president of grid solutions, said “we really want to use science and research to validate if and how much an EMP threat there could be.”
Jon Rogers, a scientist at Sandia National Laboratories, has been studying the threat since the 1990s. The lab has been looking at how automated control systems could help systems recover. Rogers noted that the grid already has lightning surge arrestors to protect against strikes, which could potentially be useful in case of an EMP. “There are open questions,” he said.
“Back in the Cold War, we worried about massive exchanges at the time with the Soviet bloc,” Rogers said. “There seems to be reduced concern about that and increased concern about a single or smaller surges and what that could mean.” Targeted attacks on specific elements of infrastructure are seen as more likely, including “using an EMP without going nuclear,” added Jeff Engle, vice president of government and legal affairs for United Data Technologies, a security services firm.
“EMP technology itself has been advancing with devices becoming smaller, more effective,” said Engle, who declined to give specific examples. Along these lines, the industry’s stance has been to prepare for less-intense EMPs from irregular lightning strikes, solar flares—and possibly localized attacks.
For EMPs resulting from nuclear blasts, the Edison Electric Institute, an industry group, said the possible effects aren’t fully understood and proposed fixes remain unproven and impractical.
“Other sectors of the economy likely will be affected by a nuclear EMP attack, including other critical infrastructure sectors upon which the electric sector depends,” the group said in a 2015 paper titled Electromagnetic Pulses (EMPs): Myths vs. Facts. “It makes little sense to protect the electric grid while ignoring these other critical infrastructure sectors.”
Still, the EPRI report paints a picture that’s hard to ignore. Simulations showed that detonating a nuclear weapon about 250 miles above the Earth using a 1.4 megaton bomb, almost 100 times more powerful than the one dropped on Hiroshima, would likely collapse voltage regionally, affecting several states but not the entire eastern or western networks. “None of the scenarios that were evaluated resulted in a nationwide grid collapse,” the report stated. Recovery time from a high-altitude EMP would depend on equipment damage, something the EPRI said it plans to study next year and “develop cost-effective options for mitigating.”
Richard Mroz, president of the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities, warned the cost of preventing widespread failures from an EMP would “be astronomical.” Placing transformers or a substations in shielded cages would cost hundreds of millions of dollars, he said, while protecting critical assets on a distribution system like New Jersey’s could reach into the billions of dollars.
“Managing that kind of threat right now—no one really has the resources to do that,” Mroz said.