The Terrorist Target in Your Backyard

Why the electric power grid is vulnerable and what you need to know about it

The United States electric power grid is comprised of more than 9,000 power generation plants which are interconnected by over 200,000 miles of high-voltage (HV) transmission lines. Substations located near power plants use large transformers to increase the voltage of the electricity moving across the network. Substations at the terminating end of transmission lines then use transformers to reduce voltage so the electricity can be distributed to customers. Many of these devices are in your backyard.

A typical electricity distribution substation.

All HV transformers are designed to withstand many types of natural threats such as those from lightning strikes, hurricanes, and unanticipated network power fluctuations. However, their design makes them vulnerable to other types of threats.

Because transformers generate a large amount of heat, they require constant cooling. This is accomplished by circulating oil through a radiator similar to those used in automobiles. In many types of transformers, both the oil reservoir and radiator are inadequately protected. This makes them susceptible to physical attacks like the one seen in Metcalf, California in 2013. In that attack, suspects used high-powered rifles to shoot holes in several transformers, causing them to leak coolant, overheat, and fail.

Once damaged, HV transformers are not easily replaced. One reason is that they are typically custom-built to unique specifications. According to a Congressional Research Service report, it can take between 5 and 20 months to build an HV transformer at a cost of between $2 and $7 million dollars. Replacement is further complicated by the fact that they are difficult to transport due to their size and weight.

While the failure of a single transformer could result in temporary service interruption, there is little threat of widespread cascading failures. The real threat is from multiple, simultaneous attacks intended to disable several HV transformers at the same time. Citing a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) analysis, the Wall Street Journal reported that there are approximately 30 “critical” transformer substations nationwide. If nine of those substations were attacked and their HV transformers destroyed, there could be a nationwide blackout for 18 months or longer. This could be accomplished with a cyber attack on control systems or through a coordinated physical attack using high-powered rifles similar to the Metcalf incident.

See something, say something.

So what can you do? The next time you are driving around town, pay attention and note the location of the HV transformers near you.

If you see anything or anyone suspicious in the vicinity of an HV transformer substation, alert your local or state police.

These agencies have been working closely with the power companies to mitigate this serious threat to our hometown security and will act quickly to protect this vital component of your community’s critical infrastructure.

Photo credits:
Siemens transformer:
See something, say something:

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