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GUEST COLUMN: How safe is the U.S. power grid?

At any one time, the United States uses more than 400,000 megawatts of electricity. That’s a lot of power, and it takes a lot of non-stop work to keep it flowing. But how safe is America’s power grid from cyber attacks and other disruptions?

Cyber intrusions are no longer a theoretical possibility. In March, hackers succeeded in breaching a utility that serves portions of California, Utah, and Wyoming. The attack lasted 10 hours and disabled control systems for more than 500 megawatts of wind and solar power-enough generating capacity for several hundred thousand homes.

Fortunately, grid operators were able to maintain service throughout the attack. But a full-scale blackout isn’t an impossibility. In 2015, Russian hackers succeeded in knocking out electricity to several hundred thousand homes in Ukraine. Months after the attack, utility operators were still struggling to address the after-effects.

What’s troubling is that utilities and critical infrastructure connected to America’s electric grid remain vulnerable. That’s the consensus of more than 1,700 utility professionals surveyed recently. More than half expect a cyber attack on America’s critical infrastructure in the next 12 months.

While cyber attacks are a top concern, America’s power grid faces other limitations.

As the March intrusion demonstrated, wind and solar systems possess unique vulnerabilities. When wind turbines fail during periods of low wind, utilities must communicate rapidly with other grid operators to obtain fill-in electricity. But as the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) noted after the March attack, many utilities use internet systems that remain vulnerable to hackers. NERC is urging them to adopt layered defense arrangements and greater system redundancies.

There’s also pipeline safety. Over the past decade, the U.S. has eliminated many coal power plants while transitioning to greater dependence on natural gas. All of this gas is delivered from regional hubs through more than 300,000 miles of major pipelines. But spiking demand can thin the overall supply of gas. During last January’s “Polar Vortex,” families from Rhode island to Minnesota experienced problems when pipeline system pressure fell during peak use.

Grid reliability has already faced challenges in places like Texas and Chicago. Uncooperative weather meant wind turbines there failed to produce sufficient electricity. What if hackers used such conditions to launch an attack? Widespread power outages could result, putting lives at risk.

Washington needs to face these realistic threats to America’s power supply. The nation needs a balanced mix of fuel sources-everything from wind and solar to coal, nuclear, and natural gas-to maintain fuel diversity in the face of new challenges. And utilities must adopt sturdier defenses against potential cyber attacks. It’s critical to plan now for disruptions that may come down the road.

Terry Jarrett is an energy attorney and consultant who has served on both the board of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners and the Missouri Public Service Commission. He contributes regularly to LeadingLightEnergy.com.

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