Terrorists could knock US electricity grid out for 1.5 years, but more solar power could help protect it

power lines security
CC BY-SA 2.0 Oran Viriyincy

The idea that the US electricity grid could be knocked out for 1.5 years is a bit shocking. But that's what the agency in charge of protecting it has revealed.

It may have all gone under the radar and unnoticed, but someone at the Wall Street Journal took notice of a number of warnings put forth last year by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (following an attempted "terrorist attack" on a California substation) and recently wrote up a story about the matter.

The essence of the risk was pretty concisely put forth by FERC officials: “Destroy nine interconnection substations and a transformer manufacturer and the entire United States grid would be down for at least 18 months, probably longer.” (Note that many substations are protected only by fences and cameras.)

But the Wall Street Journal dug in a bit more than the FERC reports had in order to bring to the public's eyes how terrorists could knock out the US electricity grid for a whopping 1.5 years. Also, who reads FERC reports?

While an 18-month electricity-free US would be energy efficiency on steroids and help with global warming, we all know that steroids aren't so good in the long term... or even the short term. The havoc, destruction, and harm to humans and other living beings that would come from such a situation are unfathomable.

Unsurprisingly, FERC officials were none-too-happy with the Wall Street Journal publishing its fairly detailed summary of how to knock out the grid.

"Today’s publication by The Wall Street Journal of sensitive information about the grid undermines the careful work done by professionals who dedicate their careers to providing the American people with a reliable and secure grid," acting Chairman Cheryl A. LaFleur wrote in a statement. "The Wall Street Journal has appropriately declined to identify by name particularly critical substations throughout the country. Nonetheless, the publication of other sensitive information is highly irresponsible. While there may be value in a general discussion of the steps we take to keep the grid safe, the publication of sensitive material about the grid crosses the line from transparency to irresponsibility, and gives those who would do us harm a roadmap to achieve malicious designs. The American people deserve better."

It's hard to argue with that, but it's also a good idea to point out that the American people really deserve a better, more secure grid.

In the face of all of this, I think it's very important to highlight the fact that a lot more solar power would increase grid security tremendously. This knowledge is nothing new. The US military has known and focused on this point for years. Nonetheless, it's an important benefit of solar (and also wind power, by the way) that seldom gets mentioned.

Distributed power sources offer a safer spreading out of risk, so to speak. Developing more distributed power sources creates a lot of resilience in the grid, and decreases the possibility that a huge portion of the power supply can be knocked out in one quick swoop. If you knock out a major nuclear or coal power plant, that results in a cascading effect in the grid, which can get really out of hand if other key, centralized elements are also shut down. Knocking out a relatively small solar farm or wind farm won't have such a concerning effect, and it's quite hard to knock out a bunch of them. Rooftop solar is even more distributed and brings even more grid security.

Your crazy uncle might not "get" that climate change is the greatest threat human civilization has ever faced, but he's got to like the idea of protecting the entire US electricity network from a potential terrorist attack, right? And doing so, none the less, with an electricity source not imported from any other country, only from the sun that rises and sets more reliably than just about anything else in our lives, is another bonus.

Perhaps we should push the "solar power increases grid security" memo a lot more, and maybe also redirect some of our immense national security budget towards deployment of rooftop solar power systems.

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