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The Threats to and Importance of Our Electrical Grid

Thoughts on the situation we have moving forward.

My boss asked me to write up something about the importance of our electrical grid and how there are multiple vulnerabilities to its functioning. I’m doing a “twofer” and sharing it with you below.

Importance and Vulnerability of Our Electrical Grid

The provision of electrical energy is likely the most important critical infrastructure here in the 21st century. Everything and everyone — individuals, governments, businesses — require the support of a robust electrical grid that is functioning 24/7/365 year after year. Electricity reliability is a huge factor in our ability to function as a society.

The electrical grid is a complex network of providers and systems. There are energy generators, transmission of that energy and finally, a more complex distribution system of that energy to homes and buildings. When any portion of that system fails, the entire enterprise becomes nonfunctional.

We are seeing increasing pressures put upon our electrical grid. These pressures come from many different factors. One key measure is the impacts of climate change. This comes in the form of a higher frequency of severe weather events that either damage or destroy electrical components, or as we have seen in recent years, increasing drought and heat events. One challenges the ability to generate electrical power and the other places extreme peak demands during heat emergencies.

Alternatively, we are experiencing a huge growth in the demand for electrical power as the nation moves away from fossil fuels and adopts an “electricity first” choice for energy. It appears that at this point in time, the posture and readiness of all aspects of our electrical grid are not prepared to meet an imminent need for even more power due to the increasing electrification of our energy needs.

All of this needs to be taken into context that besides the above pressures, we have the threat of human-made hazards. One being the potential for physical attacks on the transmission and distribution portions of the grid that have played out in recent unsophisticated, but still destructive, attacks on substations. We live in an open society and attacks on components of the electrical grid are not only possible, but probable.

More importantly, there is the cybersecurity threat that is posed primarily by other nations that are known to have infiltrated our electrical grid control systems and could be poised to take actions that could cause significant and long-term outages due to manipulation of control systems that would cause physical damages to systems that would not be easily and quickly repairable.

Disaster exercises that examine not only the risks, but delve into the readiness of systems and the interdependencies of systems that allow the electrical grid to function, are useful and necessary. It is important that a broad approach be taken for who needs to be at the table for such exercises. While specific vulnerabilities should not be discussed, it is important to highlight the general nature of the risks being faced and call out the need for increased vigilance and actions to prevent or mitigate the threats to our grid.
Eric Holdeman is a contributing writer for Emergency Management magazine and is the former director of the King County, Wash., Office of Emergency Management.