Would the United States Survive a Cyberattack-Induced Blackout?

U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta asked how long localities should plan to be without power in the event of an attack, and discovered it could be up to several weeks.

by Bill O'Boyle, The Times-Leader (Wilkes-Barre, Pa.) / April 19, 2016

(TNS) -- U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta, R-Hazleton, recently examined how well prepared the United States is for a cyber-attack on the electrical grid.

The sub-committee heard testimony that states and localities should be prepared to face weeks, rather than days, of power outages following such an assault.

Barletta chaired a subcommittee hearing for the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee titled: “Blackout! Are We Prepared to Manage the Aftermath of a Cyber-Attack or Other Failure of the Electrical Grid?”

Barletta’s subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings and Emergency Management heard from government witnesses and electric utilities, who said that preparations have been made, but the threat from terrorists continues to evolve.

Among the utilities represented at the hearing were PPL Corporation and Claverack Rural Electric Cooperative.

“State and local governments, who are on the ground, will be the first ones charged with the protection of people and property,” Barletta said. “Whether it is a Category 5 hurricane hitting Miami or an 8.0 earthquake in Los Angeles, the federal government has realistic estimates or scenarios for states to plan. The federal government does not have this basic planning scenario for a cyber threat to the power system and there is a huge disparity in what different groups think is a potential scenario for which states and local governments should prepare.”

Leaders of federal agencies tasked with preparation and response said the threat is evolving and they are working to anticipate and respond to potential scenarios. Barletta asked how long localities should plan to be without power in the event of an attack, and the answer was clear.

“Planning needs to be measured in weeks, particularly if there’s damage to infrastructure,” said Craig Fugate, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “With cyber, we have seen restoration potentially very quickly if there’s not physical damage. But if you do have damage to things like very large transformers or generator capacity, that will extend it.”

The electric utility representatives testified they are aware of the changing risks of a potential cyber-attack on the U.S. power grid and they continue to make preparations.

William H. Spence, chairman, president and chief executive officer of PPL Corporation, which serves 10 million customers in the United Kingdom and U.S., including Pennsylvania, said PPL and the broader electric power industry are committed to protecting the nation’s power grid from threats of all types.

“This commitment did not arise in the face of new, modern threats; it is a shared commitment that is deeply rooted in the fabric of the industry,” Spence said. “We have made, and continue to make, significant investments in tools, technology and people to strengthen our defensive capabilities and ensure grid reliability and resiliency.”

In particular, Spence said, utility companies recognize cyber threats are persistent and evolving.

“Even as we enhance our responses to meet the rising threats, there is no way to fully guarantee a breach will not occur,” Spence said. “As such, we plan and drill regularly to ensure we can respond and recover quickly and effectively should an emergency arise.”

Following the hearing, Barletta indicated he had received “at least an estimated answer” to the broad question of how long portions of the national electrical grid could be expected to be down.

This article was editted for length

©2016 The Times Leader (Wilkes-Barre, Pa.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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