I look forward to hearing your thoughts, suggestions or concerns regarding Operation Circuit Breaker. To see previous comments or to post your own, click on “Comments” immediately below this message.
Thanks, David Omick
Mr. Omick (David), Thank you for discussing such an important and often overlooked topic. Although I admire your work and understand the complexities of discussing security related shortfalls in an open forum; I believe all of your hard work will fall on deaf ears. I find that most Americans have become immune to taking action against anything that falls outside of their immediate sphere of influence. Some (not all) would rather listen to the conflicted diatribes which can be found on talk radio and cable news networks…all the while our politicians continue to distract everyone from their true intent (which is to support big business) by filling the heads of the clueless with all manner of hyperbole which only serves to ignite lower level passions but never fulfills the common sense approach to debate or problem solving. Anyone with a practical view of the world understands this country–if not the global community–is one natural and two man-made disasters away from returning to the stone age…So I salute your efforts, please keep up the good work.
I appreciate and agree with your response. I think another factor contributing to the general sense of powerlessness, inability to take action, etc., is the enormously increased complexity of the modern world. It’s a very recent experience in our evolutionary history and we seem poorly equipped to deal with it.
Again, thanks for your comments.
Here’s an email from transmission expert Marshall Magruder. –David
Thank you for letting me receive your outstanding website, very impressive and thorough!!
I have the same concerns and agree with your recommended solutions but I also have serious concerns about the additional vulnerabilities due to additional human-caused cyber sabotage and human and natural-caused EMP to all parts of our infrastructure, electricity, potable and sewage water, natural gas, liquid petroleum, etc. These are beyond the SunZia fiasco issues; however, they are real. Also, induced electricity from HV transmission lines through the ground impacts all parallel ferromagnetic natural gas, water, etc. pipelines and even above ground cattle fences, thus, they must also be separated from the electrical fields. An explosive danger exists if a natural gasline is also conducting electricity (it’s not very nice to blow up your home or apartment building when you turn on a gas burner).
There are some who I will pass your comments to (after deleting the addressees) by some who may have additional comments.
Again, thanks for a GREAT website,
Thank you for this important addition to the conversation regarding energy infrastructure and national security. You nail the real problem in the introduction: corporate control over the direction of energy policy and infrastructure. Beholden to immediate profits (greed), corporations are unlikely to respond with the radical change required to ensure the safety of their clients or the Nation’s security. Unfortunately, people respond more readily to cataclysm than reason, forethought, insight and the suggestion of preventative steps.
It would be an interesting exercise to calculate the number of roof top panels (and the amount of electricity they would generate), which could be installed for the equivalent amount of money being spent on just the transmission line. Sunzia (or some other enterprising energy company) could own the panels, reap the benefits of the electricity produced, and make our energy infrastructure safer. Oh, and they wouldn’t need to tear up any wild places to do it, either!
I agree that a cost comparison between new transmission line construction and rooftop solar installations is a good idea. It’s on my to-do list.
Thanks for your comments,
Thanks for bringing to light this very important issue. Just about everyone takes for granted the secuirty of our power grid. and few people realize just how vulnerable it is. Until we have progressed to a point where our power grid is obsolete, this will continue to be an issue.
Until that time, I think that as the power grid becomes increasingly important to the operations of our country, the power lines that make up that grid will become increasingly interesting to people who want to disrupt those operations. I think that you have done us a great service by pointing out just how easily our grid system can be disrupted, and also how power lines in remote locations are much more vulnerable to being sabotaged than are lines in high traffic areas. In all, I think that you have written an excellent set of articles that should raise a large red flag to the people whose business it is to protect our power distribution system.
Something that seems odd to me is that now, when there is the opportunity to move away from central power generation systems and toward more local systems to provide power to individual communities, we are instead building a large and more complex power grid that distributes power from large wind and solar generating facilities. This seems entirely backward to me.
Thanks again for your excellent work.
Thanks for your encouraging comments.
You raise a good point about our current opportunity to move away from the model of centralized generation and long-distance transmission. It is indeed odd and backward that investments in electric infrastructure continue to be primarily in the direction of that antiquated and inherently vulnerable model.
Although I have no doubt that, “the people whose business it is to protect our power distribution system” are aware of those vulnerabilities, I expect they are up against powerful economic and political interests as well as the inertia of business-as-usual. Hopefully, by raising public awareness of the centralized model’s indefensible vulnerabilities, we can help to influence movement toward a less vulnerable and more sustainable model. That seems far more prudent than waiting for a catastrophic event to someday force the issue.
Thank you for an Excellent presentation on an important problem. I had heard on Coast to Coast radio about possible events that would also be disruptive to our power grid, namely a Solar flare or an EMP sent from an enemy. Some one had also estimated that the present power generation/transformer system could be protected for $1 Billion. Considering the investment we’d be protecting and the terrible consequences of downtime, one could only hope that Congress would see fit to protect our power generation system.
And you are spot on, find ways to take care of yourself, be flexible, just in case.
Dear Mr. Omick: Thank you for your hard work on this difficult topic. You are so right that the power transmission utilities have no incentive to move beyond their vested profit matrix where the regulators do their bidding and, as a result, the vulnerabilities of the grid become greater each day. A recent “incident” in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont will come as no surprise. A HVDC transmission line bringing hydro power from Northern Quebec to Massachusetts was taken out by a loan gunman apparently using insulators for target practice. See: http://caledonianrecord.com/m/Articles.aspx?ArticleID=86362. That particular transmission line is said to be capable of supplying 10% of the power consumed in New England.
I appreciate your comments and the link. Despite the cost for repairs, it could have been much worse, as this was an act of vandalism rather than a coordinated attack. Also that it was a DC line with no substations and that it didn’t occur during extreme weather. Still, it highlights the vulnerability of the grid and the potential consequences of continued inaction.
Edison most emphatically did NOT invent the central-power-station model. That was Tesla, as commercialized by Westinghouse. Edison’s system was DC, which cannot be carried efficiently for any distance, hence his system was by design a distributed-supply system. Edison’s system failed in the marketplace because of the capital expense, the short life-span of DC generators and motors of the time, and the difficulty of transport and distribution of suitable fuels to the points of use. (One Edison installation that I know about was a railroad facility in Middletown, NY., obviously already well supplied with coal. I doubt it survived more than 15 or 20 years. I worked amidst the remains of it in the 1970s.)
Tesla/Westinghouse proved to be far, far cheaper, and still is when compared to any and all of the so-called “green energy” systems being touted (and heavily subsidized) today. Until small-scale nuclear can be deployed, we are going to have to live (and die) by the Tesla/Westinghouse model. Live your lives accordingly; do not live in cities, especially cities that cannot survive without electricity, and design your habitation so that it can function without the grid.
Thanks for your comment. I think your last sentence is wise advice. However, I don’t believe I attributed the central power station model to Edison. In any case, conventional fossil fueled power stations provide cheaper electricity only when the costs of their emissions are externalized. The long-term effects of climate change caused by those and other emissions may well prove vastly more expensive than subsidized renewable energy. Distributed electric generation from clean sources, in combination with greatly improved efficiency on the consumption side will yield huge benefits in terms of national security, stabilized energy costs and climate change.
I had 21 years of service with an electric utility. We provided service to 800,000 residential and industrial customers. My first 10 years of service was corporate security. We provided in-house asset protection. In addition to our guard force which was comprised of retired/former law enforcement and ex military,we had a robust electronic security apparatus in place.
In the early 90s we experienced a series of gunfire attacks against our substations and transmission lines. Many of our assets are located in rural areas and vulnerable to attack. The gunman appeared to have knowledge of these remote locations which ruled out the “random attack” theory. Off duty Law Enforcement were contracted to secure EHV substations, and our power plants increased their physical security. The shooter(s) would simply drive by a guarded substation and hit one of the more remote unsecured locations.
We had deployed multiple mobile substations while the damaged units were replaced or repaired. Local, State and Federal law enforcement agencies became involved. The shooter(s) final attack was on our transmission lines near one of our power plants. With growing media attention, the attacks abruptly stopped.
In a conversation with the director of security, he advised we were down to one mobile substation. Our spare power transformer supply had been depleted. He had been summoned by the company CEO and questioned about how this happened and what measures could be taken to prevent future attacks. My old boss held up a substation directory that was about the size of a small city phone book and said “sir we would have to call out the national guard in order to secure all of our substations and transmission towers”.
Post 911 the company security force has expanded, perimeter security walls are in place at key substations and electronic security systems have been upgraded and expanded. Absolute security is not attainable. However, we can and will continue our target hardening efforts.
Thanks for sharing your experience in this area. It sounds like the utility you worked for is well ahead of most in terms of securing substations. At the same time, your old boss’s comment that “we would have to call out the national guard in order to secure all of our substations and transmission towers” highlights the magnitude of the problem. While efforts toward securing electrical infrastructure are commendable, ultimately there is no security substitute for locating generation as close as possible to demand.
Sir, I enjoyed your website. Very interesting and informative. I came across this website because I’m reading a novel by Brad Taylor titled “All Necessary Force” about a group of terrorists taking out EHVTs and causing a blackout due to a computer virus they release into the power grid control system. I was looking for a picture of an EHVT when I came across this site. The book reads remarkably like this website. You might want to check it out.
Glad you enjoyed the website and thanks for the suggestion. I just ordered a copy of “All Necessary Force” and look forward to reading it.
My original intent was to write Operation Circuit Breaker as a novel. Some 30 pages into it, I concluded that a) I’m better at writing essays than fiction and b) the essay format better conveyed the very real vulnerabilities of our electric infrastructure.
Its a highly informative thought provoking article a tribute to mother earth and nature
I always appreciate hearing from readers. Thanks for taking the time to let me know you found the website informative.
I commend you for an excellent job laying out vulnerabilities and a scenario.
One thing I think would be helpful is to stop demonizing industry, and simply realize that it is the natural outcome of the way we’ve developed as a society–by relying on the “invisible hand” of the marketplace to work. But, that model works best when government is small and freedom of choice is large–now that we have a government with enormous power (a great deal of which is regulatory) they are intimately involved in picking winners and losers. In a perfect world, the power of government would be used to prevent the “tradegy of the commons” but unfortunately, this is not a perfect world. As a result, our government compounds the problem by “getting into bed” with the already powerful utilities. Competition, which is the real answer to the concentration of power, is stifled, and the problem worsens.
The average person can’t know how to do everything–I don’t say this to let “everyman” off the hook, because I beleive most folks could do more and try harder. But it will take a serious problem to make anyone change–too many are totally comfortable in the status quo.
Thanks for your comments, which I substantially agree with. I’d like to respond at greater length, but am on an extended wilderness trip this summer with very limited internet access, so that will have to wait until I return home later in August.
As I mentioned in my brief response last June, I appreciate your comments and substantively agree with them. Specifically, I agree that the current state of our electrical generation and distribution infrastructure and institutions is a natural outcome of the way we’ve developed as a society. I also agree that it will probably take a serious problem to bring about substantive change. Part of my reason for developing the website was to highlight various ways that just such a problem could occur.
The primary intent of the website is a call to consumers, policy makers and industry to become more aware of the vulnerabilities of the current electrical system and to work toward a more secure and sustainable system. I don’t believe, however, that we should let the electrical infrastructure industry off the hook in terms of their general intransigence in adopting new technologies such as distributed generation, microgrids, etc., that de-centralize power production and distribution and thus reduce vulnerabilities inherent in the current model. Just the latest of many examples of industry efforts to discourage distributed generation can be seen at this link:
Click to access protectsolarrights_coloradofactsheet.pdf
Click to access protectsolarrights_coloradofactsheet.pdf
I’ve spoken with enough industry leaders to know that they’re heavily invested in the current system and generally reluctant to adopt a new model. The reasons typically given are that the current model has worked so far and that a more distributed model will require substantially more complex sensing and switching infrastructure. They are correct on both counts. Neither, however, are sufficient reasons for failing to adopt a cleaner and more secure model in response to developing technologies and changing environmental and geo-political realities.
Again, thanks for your comments.
Wow! You have managed to write a very good mini-book, frightening in concept, yet thoroughly riveting to read. Your efforts, regardless of any positive or negative outcome, are commendable. I was surprised that you did not increase the death toll by a factor of about 10, and that the elevated water towers were not simultaneously targeted by the perpetrators of the attacks, but I was still able to picture the result of a modern day Armageddon in my mind. It would probably make for a Great Hollywood movie, though modern filmmakers seem addicted to destroying New York City on a regular basis, so I’m not sure if any of them would even consider the Phoenix scenario as all that attractive a starting place for modern CGI scenes so necessary for the huge box office revenue they’d be hoping for. Either way, the nightmarish scenario that you have laid out is far more likely than Alien beings attacking Earth from space any time, or yet another destruction of New York City by Robitic Cars, Monstrous Dragons, or a team of GI Joe like super bad guys. Thanks for the read!
Thanks for your encouraging words. I too have wondered about Operation Circuit Breaker as the basis for a movie. Given its all-too-realistic scenario, it just might connect with viewers on a deeper level than the usual action-movie fare does. It would also raise public awareness about electric infrastructure vulnerability by reaching a far larger audience.
Hello, Please could you contact me about permissions for the use of a photograph on this page in a South African textbook?
And now comes news that ISIS may be scheming something in this country exactly as you have speculated could happen. We know they can’t take us by force but we also know that they are among us. What better way to cripple a nation than to destroy what we have taken for granted for so long? And why would a utility such as Hydro Quebec want to build more above-ground HVDC transmission lines a thousand miles from northern Quebec, Canada to the cities of southern New England? Any comments, David, regarding the reliability of buried transmission lines vs. above-ground steel towers.
Truly an interesting synopsis of what can and will go wrong in the future and I notice there is a great level of sincere respect for your studies by the current list of commentaries.
Please continue your good work.
I appreciate your comments and encouraging words.
The primary reason that extra high voltage (EHV) transmission lines aren’t usually buried is that they typically cost 5-10 times more than above-ground transmission.
A common justification for building more above-ground extra high voltage transmission lines, Hydro Quebec ‘s included, is that they supposedly increase grid reliability. That argument unfortunately ignores the asymmetrical aspect of attacks on such lines. I made the point on this website that technology as simple as bullets can bring down high voltage lines. Another example of asymmetry is the potential use of inexpensive battery-powered grinders to bring down transmission towers costing tens of thousands of dollars and requiring weeks or months to replace. A significant advantage we give to terrorists by locating lines across remote terrain is that noise from such attacks is not a deterring factor.
The fact that no major terrorist attack has occurred on American soil since 911 probably has less to do with the efforts of national security agencies than with the relative haplessness of most would-be terrorists. Eventually however, the odds are increasing that another terrorist A-team will execute an attack. When and if that day comes, our electric grid system will be a logical target.
The most effective steps to guard against such attacks are not to increase the number of EHV lines, but to reduce the number of targets by moving generation closer to consumption and by increasing efficiency. Pearl and I live well on approximately 1% of the average residential electric consumption. While one need not go to our extremes, it does highlight the considerable potential for increased efficiency in our use of electric power.
I recently offered public comment at a hearing for a proposed long-distance power line. My comments focused on security threats to such remotely-located lines and those comments were essentially disregarded by the committee. Political and financial expedience unfortunately tends to reinforce reactive responses to terrorism rather than proactive steps to prevent it.
I stumbled across your article as I am working on a paper describing energy distribution in 3rd world countries. I am currently adding a chapter on the effects of the conflicts in Iraq, Syria and Libya on the power grids. I found your article very informative. I wish you the best.
Thanks for your comment and all the best on your paper.
Thank you David for your informative piece. South Australia was blacked out two weeks ago during a bad storm. Recorded wind gusts of 120kph were probably not sufficient to collapse pylons. However 22 went down in one region leading to the whole state losing power!
It would appear several F4 tornadoes may have caused the damage but these local occurrences were not officially recorded. The following link provides some insight :
Jim Steele was on the money!
Cheers. Rod Venning.
Addendum: The Preliminary Report into the power failure:
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