Chapter 7: Solutions

Both of the electrical infrastructure components examined in previous chapters, extra high voltage transformers and extra high voltage transmission lines, can be made more secure against attack.

Security upgrades to extra high voltage transformers are relatively simple.  Transformers can be shielded from public view using bullet proof barriers.  Although barriers must be designed to permit adequate ventilation for cooling and be either moveable or positioned so as to allow transformer maintenance and eventual replacement, neither of these design considerations are difficult or expensive to implement.

“…crash resistant fences and a concrete wall would add perhaps $100,000 to $200,000, a few percent of the multi-million dollar facility cost.” [1]

Considering the time and expense required to replace a damaged transformer, it is astonishing that regulatory agencies have not made such relatively inexpensive security upgrades a requirement for all extra high voltage transformer installations.

Substation with solid security fence. (Photo by Paul Chernikhowski)

Protecting extra high voltage transmission lines is a far more intractable challenge.  Existing lines routed through remote areas are essentially impossible to defend and must be considered prime targets for attack.

All new transmission line proposals should be required to undergo a security vulnerability assessment by the Department of Homeland Security.  All new lines should also be required to closely follow existing highway alignments.  This would increase security in several ways.

First, transmission lines in public view are less attractive targets since passersby are more likely to notice an attack in progress and notify law enforcement.  Highway access also shortens law enforcement response time, potentially thwarting attacks before maximum damage is inflicted.  Subsequent to attack, highway access significantly facilitates the repair of damaged lines.

Transmission lines sensibly sited beside highway. (Photo by Patrick Feller)

Proponents of new lines invariably tout them as necessary to improve the reliability and efficiency of the transmission grid system.  This reasoning ignores the ease with which lines can be repeatedly disabled by saboteurs.  It makes little economic sense to invest billions of dollars in new transmission lines for the purpose of increasing grid reliability, only to inadvertently subvert that aim by routing such lines through remote areas, thus greatly increasing their security vulnerability.

It is also a fallacy to assume that the fundamental security vulnerability of lines routed through remote areas can be addressed by building more such lines.  That reasoning ignores the extreme asymmetry of attacks on transmission line infrastructure.  2007 cost estimates for constructing a 500-kilovolt transmission line, including permitting, right-of-way and construction expenses, ranged from 2.3 to 3.5 million dollars per mile.[2]  These costs contrast sharply with those required to inflict extensive damage on such infrastructure.  A rifle, scope and bullets cost only a few hundred dollars, while a $25 hacksaw in the hands of a saboteur can cause millions of dollars of damage to guyed towers, not to mention the far higher cost to the economy from resulting blackouts.

Transmission line vulnerability can also be greatly reduced by locating generation in close proximity to population centers.  This obviously shortens transmission lines, thus reducing the opportunity for an attack.

Ocotillo natural gas power plant in Phoenix metro area. Power plants located near the point of use, like this one, significantly increase energy security.    (Photo by Alan Stark)

The vulnerability of transmission lines to attack suggests that consideration should be given to eliminating them where possible.  For example, by moving away from the centralized power plant paradigm, smaller generation plants can be located within population centers.  Power is then transmitted directly to local distribution lines, which present a significantly less desirable target.

The impacts of attacks on both transformers and transmission lines can also be greatly reduced by the widespread incorporation of distributed generation and microgrids.  Distributed generation is the local production of electricity from many small, diversified sources such as solar, wind, fuel cell, hydrocarbon-fueled generators, etc.

With respect to security considerations in hot desert regions, the obvious source is rooftop solar, because by definition the sun will be shining during a heat wave.  Solar electric generation is also synchronous with demand.  That is, during midday when temperatures peak, generation also peaks, providing power for cooling when the need is most critical.  Furthermore, unlike fuel-powered backup generators which sit idle until an emergency strikes, solar-electric generation provides power from time of installation onward.

Rooftop solar panels putting power, figuratively and literally, into the hands of the consumer. This is true energy security. (Photo by Kevin Baird)

Individual distributed generation sources connected together at the local level are known as microgrids.  They are connected to the centralized electrical grid (macrogrid), but because they incorporate local generation sources and can be disconnected from the centralized grid, they can continue to provide electricity even during large-scale blackouts.

“Microgrids have the potential to provide public security and safety benefits in the form of improved overall electricity system resilience while also serving as safe havens during extended power outages. Facilities that receive energy from microgrids capable of separating and operating independently from the macro-grid can serve as community refuges during emergencies or long-term grid outages. Similarly, by reducing reliance on the macrogrid and remote sources of power, microgrids may make it a less appealing target for terrorist attacks.” [3]

While there are both safety related and technical challenges involved in shifting from a centralized to a distributed model, the technology required to incorporate distributed energy and microgrids on a large scale does exist.  Unfortunately, so does a basic conflict between the financial interests and “business as usual” orientation of utility companies and regulatory agencies on the one hand, and the security interests of people living in extreme environments on the other.  Utility companies can be expected to act in their own best interests.  Despite the obvious security benefits of distributed generation and microgrids, they threaten the vested interests of utility companies.

“This attitude is understandable. After all, if utilities don’t own it, they can’t bill for it. And with close relationships between power companies and state regulators, they can and do throw up a variety of roadblocks to see that rooftop-solar programs and the like remain tiny.” [4]

“Ed Legge of the Edison Electric Institute, the lobbying organization for the utility industry (and leader of the national effort to oppose federal renewables targets), is surprisingly frank on this point: “We’re probably not going to be in favor of anything that shrinks our business. All investor-owned utilities are built on the central-generation model that Thomas Edison came up with: You have a big power plant and you move it and then distribute it. Distributed generation is taking that out of the picture — it’s local.”[5]

The onus of responsibility for substantive change consequently rests with the residents of potentially threatened areas.  It is only by educating themselves on the issues at stake and applying political pressure for substantive change on the part of utility companies and regulatory agencies that such change will occur.  Even then, reaching the point at which utility companies actively encourage distributed energy and microgrids is unlikely to happen quickly.

Representatives of utility companies, state regulatory agencies and federal security departments are likely to respond to publicity concerning electric transmission infrastructure vulnerabilities by downplaying those vulnerabilities and the potential threats to the system.  The problem with this sort of “9/10” thinking is its seductive tendency to work well for a very long time and then one day to end in catastrophe.

There are a number of questions that residents of potentially affected areas should ask those representatives.  Among them: Why isn’t every vulnerable transformer shielded against attack?  Why are major transmission lines routed through remote areas where they’re so vulnerable to attack?  Why aren’t utility companies under substantial political pressure to encourage local distributed energy and microgrids?  Why is there no widely publicized and rehearsed response plan for an Operation Circuit Breaker-like scenario?

Whatever the answers to these questions, every concerned citizen should be asking themselves the bottom line questions: Are all the large transformers serving my area shielded? Are there still major transmission lines serving my area that are routed through remote areas? Is it easy and affordable to have a distributed electric system installed at my home or business? Do I know what the official emergency response plan is and what my part in it is?

An electrical infrastructure model based primarily on centralized generation and transmission is inherently less secure than a distributed, renewable energy-based system.  The former is increasingly archaic while the latter is likely the wave of the future.

In addition to encouraging change in the political arena, there are more immediate steps that individuals living in extreme desert climates can take to enhance their electrical security and emergency preparedness.  The simplest step during the hot months is to maintain a reserve of drinking water, food, a portable waterless toilet and some method of non-electric water purification.

As a longer-term solution, consider having a grid-tied rooftop solar-electric system installed.  The technical aspects of this should be discussed with a local solar installer.  Note however, that such a system will only provide power during a blackout if it incorporates a battery backup component, since ordinary grid-tied rooftop solar-electric systems without a battery backup component will shut down completely during a blackout.  Although an explanation of the reasons for that are beyond the scope of this website, it should be noted that if the system is used as an emergency power source only during full sunlight hours (mid-morning to mid-afternoon), which is when the solar panels will be producing maximum electricity, the battery bank can be quite small.  Fortunately, during a heat wave, sunlight hours are when the need for power to provide cooling is greatest.

In this way, individuals can effectively become their own power company during an emergency.  In the event of a blackout, the system automatically disconnects from the grid.  When the blackout is over, the solar electric system automatically reconnects to the grid.  These steps would go a long way toward preparing desert dwellers to safely weather a heat wave, during even a long-term blackout, while also reducing overall electrical system vulnerability.

Notes:

[1] (U.S. Congress, Office of Technology Assessment, Physical Vulnerability of Electric Systems to Natural Disasters and Sabotage, P. 48, OTA-E-453 (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, June, 1990

[2] American Electric Power, “Transmission Facts”, P. 1, http://www.aep.com/about/transmission/docs/transmission-facts.pdf

[3] New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, “Microgrids: An Assessment of the Value, Opportunities and Barriers to Deployment in New York State”, Final Report, P. S-7, http://www.nyserda.ny.gov/~/media/Files/Publications/Research/Electic%20Power%20Delivery/10-35-microgrids.ashx?sc_database=web

[4, 5] Anya Kamenetz, “Why the Microgrid Could Be the Answer to Our Energy Crisis”, July 1, 2009, P. 4 http://www.fastcompany.com/magazine/137/beyond-the-grid.html?page=0%2C3

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