American Elephants

A Drill: Can The Government Respond to A Power Grid Collapse? by The Elephant's Child

America at night

An electrical grid joint drill simulation is being planned in the United States, Canada and Mexico. Power grid vulnerabilities are finally getting some attention from the government.

We’ve been talking about it for years, but there have been no reports about what is being done, except that the EPA is vigorously attempting to shut down all power-producing coal-fired power plants because the environmental loonies at the Sierra Club don’t like coal. They assume incorrectly that global warming, in which they believe with religious fervor, is caused by CO² produced by coal-fired power plants. They are big on fervor, short on science.

A simulation which will focus on both physical and cyber attacks will take place in November. The disaster drill is being described as a crisis practice unlike anything the real power grid has ever experienced. The GridEX II drill on November 13–14 will focus primarily on how governments will react if the electrical grid fails and, for instance, the food supply chain collapses, and the requirements for everyday necessities.

The problem is that there are so many players. Thousands of utility workers, business executives, National Guard officers, F.B.I. antiterrorism experts and officials from all sorts of government agencies from the three countries.

Previous exercises have assumed that the grid would be back in order relatively quickly, but that is not necessarily a reasonable assumption. The real goal of the drill is to see how governments would react if the supply chain went down. From the performance of FEMA in Hurricane Sandy, confidence is fairly low. But the point is to educate the government on what their expectation should  and shouldn’t be.

The grid is essential for almost everything. Consider your grocer: no lights, no refrigeration, no operating deli, no coffee, no cash registers, but the doors wouldn’t open anyway. The grid is controlled by investor-owned companies or municipal or regional agencies. Ninety-nine percent of military facilities rely on commercial power, including the White House. The utilities have grid operations expertise, the government has the intelligence operation, the standing army, the three-letter agencies.

The expertise involves running 5,800 major power plants and 450,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines, monitored and controlled by a vast mix of devices installed over decades. Some utilities rely on their own antique computer protocols, others rely on Windows-based systems that are common to many industries, but they may be vulnerable to malware. Sometimes utility engineers and law enforcement officials speak different languages.

An effort led by former CIA Director James Woolsey is gearing up to pressure state legislatures to force utilities to protect equipment against an electromagnetic pulse, which cold be a huge expense for utilities.

The utility industry argues that the government has extensive information on threats but keeps it classified. Government officials acknowledge the problem but insist utility executives get security clearances. Congress is debating laws that could impose new standards, but many in the industry doubt that such laws could pass.

That’s how governments bumble along. Will a big simulation light a fire under all the players? Strong leadership from the top can make all the difference, but is anybody really serious about this? It remains to be seen. That’s one reason why conservatives push for smaller more-efficient government.

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