Defending the Grid

power transformer | Ross Baldick ConsultingAccording to recent reports by NPR and the Wall Street Journal, last year’s attack on the Metcalf substation in California was not random. Rather, the attackers targeted equipment to disable it after cutting communications lines. Whether or not the result of terrorism, the event demonstrates the vulnerability of electric grid assets to physical attack, as observed by former FERC Chairman Jon Wellinghoff.

Fortunately, the attack occurred at an off-peak time, when demand was significantly below capacity. As a result, the effect on electricity consumers was minimal. A coordinated attack on assets at peak times, however, could result in cascading outages and blackouts. Dealing with such an attack would require major repairs and replacement of devices such as large transformers, which would result in many months of lost electricity services.

To prevent such a catastrophic scenario, Pacific Gas & Electric says it is planning to install walls and enhanced security at various substations. And it’s these preventive investments that my colleagues at the Naval Postgraduate School and I are in the midst of studying. So far, our research is focused on how to identify which facilities are most significant in the context of vulnerabilities. Approaching the challenge as a large-scale, bi-level optimization problem, we developed algorithms and software that help utilities in just such situations to systematically identify their greatest vulnerabilities. We are now developing further enhancements to select the best preventive investments.

Photo by cowlet

About Ross Baldick

Electricity is an increasingly complex industry in the midst of transition to renewables and decarbonization. Using my 25 years’ experience as an engineer, policy analyst, and academic, I help my consulting clients think through their toughest technical challenges and formulate their best business strategies.
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2 Responses to Defending the Grid

  1. How about some things such as:

    1. Evaluating the line-of-sight for arms fire? Make it more difficult to get a direct line of fire to vulnerable parts from outside the enclosure.
    2. Bullet resistant transformers. Notice I didn’t say “bullet proof.”
    3. Yes, system capacity. Having the capacity to backfeed areas is important. Consider loading transformers, substations and circuits to less than maximum.
    4. Safeguarding security and communications networks. This was the first step in the process.

    There are a lot of practical things the industry can do. But we can’t do everything possible. It’s not practical. Just make it harder for someone to be successful.

  2. B R Vasanthakumar says:

    The Electrical system comprises of Generators,Transmission lines,Substations,Distribution lines and sub distribution lines.Most of them are in open except under ground cables.All are vulnerable.Generating stations and Substations can be provided with Physical security by providing security walls and restrictive entrance to these installations.But transmission towers in large nos run across long lengths.It is physically impossible to secure them from intended damages.But the affected sections can be isolated from system to prevent power failures to majority of other users.The protective relays can detect any fault and isolate the section and in addition can give the location of defects.People should be educated about the importance and vitality of Electrical power installations.
    But another lurking danger is hacking into power system operation and communication net works which may cause uncontrollable damages.Sufficient safe guards and fire walls have to be incorporated in access systems.Now with smart grid gaining popularity and is most focused, lot of thinking is required to provide adequate safe guards.

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