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Report Ponders How to Keep the Lights on When a Catastrophic Event Occurs

06/10/2010 -Can North America keep the lights on during a catastrophe?

That's what a public-private report released last week pondered when it weighed the risks associated with coordinated cyber and physical attacks, pandemic diseases, and high-altitude nuclear bomb detonations on North America's power system. 

According to the120-page report (.pdf) issued by the U.S. Department of Energy and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, these high-impact, low-frequency (HILF) events could "cause long-term, catastrophic damage to the bulk power system."

The report is the summary of a November 2009 closed workshop that brought together approximately 110 attendees from government and the electric sector to discuss HILF threats and how public-private partnerships can address them.

But the ability of the government and the electric sector to coordinate and develop mitigation strategies to address HILF events is a daunting problem considering the sector's enormity.

"The North American bulk power system is comprised of more than 200,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines, thousands of generation plants, and millions of digital controls," the report states. "More than 1,800 entities own and operate portions of the system, with thousands more involved in the operation of distribution networks across North America."

Discussing an issue that transcends threats to the bulk power system, the report notes that government and the electric sector must get better at sharing information, especially when it goes to the government sharing information with industry.

"The sector is heavily reliant on information from the public sector for each risk discussed in this document," adds the report.

Of all the threats, the report seems to take the risk of a coordinated attack most seriously.

"The consequences associated with a coordinated cyber and/or physical attack could result in the physical damage or destruction of critical assets, such as generators, substation components, and large transformers," the report warns. "If conducted on a large enough scale, it is possible that the bulk power system could not recover in its present form, but would need to be restored in islands or using rotating outages where enough equipment was still available to operate the system."

And while the report notes a coordinated attack has never occurred, the reality behind protection efforts must heighten DOE and NERC's concerns: there isn't really any.

"Perhaps the first step to adequate mitigation is the acknowledgment that fully protecting the system from a coordinated attack is not possible."

The bulk power system is simply too big with too many vulnerabilities to protect.

♦ Photo byScott Ableman/Flickr