What is the Biggest Threat to National Power Grid?
Squirrels are a major threat to our national power grid, but birds are also a big problem. They can touch two different charges at the same time, causing an explosion that could electrocute the animal and destroy a substation, which in turn could cause power outages for thousands of homes. Power line sensors designed to protect power lines are available on the market. Companies like Power Line Sentry design solutions for these problems.
For decades, squirrels have caused major problems on the national power grid. A new Twitter account, @cybersquirrel1, has been created to track these issues. Visitors can choose the month they want to learn about and see pictures of successful squirrel operations. News stories about the squirrels also can be found on the website. The LLNL researchers have already received interest from utility companies. Hopefully this work will inspire more researchers to use this technology.
While squirrels do not pose a direct threat to the national power grid, they have caused outages in the past. One outage in Kentucky was caused by a wire-chewing squirrel. Another in Richmond, VA caused a short circuit, affecting a substation. In 2004, bird outages at Los Angeles International Airport delayed flights and threatened airport security. Another blackout was caused by a squirrel in Milborne Port, Somerset, last year.
Geomagnetic storms are a looming threat to our national power grid. These powerful storms can cause electrical outages and disrupt communications. High levels of induced current can cause up to 100 kiloamperes to flow through electrical components connected to the grid. These high currents can damage components inside and cause widespread power outages. A Carrington-level extreme geomagnetic storm is almost certain to occur in the future.
If a geomagnetic storm does hit the US, it can cause a total collapse of the electric power grid and water infrastructure. Without water, people will face cholera outbreaks and lack of fuel for boiling water. Food production would also suffer. Many plants that produce fertilizer, insecticides, and feed require electricity to operate. Therefore, if the entire power grid goes down, there will be no food supply.
Several attacks are already underway, including those targeting utilities, energy systems, and other grid assets. The goal of these cyberattacks varies by the attacker. While some are motivated by financial gain, others are motivated by a desire to disrupt business operations. To bring the entire grid to a halt, the attacker would have to launch a highly sophisticated attack. In addition, a successful attack would require extensive knowledge of electricity systems.
The recent power outage in Ukraine was caused by hackers, researchers say. The outage came after years of warnings about the digital security of the power grid. In addition to blackouts, the bushy-tailed rodents have also disrupted the economy. The 1987 attack, for example, forced the closing of twenty million shares on the London Stock Exchange, forcing it to be shut down.
Squirrel attacks on the national power grid are a common occurrence. A New York resident has tracked the damage squirrels cause to power grids. Other news reports show the extent of damage squirrels can do, including the creation of a website called CyberSquirrel. According to the American Public Power Association, squirrel attacks cause more power outages than storms. On average, squirrel attacks cause three times as many power outages as storms.
Despite being relatively soft targets, electric power substations are vulnerable to a cyber attack. Squirrels, like viruses, can act as paths between electrical lines. The problem with this is that the threat is not necessarily a computer virus or malware. Moreover, there is no evidence that nation states are responsible for such attacks. Still, there are other reported cyberattacks on national power grids that cannot be attributed to nation states.
According to a recent Department of Homeland Security intelligence memo obtained by CNN, domestic violent extremists will continue to plot attacks on the country’s electrical infrastructure. While such attacks are unlikely to cause the national power grid to go offline, they can still damage physical infrastructure and put people and operations at risk. The memo lists past incidents of concern and possible election-related threats. In addition, there is the possibility of cyber attacks targeting electrical infrastructure.
Cyber attacks are a constant threat to the national power grid, and a cyberattack would have disastrous consequences. In order to protect the power grid from such attacks, procedures need to be improved and updated. Ordinary hackers would not be able to take down the power grid. It would require a large amount of intelligence and analysis, not to mention sophisticated hacking skills. And if the attack were to occur, America would be left in the dark for nine to 18 months.
Jessica Watson is a PHD holder from the University of Washington. She studied behavior and interaction between squirrels and has presented her research in several wildlife conferences including TWS Annual Conference in Winnipeg.