An attack on the power grid by terrorists — even ones armed with relatively simple weapons — is among the greatest threats to the reliability of the nation’s power system, the chairman of the U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission said.
“There are ways that a very few number of actors with very rudimentary equipment could take down large portions of our grid,” FERC Chairman Jon Wellinghoff said today at a Bloomberg Government breakfast in Washington. “I don’t think we have the level of physical security we need.”
The security of the power-network components such transformers “is an equal if not greater issue” than cybersecurity, Wellinghoff said.
The agency two months ago created an office to help reduce risks to the electric grid and natural-gas and oil facilities. A terrorist attack on the system could cost hundreds of billions of dollars and result in thousands of deaths, according to a 2007 report that was declassified and released by the National Academy of Sciences on Nov. 14.
The FERC, which regulates the interstate transport of electricity, natural gas and oil, this year also has ramped up its enforcement against energy-market manipulation. Wellinghoff predicted that a recent surge in filings against energy traders would plateau, and said he had not decided whether to consider another term as chairman when his current one expires next year.
“A coordinated physical attack is a very, very unsettling thing to me,” Wellinghoff said. The FERC chairman said that about six weeks ago he visited a Pennsylvania plant where high- voltage transformers are made. “It was a very interesting and very eye-opening experience,” he said.
Transformers, which alter the voltage of electricity, are often custom built for utilities and can take 18 to 36 months to make, according to Wellinghoff. They are also inadequately protected, often surrounded only by chain-link fences, he said.
An attacker “could get 200 yards away with a .22 rifle and take the whole thing out,” Wellinghoff said. For a “couple hundred bucks” a utility could install metal sheeting to block the view of transformers, he said. “If you can’t see through the fence, you can’t figure out where to shoot anymore.”
The report released last week by the National Academy of Sciences called for the government to work with utilities to create a stockpile of transformers and other equipment that would be used in the event of an emergency. The Edison Electric Institute, a Washington-based industry group for publicly traded utilities, is leading a pilot program to install additional devices.