Solar to Cyber: Electricity Grid Security Gains Traction

The EMP risk to America's electricity grid
June 4, 2020 Updated: June 16, 2020

America’s electricity grid needs inoculating.

Alongside a novel coronavirus pandemic, a solar superflare is one of six “black swan” scenarios that analysts believe could change the course of civilization.

The occurrence of an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) from such a superflare—of which there is a 12 percent chance per decade—isn’t the only threat to America’s grid.

Some experts warn that the threat of an EMP from a nuclear bomb, detonated high above the earth for maximum effect, might be small but remains all too possible.

Then there is the growing threat of cyber sabotage.

There’s even a physical threat: Firing high-powered rifles at the right nine out of the 2,000 high-voltage transformers, according to a leaked classified document, could crash the whole grid.

But the EMP experts are less worried than they have been for the last 20 years—because they believe something is finally being done.

They also say that all these threats to the grid (which, according to worst-case analyses, could see 90 percent of Americans dead in a year) have a single $4 billion cure.

‘A Sea Change’

President Donald Trump last month issued an executive order aimed at weeding out foreign influence in the electricity grid.

A year earlier, in March 2019, Trump had issued another wide-ranging executive order that picked up on recommendations from the Congressional EMP Commission that had been stuck in Washington bureaucratic mud for over 15 years—an order echoed in later legislation passed by Congress.

“The grid is incredibly vulnerable right now to both man-made and natural hazards,” Tommy Waller of Secure the Grid told The Epoch Times via email. “Just drive by any electric substation and look for yourself what you can see.

“If you can see it, you can shoot it—and small arms fire has already been used as a sabotage method against grid infrastructure.”

Epoch Times Photo
Transformers and power transmission lines are seen in a power distribution yard in Des Plaines, Ill., on Aug. 18, 2003. (Tim Boyle/Getty Images)

He says that the utility companies have done a good job adapting to past experiences for terrestrial weather—like hurricanes. But he says they “have barely begun to protect the grid against a much more serious natural hazard: solar weather.”

Waller, who is vice president for special projects at the Center for Security Policy and an Epoch Times contributor, says he thinks that the pandemic has woken people up to just how vulnerable they are.

“I, personally, have had a number of people who previously scoffed at personal and family preparedness come back to me and ask questions about what they could do to be more prepared in case the next disaster involved the one that I work full time to prevent: a long term blackout,” he said.

Tom Spoehr, a defense analyst at the Heritage Foundation, who co-wrote a report on the EMP threat (both nuclear and natural) in 2018, thinks it is timely to raise the issue of grid security.

“Just like the coronavirus pandemic, an EMP is a very low probability but high consequence event that people are reluctant to pay much attention to or put money into until it happens,” he said.

“If an EMP were to go off, and if it were to take down the power grid, it would essentially take the United States back 200 years.

“Just so much of society is dependent on the power grid.”

Even the water supply depends on electric pumps.

“It isn’t like you just call the power company, they get up on a ladder and fix it,” Spoehr said. “It’s irrevocably blown. And then it requires months or years to fix—and that’s assuming you have the spares.”

After fading with the end of the Cold War, the EMP threat was pushed up the national security agenda again in the last couple of decades as concerns rose about rogue nuclear states and the increasing reliance on electronics. But without any thought leaders to champion it, it got lost in the political weeds, Spoehr says.

Driving the analysis of the EMP threat has been the Congressional EMP Commission, which ran from 2001 to 2017.

The commission had several members who had gained their expertise while conducting Department of Defense research during the Cold War—when most data on the threat was gathered.

The EMP Commission chief of staff was Peter Pry.

He told The Epoch Times that Trump’s two executive orders represent a “sea change in the way we think about national security.”

“It also signifies a decisive victory for those of us who have been warning for 20 years that the electric power grid and the other civilian critical infrastructures are just as important to our national security as our B-52 bombers, our ICBMs, or our aircraft carriers,” Pry said.

“We cannot fight wars without this [electricity grid]—and our adversaries know it.

“The Russians, the Chinese, the North Koreans, the Iranians, all of them have written military textbooks that describe how they can achieve a revolution in military affairs and might not even have to fight the U.S. Navy, Army, or Air Force, by taking out our electric grid in an attack.

“It’s our Achilles heel. And we finally have a president and administration that, at least on paper, is saying the right things.”

Trump’s most recent executive order, according to Waller, most significantly declares a national emergency regarding the threat to the United States’ bulk-power system.

“This declaration validates and reinforces the warnings issued by security experts for more than a decade that our nation’s electric grid is our most critical infrastructure and must be treated as a national security asset and protected accordingly, ” he said.

“The order also sends a direct message to both the utility industry and its regulators that the executive branch of government is fully aware that the current cybersecurity standards supposedly protecting the grid are fraught with loopholes that keep us vulnerable.”

The Knock-on Effect

The key to cyber sabotage is gaining control of the small computerized motors that control the grid, known as SCADAS.

“Once you understand that the electric grid is crucial to our national security, it makes no more sense to be buying SCADAS from China than it does to let China build our fighter aircraft or aircraft carriers or missiles,” Pry said. “We don’t trust Huawei to be installing 5G systems in the United States because we know of the grave cyber threat that poses to us in the future.”

Cyber and physical sabotage, solar superflares, and nuclear weapons might all work differently in how they initially cause problems, but ultimately they all threaten the entire grid because they can trigger a cascading effect.

The massive electronic pulse of a nuclear device or solar flare could dump vast electromagnetic energy into the system, swamping sections and causing knock-on failures.

Physical failures, attacks, or perhaps cyberattacks wouldn’t inject more energy but could force existing power to be rerouted.

“There’s already a lot of energy sloshing around in the grid,” Pry said. “When [something] knocks down those power lines, the energy has to go somewhere. And what happens is, it backs up and what’s called a system-generated overvoltage happens. This happened during Hurricane Sandy. You can actually look it up and see videos of transformers exploding.”

Epoch Times Photo
Firefighters attempt to extinguish a fire at a power plant on 13th Street in New York on July 20, 2002. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

It is the cascading effect that makes the grid so vulnerable.

Pry cites a Wall Street Journal article that reported a classified study.

“They found that if you took out nine key transformers out of the 2,000 in the United States, you could collapse the whole national electric grid,” he said. “Why is that? It’s because if you had high-powered rifles or rocket-propelled grenade launchers, and you took out those nine transformers, that power has to go somewhere.”

High-Voltage Transformers: Aqueducts of the Modern Age

The ensuing grid failure is not something that can easily be reversed, because the extra-high-voltage transformers will have been destroyed.

“This high-voltage transformer is to our electronics civilization what aqueducts and roads were to the Roman civilization of classical antiquity,” Pry said. “They couldn’t survive as a civilization without aqueducts. We can’t survive as an electronic civilization without those transformers.”

America doesn’t make the required house-sized transformers anymore. They also can’t be bought off the shelf or easily swapped around. They are bespoke items created for each location that take up to 18 months to build.

There are now three countries that make transformers: Germany, South Korea, and China. (There are around 200 Chinese-made transformers on the U.S. grid, according to Waller).

Pry says that even though Germany and South Korea are allies, there’s still no guarantee the United States could obtain transformers in a crisis, given that a solar superflare would create huge supply pressures—just as seen with the global PPE (personal protective equipment) supply during the pandemic.

The solution is to protect the transformers.

Just as surge protection devices brace our laptops and TVs against fluctuations, they also can protect the power grid itself.

The precedent has already been set by the military, which protects nuclear retaliatory and strategic retaliatory capabilities as well as command and control systems and early warning systems. “So we know we how to do it by using Faraday cages and blocking devices and surge arresters,” he said.

“Basically, if we did that, we wouldn’t have to worry about EMP anymore. There aren’t that many existential threats that you can actually take off the board. You can actually eliminate them.”

The currently agreed standard to protect the grid from “geomagnetic disturbances” (or EMPs from solar flares) is 10 times too low, according to the EMP Commission, which recommended an 85 volts per kilometer standard.

The current standard took five years to decide and still has not been fully implemented, Waller says.

“The first practical action to securing the grid is to get the owners and operators of the electric infrastructure to commit to an all-hazards protection strategy, where the most critical and hardest to replace assets get protection first and the industry is afforded ample financial support to execute this rapidly—both through government grants and through adequate cost recovery,” he said.

$2.38 a Month

There are a range of different solutions.

Waller says the price tag to secure the grid depends on many factors.

“One factor is that it is always more expensive to ‘bolt-on’ protection, rather than to ‘bake it in’ from the beginning,” he said. “So a commitment to creating new grid infrastructure that is ‘all-hazards protected’ could go a long way toward reducing the overall costs.”

The gold-standard solution, proposed by the Foundation for Resilient Societies, hardens the grid to the same level as military protection and would cost around $20 billion to $30 billion.

According to Waller, the foundation’s recommendations would increase the average American’s monthly electric bill by 2 to 3 percent, or roughly $2.38 to $3.21 per month.

A different solution recommended by the EMP Commission in 2008 would come in at around $3 billion to $4 billion in today’s money, Pry says. “I think this is still the best plan. It doesn’t harden everything, but it hardens all 2,000 EHV transformers, hardens all the generators, hardens all the major control systems,” he said.

For around $200 million, Pry says, there is a more basic solution that protects the 500 most crucial extra-high voltage transformers and their control systems.

Worries About Bureaucracy

After Trump’s executive order last year, Congress included in the National Defense Authorization Act various legislative demands around EMP threat preparedness.

While Waller and Pry welcome the new direction, they are still cautious that the process could get caught on bureaucratic and lobbying gears.

Waller says, “Part of the problem is that the electric power industry, through the North American Electric Reliability Corporation sets its own standards, works with powerful lobbying organizations such as the Edison Electric Institute to lobby on its behalf to keep these protection standards sufficiently low, and the well-funded Electric Power Research Institute.”

Spoehr says that with the grid split across thousands of electric companies across the states, there is little economic impetus to push companies to provide protection for customers beyond hurricane protection.

“There’s really been no government effort to direct our companies to do anything in light of this threat of EMP,” he said.

“Some power companies like Duke in the Carolinas have taken it on, just because they just wanted to do it, they wanted to make their electric grid more resilient.”

But by and large, the companies have seen it as a defense issue that should be handled by the federal government.

Pry notes that the report demanded by Trump’s 2019 executive order has yet to materialize, despite overshooting its deadline, and worries that the bureaucrats may be dragging their heels.

“He’s dealing with the resistant bureaucracy that has never supported any of this,” Pry said. “Every single major person in the Department of Energy, in the Department of Homeland Security, who is charged with implementing President Trump’s EMP executive order is an Obama administration hold-over.”

While there have been reports in the last decade or so that have downplayed the threat, Pry has dismissed them as junk science.

A report for the Joint Atomic Energy Intelligence Commission under Obama in 2014 that made much more light of the threat was lambasted by the EMP Commission as “factually erroneous and analytically unsound.” The commission called for the report to effectively be labeled with a fact-check warning.

Spoehr says that there are some very passionate researchers in the security community who have long warned about the issue, although he says a smaller proportion disagree.

“Typically, I find the people that downplay the threat, if you skip to the end of the article, you usually find they have no scientific credentials: They have a degree in international relations or something,” he said.

One of the difficulties in assessing the EMP threat is that the bulk of the knowledge comes from the nuclear testing period—which is why many experts remain those schooled in the Department of Defense during the Cold War.

“Even though these nuclear tests happened 50 years ago, most of them are still classified,” Spoehr said. “The Department of Defense, for whatever reason, is still unwilling by and large to declassify most of the information about their nuclear weapons tests.

Epoch Times Photo
A characteristic mushroom-shaped cloud begins to form after the first H-bomb explosion at Eniwetok Atoll in the Pacific on Nov. 6, 1952. (Three Lions/Getty Images)

“The effects of nuclear weapons are well-characterized, but not well-publicized.”

One of the best-known examples was a test of a nuclear weapon in the Pacific over Johnston Atol thousands of miles from Hawaii. “It knocked out the lights, streetlights in Hawaii,” he said. “This was old technologies in the 1960s: incandescent bulbs and things like that.”

Credible Threat

Spoehr says that the threat of a nuclear EMP missile from North Korea is credible.

“Two years ago, Kim Jong Un in North Korea successfully tested an ICBM that went super high. Most of the experts believe that it has the range to get to the edge of the Midwest of the United States,” he said.

“So he’s got a missile that can get here. And we also know he has nuclear weapons.” But the question remains as to whether he has the technology to mount a heavy nuclear weapon onto a missile, Spoehr says.

“It would be foolhardy, reckless, to say that he does not because he keeps surprising people with his advancements.”

Two years ago, North Korea successfully tested a hydrogen bomb.

“You don’t have to do anything to the nuclear weapon to make it an EMP weapon,” Spoehr said. “There are ways to enhance that, but it’s really a function of at what altitude the nuclear weapon is detonated.”

North Korean state news said at the time of the H-bomb test that it was “a multi-functional thermonuclear nuke with great destructive power which can be detonated even at high altitudes for a superpowerful EMP (electromagnetic pulse) attack according to strategic goals.”

According to the EMP Commission report, a nuclear EMP weapon “could be delivered by satellite, by a wide variety of long- and short-range missiles, including cruise and anti-ship missiles, by a jet doing a zoom-climb, or even by a high-altitude balloon.”

“Some modes of attack could be executed relatively anonymously, thereby impairing deterrence,” notes the report (pdf).

Of course, such a nuclear attack may never happen, Pry said.

However, the threat from a solar superflare is a matter of when, not if, with NASA estimating the likelihood of such an event to be 10 to 12 percent in every decade.

Epoch Times Photo
A solar flare (R) erupting from giant sunspot 649. The powerful explosion hurled a coronal mass ejection (CME) into space, but it was directed toward Earth on Aug. 19, 2004. (HO/AFP via Getty Images)

The electromagnetic waves created by solar flares have such a long wavelength that they cannot find their way directly into electronic devices. However, the miles and miles of straight-running power lines in the electrical grid system act as an enormous antenna—pulling in the energy just as the railroad wires did during the Railroad Superstorm 100 years ago that burned down Central New England Railroad station.

This article has been updated to include China in the list of three countries that make high voltage transformers. The original version incorrectly stated there were only two: Germany and South Korea.

Follow Simon on Twitter: @SPVeazey