Targeted by Terrorists? - Blackouts a concern

DeWayne Bartels

The United States has a plan in place to get electricity back online in case terrorists or a foreign government were to cause a cascading blackout across the nation.

Ameren-CILCO spokesman Neal Johnson said there is a complete re-start system in place for electric utilities in the case of a cascading blackout. He said it would take a couple of days to re-start all electricity in the nation.

However, the economic ripple a nationwide blackout would cause would require a long recovery time.

David Rosenberg, chief North American economist with Merrill Lynch, told the Montreal Gazette in August 2003, days after a blackout hit the Northeast, the impact of a national blackout could go as high as $30 billion per day.

“That’s roughly one percentage point of quarterly economic growth, which means that just a few days could theoretically take economic growth in the third quarter right down to zero,” Rosenberg said.

ICF Consulting, a management, technology and policy consulting firm, commissioned a white paper looking at the consequences of a terrorist-induced blackout.

Their conclusion was that the concern expressed by President Obama and other government officials is, indeed, warranted.

“It is important to keep in mind that a terror-induced blackout could prove significantly more costly and have potentially debilitating impacts on the affected region as well as the entire country. As the economy tries to recover from recession, a sabotage-related shock that could affect such a huge area of the country could significantly increase the cost burden and prove fatal for the recovery,” the ICF white paper concluded.

One of the added costs from a terrorism-related transmission grid attack, according to ICF, would be damage to equipment.

A terrorist attack could not only lead to a transmission grid malfunction, but also could lead to significant damage to the equipment, resulting in higher costs and more time required for repair and replacement.

As this information has become available, the Homeland Security Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives has gone into action, introducing HR 2195, a bill to secure the nation’s electric grid.

On Oct. 27, the committee began hearings on this bill.

“The electric grid is highly dependent on computer-based control systems. These systems are increasingly connected to open networks such as the Internet, exposing them to cyber risks. Any failure of our electric grid, whether intentional or unintentional, would have a significant and potentially devastating impact on our nation,” said Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-MS), chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Homeland Security.

Thompson said in 2007, the committee learned the electric industry was not addressing a dangerous area of vulnerability.

The committee held hearings asking utilities to address the issue.

“The findings were disturbing. Most of the electric industry had not completed the recommended  mitigation’s, despite being advised to do so by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation. This effectively left many utilities vulnerable to attacks,” Thompson said.

“Furthermore, in spite of existing mandatory cyber security standards, the North American Electric Reliability Corporation recently reported that many utilities are under-reporting their critical cyber assets, potentially to avoid compliance requirements.”

The Critical Electric Infrastructure Protection Act would set standards in four areas to improve the electric grid’s defenses:

• Provides the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission with the authority necessary to issue emergency orders to owners and operators of the electric grid after receiving a finding from the Department of Homeland Security about a credible cyber attack.

• Requires the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to establish interim measures necessary to protect against known cyber threats to critical electric infrastructure.

• Requires the Department of Homeland Security to perform ongoing cyber security vulnerability and threat assessments to the electric infrastructure, and provide recommendations to eliminate identified vulnerabilities.

• Requires the Department of Homeland Security to conduct an investigation to determine if the security of federally owned electric infrastructure has been compromised by outsiders.

“I believe that this legislation adopts a common-sense approach toward securing our electric grid from cyber attack ...” Thompson said.