Power in Peril- By Joshoua Jacobs

It’s already mid-August and summertime has embraced the country from east to west. Record high temperatures are a common occurrence no matter what corner of the United States you live in. This means health advisories, problematic effects on any outdoor work and of course a major strain on power grids exists everywhere.

In historic terms the U.S. has had its fair share of power problems. The Northeast Blackout of 1965 and the more recent Northeast Blackout of 2003 are two damning examples of what happens to overloaded power grids on a summer day in big cities across the Northeast. But was it just the heat and increased power consumption that caused this cascading event to take place, and what does this mean in terms of vulnerability and a possible terrorist attack on power stations?

Contrary to popular belief, the Northeast Blackout in 2003 was determined to have been caused by more than just one factor. In-fact four different events took place in order for the failure to occur. Investigators did mention that a power plant in Eastlake, Ohio was the root cause of the problem due to overload. However, maybe the most important finding related to a possible future terror strike was that the power company FirstEnergy failed to understand the deteriorating condition of its systems. Complicating this matter was the company’s inadequacies of fully understanding its own, aging systems.

If a certain power grid is already stressed from over consumption during the hottest day(s) of the year, the power company itself has been unable to update or replace certain components of the grid and if that company’s failure to understand its own system exists wouldn’t it seem logical that this would be a prime target for a terrorist attack? A lot of experts think so.

“Coincidently” published just 14 days after the 2003 blackout, ScienceDaily ran a story about two professors from the University of Missouri-Rolla who had created a device named FACTS, or Flexible Air Conditioning Transmission System. As quoted in the article, “Theses FACTS devices will correct flow problems and guard against failures.” But even both professors admitted that without proper security surrounding the systems already in place then the FACTS devices could be overrun by terrorists, resulting in massive blackouts. “Hardware can fail, software can be incorrect and, in the worst case, computers can be taken over by terrorists and set to confuse the FACTS network to do exactly the wrong thing,” Dr. Bruce McMillin said in the article.

More currently the Black Hat Briefings on August 3 once again highlighted the demand for updates of decades old equipment and the hardware and software that they control. Vulnerabilities ranging from absolutely no passwords implemented in current systems to the ease of bringing down full power grids with just a simple virus or worm expose the simplicity to create a catastrophic power event. The most hair raising example was the discovery made last year when the Stuxnet worm targeted specific Siemens controllers used in Iran’s nuclear facilities. Whether Iran claimed this was a targeted event by Israel or the US, the facts are apparent; the weapons to bring down these systems are real.

The point is that there are and will be tools at the disposal of groups or people determined on using them in destructive ways. Can the US catch up for the demand of a more secure power grid and its systems? Only time will tell.

Homeland Security Network Blog

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