The Public/Private Imperative to Protect the Grid

Last week, three high-powered flares erupted from the Sun in a single 24-hour period, emitting electro-magnetic energy particle toward Earth and throughout the Solar System. The flares were categorized as X-class flares, capable of inflicting damage to the electrical grid.

Also last week, a power station in Nogales, Arizona, was targeted for attack by a bomb and an incendiary device planted on a 50,000 gallon diesel tank. Thankfully, the attempt failed.

And last month, The Department of Homeland Security announced that a public utility in the US that was the target of a cyber-attack that compromised its control system network. Power companies use Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) networks to control their industrial systems and many of these SCADA networks need to be updated and hardened to meet growing cybersecurity threats.

In all three cases the electric grid was spared consequences that could have been devastating and disrupted power on a grand scale. The underlying reality that our electric grid infrastructure in extremely vulnerable, to physical, cyber, and forces of nature incidents. Public/Private collaboration is essential to preventing a next incident to the grid and a national catastrophe.

Protecting our grid is certainly a topic that keeps DHS, DOD and intelligence community planners up at night. The threats can be from Electronic Magnetic Pulse (EMP) generated from a geomagnetic solar flare or from a terrorist short range missile, cybersecurity attacks, or from a physical assault on utilities or power plants.

Because of recent incidents and the growing interdependence of our economy to the electrical grid, the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Cybersecurity, Infrastructure Protection and Security Technologies held bi-partisan hearings addressing the threats and implications.

Testimony at the Hearings from Dr. Peter Prye, a member of the Congressional EMP Commission and executive director of the Task Force on National and Homeland Security, put the threats in frightening perspective: “Natural EMP from a geomagnetic super storm, like the 1859 Carrington Event or 1921 Railroad Storm, and nuclear EMP attack from terrorists or rogue states, as practiced by North Korea during the nuclear crisis of 2013, are both existential threats that could kill 9 of 10 Americans through starvation, disease and societal collapse.”

Dr.Prye also noted that “a natural EMP catastrophe or nuclear EMP event could black out the national electric grid for months or years and collapse all the other critical infrastructures — communications, transportation, banking and finance, food and water — necessary to sustain modern society and the lives of 310 million Americans. “

Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., Chairman of the Congressional EMP Caucus, and considered the foremost expert on EMP in Congresshas introduced legislation (H.R. 3410) called the Critical Infrastructure Protection Act. The Act would enable the DHS to implement practical steps to protect the electric grid by training and mobilizing First Responders for possible EMP events.

Along with Franks and Dr. Peter Prye, several noted industry and policy experts including former CIA Director Jim Woolsey; Frank Gaffney a former deputy secretary of Defense and now president and CEO of the Center For Security Policy; and Michael Del Rosso, former chairman of the IEEE-USA Critical Infrastructure Protection Committee have been especially active in alerting the public to the critical need to find near-term solutions to protect the grid.

Private industry owns most of the nation’s critical infrastructure (communications, transportation, financial, healthcare) dependent on the grid. Finding solutions will require strong public/private sector partnering and collaboration in research, development, and proto-typing . That partnership must include an accelerated effort to fund and design new technologies to protect the utilities from natural or man-made electromagnetic surges; further harden hardware and software in SCADA networks from cyber-attack,; and provide enhanced physical security for the grid.

Helping reduce the vulnerability of the grid has become a national imperative and the clock is ticking

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