What Will the November 13 Electric Grid Test Accomplish?

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United States Power Grid. Image by FEMA.

United States Power Grid – how vulnerable is our power system, and what’ll happen when we test the grid? Image by FEMA.

The television series, Revolution takes place 15 years after the start of a worldwide electrical blackout. There is fear and confusion, even government failure. This could never happen, you might think.

Perhaps not to that extent – but as Matthew Wald points, experts consider the electric grid the glass jaw of industry. These experts do indeed believe that an adversary could land a physical or cyber knockout blow to the grid that would create disruptions on an unprecedented scale; thus the grid test.

Why is the Electric Grid So Vulnerable?

First off, the grid is old, huge and complex. Furthermore, it is controlled by investor-owned companies or municipal or regional agencies, and run by computers and devices that in some cases are themselves antique. Most alarming is the fact that an unknown number of computers are open to the Internet and vulnerable to malware – the impact of a virus is a main scenario of the test.

Would another nation really attack our grid? We, the U.S., have used viruses ourselves to achieve security objectives in conjunction with Israel; the Stuxnet virus  disabled some of Iran’s centrifuges for enriching uranium.

In addition to viruses, we’re also vulnerable to electromagnetic pulses (EMP), which can come from solar activity or be caused by small nuclear weapons exploding at low altitude, frying crucial components.

November 13/14 Grid Test: What Is It?

The North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC), whose standards are mandatory and enforceable throughout the United States and several provinces in Canada, is running the test, GridEx II. Grid Exercise Two is a simulated exercise and will practice NERC and industry crisis-response plans, and attempt to identify actionable improvements, thus building on lessons learned from GridEx 2011.

NERC's GRID EX 11. Image by NERC.

NERC’s GRID EX II will bring our power grid’s vulnerabilities to light. Image by NERC.

Put another way, GridEx 2 is an attempt to explore how governments would react as the loss of the grid crippled the supply chain for everyday necessities; particularly if the outage is for an extended amount of time. In this case, however, the government plans no real outages.

More specifically, it will engage thousands of utility workers, business executives, National Guard officers, F.B.I. anti-terrorism experts and officials from government agencies in the United States, Canada and Mexico – but not everyday citizens. Your power will not be affected.

GridEx II: What Will November’s Power Grid Test Accomplish?

The power grid will not go out in this simulation, but power companies all over the nation will be scrambling to deal with scary scenarios. What’ll come out of the GridEx 2? Recommendations that will, in theory, help harden the grid – potentially even more laws governing the Internet, to keep the grid safe from hackers. In this author’s opinion, major changes are not likely in today’s polarized America.

As reported by Matthew Wald, Curt Hébert, a former chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission said that “previous exercises were based on the expectation that electricity would be up and running relatively quick after an attack. But now the goal is to educate the federal government on what their expectations should or shouldn’t be.

Resources

Broad, William J. et al. Israeli Test on Worm Called Crucial in Iran Nuclear Delay(2011). Accessed November 13, 2013.

NERC. Grid Ex 11(2013). Accessed November 12, 2013.

Wald, Matthew. As Worries Over the Power Grid Rise, a Drill Will Simulate a Knockout Blow(2013). Accessed November 13, 2013.

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© Copyright 2013 James Gibson, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Science

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