In July of 2020, a drone outfitted with 4-foot nylon ropes suspending a thick copper wire tried to short-circuit the grid at a Pennsylvania power substation. The machine, which was stripped of all its markings and memory card in order to obfuscate its origin, missed its target, crashing on the roof of an adjacent building. According to WIRED, the attack “constitutes the first known instance of a modified, unmanned aircraft system being used to ‘specifically target’ US energy infrastructure,” but it almost certainly won’t be the last. The United States is extremely vulnerable to attacks, particularly on our old and fraying power grids. In the last two years alone, we have seen two crippling cyberattacks that showed the extreme fragility of the country’s power grids -- first the SolarWinds cyber-espionage attack, which went unnoticed for six months and spread to organizations including NATO, the U.K. government, the European Parliament, Microsoft and others, and then the Colonial Pipeline attack, which caused major disruptions to the fuel supply chain in massive swaths of the southeastern United States all from the theft of a single password.
The aging grid is not only increasingly vulnerable to nefarious activity from money-hungry hackers and power-hungry foreign governments, but extreme weather patterns are also imperiling the flow of electricity, as tragically showcased by the February freeze that killed 210 people in Texas when the lone star state’s deregulated power grids failed. As extreme weather events like cold snaps, ice storms, and hurricanes continue to grow more powerful and more frequent due to global warming, updating the grid is a matter of utmost urgency.
In a country where so much of the day-to-day business takes place in the digital space, an attack on the grid could be a crippling act of warfare. Access to vital goods and services such as food and medical care could be undermined in a split second. Just this year, the American Society of Civil Engineers reviewed the United States energy sector and graded it a C- due to the fact that the “majority of the nation’s grid is aging, with some components over a century old—far past their 50-year life expectancy—and others, including 70% of transmission and distribution lines, are well into the second half of their lifespans.”
Making the power grid “smart” will help protect the nation from these myriad threats to the electric supply. The grid is essentially a huge network of machines that monitor the inflow and outflow of energy. If supply and demand are not kept in equilibrium, this can damage the power plants. Managing this flow has gotten much more complicated with the introduction of variable energy inputs such as wind and solar, as well as the addition of producer-consumers (“prosumers”) who supply energy back to the grid, for example via their own residential solar panels. “Smart grids” monitor supply and demand more quickly and accurately, making the grid more stable and secure.
U.S. Congress started calling for the development of a smart grid back in 2007 and has spent billions of dollars on the effort so far. However, they still have a long way to go. And, it should be noted, smart grids won’t solve all our problems. “By connecting all of our electrical systems to computer networks, many of which are designed to be controlled remotely, security experts say we’ve placed ourselves at high risk for potentially disastrous cyberattacks,” Scientific American recently reported.
Nevertheless, smart grids are a huge improvement on the United States’ currently woeful energy infrastructure. The Biden administration’s massive infrastructure Bill, which was finally passed on Friday after months of Congressional debate and back-room negotiations, includes “$3 billion for smart grid grants, funding for technologies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and money for two advanced nuclear demonstration projects” according to E&E News. This injection of cash will be absolutely essential to make Biden’s other plans possible. Without revamping the grid, large-scale clean energy and electric vehicles adoption simply would not be possible.
By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com
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