Commission Blasts Journal for Report on Substation Vulnerability

Thursday, 13 Mar 2014 08:35 AM

By Melissa Clyne

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The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has criticized The Wall Street Journal for disclosing an internal report stating that a nationwide blackout could occur with the sabotage of just nine electric-transmission substations.

"Today's publication by The Wall Street Journal of sensitive information about the grid undermines the careful work done by professionals who dedicate their careers to providing the American people with a reliable and secure grid," the FERC statement reads.

"The Wall Street Journal has appropriately declined to identify by name particularly critical substations throughout the country. Nonetheless, the publication of other sensitive information is highly irresponsible . . . the publication of sensitive material about the grid crosses the line from transparency to irresponsibility."

The Journal reported this week that a previously unreported federal analysis shows that coordinated attacks in each of the country's three separate electric systems could render the entire U.S. dark "for weeks, if not months."

"This would be an event of unprecedented proportions," University of Texas at Austin electrical engineering professor Ross Baldick told the Journal.

The Journal did not disclose the list of the 30 critical substations studied in the FERC power flow analysis, which used "software to model the electric system's performance under the stress of losing important substations."

Former FERC Chairman Jon Wellinghoff briefed the White House and Congress on the study's results months ago, according to the newspaper, following a shooting attack last April on a Metcalf, Calif., substation outside San Jose. In that incident, gunmen shot 17 large transformers over 19 minutes. No arrests have been made and no blackouts resulted from the attack.

While outages were averted, the incident demonstrates the vulnerability of power stations, according to a memo written by Leonard Tao, a FERC official. Tao's memo further states that "the entire United States grid would be down for at least 18 months, probably longer," in part because so few U.S. factories build transformers.

One official disputed the report, telling The Journal grids are resilient and would be difficult to incapacitate.

New standards for protecting high voltage sub stations are in the works, according to The Journal, which reported that several unidentified large utilities are increasing security spending.

In a memo to the newspaper from Wellinghoff, he says bolstering security can be achieved.

"There are probably less than 100 critical high voltage substations on our grid in this country that need to be protected from a physical attack," he wrote. "It is neither a monumental task, nor is it an inordinate sum of money that would be required to do so."

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