Terrorists, infrastructure porn and our fragile energy systems

 

They came shrouded by the early morning darkness near San Jose, Calif., equipped with night-vision goggles, AK-47s and an apparent lust to spill some transformer fluid. They cut some telephone cables and then, according to the Wall Street Journal:

Within half an hour, snipers opened fire on a nearby electrical substation. Shooting for 19 minutes, they surgically knocked out 17 giant transformers that funnel power to Silicon Valley. A minute before a police car arrived, the shooters disappeared into the night.

It’s a dramatic tale, and — as is any story about a group of people shooting into the night with assault rifles — scary, too. The substation was a big one, and the transformers critical pieces of equipment in keeping the electrical grid humming along smoothly. And it doesn’t take a flurry of bullets to put one out of commission and take out power to millions: Simple human error, a branch rubbing against a wire, or a bird landing on or a squirrel chewing on the wrong wire can do that. In this case, grid operators were able to bypass the substation without cutting off power to Silicon Valley. Disaster averted.

Each year, there are more than 1,500 unplanned outages in the Western Grid. Weather is the main cause; vandalism or terrorism are extremely rare. Source: WECC.

When the attack happened last April, it was at first called a random act of vandalism. Then, as premeditation became apparent, it was upgraded to sabotage. Conspiracy theory-leaning websites, meanwhile, insisted it was an act of terror, and that something bigger might be on its way. They weren’t the only ones. Last week, the Wall Street Journal whipped the news media into a frenzy with a report that has former Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Chairman Jon Wellinghoff saying that it was, indeed, a terror attack, and that it could be a “dress rehearsal” for a much larger action against the grid. That prompted leading Democratic lawmakers to send a letter to FERC, asking it to consider raising security standards on the grid.

Those of you who are regular readers of HCN's Goat Blog might remember my story about the attack shortly after it happened, and about how I thought we shouldn’t worry about terrorists: Climate change, not to mention birds and tree branches and mylar balloons, are a bigger threat to the grid. The new information doesn’t change my mind. With no disrespect to Wellinghoff and all the politicians worried about physical attacks to the grid, I say this: Yes, you should be concerned about the viability of our energy infrastructure. Yes, you should be putting some cash into making it more robust and regulating it more strictly. But, no, terrorism is not the biggest threat. Far from it.

Just one month before the aforementioned politicians sent that letter to FERC, a massive spill of a chemical used to wash coal left 300,000 people in West Virginia without potable water. Just a few days before the letter was sent, Duke Energy spilled more than 30,000 gallons of coal ash into the Dan River in North Carolina, and a few days later, 100,000 gallons of nasty coal slurry spilled into a creek, also in West Virginia, causing significant environmental damage. Around the same time, a natural gas well in Pennsylvania exploded, killing one worker and injuring another. And on Feb. 13, a major interstate gas pipeline exploded in Kentucky, leveling homes. There has been a spate of crude oil-carrying train crashes as of late. Meanwhile, another slower but devastating energy infrastructure disaster was unfolding in the South, where snow and ice crippled the grid, taking out power to as many as 600,000 people.

Incidents involving pipelines that carry natural gas, oil, carbon dioxide for energy production and related products result in dozens of injuries and accidents every year, along with millions of dollars in property damage. That doesn't account for the environmental harm of such spills. Source: Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

Those are just the noticeable disasters. Every day, the energy infrastructure fails in some way or another, sometimes with major consequences. In 2012, the Western Grid alone suffered from 1,644 unplanned outages; 560 were caused by weather, 365 by human error — zero by vandals. And that pipeline explosion in Kentucky? It was hardly unusual. Between 1994 and 2013, there were 5,621 “significant incidents” involving gas, oil and other hazardous material pipelines in the U.S., resulting in 359 fatalities, 1,396 injuries, $6.8 billion in property damage and 3.6 million barrels of spilt stuff, mostly oil and natural gas.

Energy infrastructure terror, indeed. Only terrorists, saboteurs or even just yahoos with guns aren’t the ones inflicting it. Nature, human error, old and tired infrastructure and a dearth of regulations are the culprits, along with the infrastructure itself. There are over 126,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines in the Western Grid alone, and 352,000 miles of natural gas, petroleum and CO2 (for energy development) pipelines criss-crossing the West, not to mention all of the power plants, oil and gas wells, substations, refineries and coal ash pits. Only a few places remain where one can find refuge from all of this stuff. It’s so pervasive that the landscape sometimes seems like a cyborg — half-nature, half-machine — with pipelines always under our feet and wires constantly slicing up our image of the sky.

Our energy systems are so big, complex and spread out, that they are doomed to fail on occasion, sometimes in ways that cascade catastrophically through the system. The electrical grid is especially vulnerable to such cascading failures, and that’s what has Wellinghoff worried: If a tiny glitch over here can blot out the lights and air conditioners and commerce to millions over there, then a well-orchestrated terror attack could disable huge swaths of the nation and its economy. But other experts argue the opposite, that the very complexity of the system makes it difficult if not impossible to know which “nodes” of the grid need to be knocked out in order to trigger a cascade, or protected in order to prevent one.

These maps of Los Angeles, Wyoming and the Four Corners region show how pervasive major energy infrastructure is, in both urban and rural areas. The orange-ish dots in L.A. are oil wells, the yellow lines are pipelines; the blue dots in the Four Corners are natural gas wells; and in Wyoming, coal, coalbed methane, oil and gas and oil pipelines are evident. Source: EIA.

It’s difficult to imagine what securing the electrical grid — or for that matter, the oil and gas pipeline grid — against physical attack might look like, or cost. So many of the critical pieces of the grid are miles and miles from the nearest cop, or even residence, that an attack, even if detected by surveillance cameras, could go unanswered for hours.

We’d be far better off focusing all of this energy not on securing the grid, but making it more resilient to the real threats: climate, weather, human error and equipment glitches. That, in turn, would enable it to handle a terror attack, on the rare chance that one would occur. Start by encouraging the creation of micro-grids and distributed generation — the less centralized your system, the less vulnerable it is to massive failure. Encourage efficiency and demand response. The less energy we use, the less burden we put on the infrastructure that produces and transports it. And stop worrying about guys with night vision goggles and guns and go after the really scary folks: The corporations who are skimping on infrastructure in order to save a buck, thereby imperiling not just our power supply, but people's lives and the environment.

Jonathan Thompson is a senior editor at High Country News. He tweets @jonnypeace.

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