Going off the grid still carries a whiff of counter-culture. Many Americans live happy and fulfilling lives without being “grid-tied,” as a glance at Home Power Magazine will illustrate.
According to a recent report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office DEFENSE CRITICAL INFRASTRUCTURE Actions Needed to Improve the Identification and Management of Electrical Power Risks and Vulnerabilities to DOD Critical Assets, “DOD is the single largest consumer of energy in the United States…”
So why is the Pentagon worried about its over-dependence on the domestic power gird? The usual — national security.
In 2008…the Defense Science Board reported that “[c]ritical national security and homeland defense missions are at an unacceptably high risk of extended outage from failure of the [commercial electrical power] grid” upon which DOD overwhelmingly relies for its electrical power supplies. [Page 2, emphasis added.]
In the recent study, GAO found that “DOD’s most critical assets are vulnerable to disruptions in electrical power supplies, but DOD lacks sufficient information to determine the full extent of the risks and vulnerabilities these assets face.”
According to the Defense Science Board Task Force on DOD Energy Strategy, approximately 99 percent of the electrical power DOD installations consume originates from outside installation boundaries, while approximately 85 percent of the energy infrastructure that DOD relies on for electrical power is commercially owned and outside of DOD’s control. [Page 10.]
Why is the grid vulnerable?
Factors that contribute to the grid’s vulnerability include (1) increasing national demand for electricity; (2) an aging electrical power infrastructure; (3) increased reliance on automated control systems that are susceptible to cyberattacks; (4) the attractiveness of electrical power infrastructure as targets for physical or terrorist attacks; (5) long lead times (of several months to several years) for replacing high-voltage transformers—which cost several millions of dollars and are manufactured only in foreign countries—if attacked or destroyed; and (6) more frequent interruptions in fuel supplies to electricity-generating plants. [Page 13]
Despite the risks, GAO found that DOD has not completed an assessment of the vulnerability of its critical infrastructure, hindering the development and implementation of a risk-management plan.
The Pentagon understands the vulnerability of electric grids to hostile action. During Operation Allied Force, Serbian power infrastructure (transformers and generating stations) was attacked from the air. During the 2003 Iraq invasion, U.S. forces concentrated on transmission facilities, according to Human Rights Watch:
The United States targeted electrical power distribution facilities, but not generation facilities, throughout Iraq, according to a senior CENTCOM official. He told Human Rights Watch that instead of using explosive ordnance, the majority of the attacks were carried out with carbon fiber bombs designed to incapacitate temporarily rather than to destroy…
Electrical power was out for thirty days after U.S. strikes on two transformer facilities in al-Nasiriyya. Al-Nasiriyya 400 kV Electrical Power Transformer Station was attacked on March 22 at 6:00 a.m. using three U.S. Navy Tomahawk cruise missiles outfitted with variants of the BLU-114/B graphite bombs. These dispense submunitions with spools of carbon fiber filaments that short-circuit transformers and other high voltage equipment upon contact.
Pentagon planners figured out how to take down an opponent’s grid and then later realized that nothing prevents a hostile force from doing the same to us. The report of the EMP Commission details the consequences of large-scale assault on the domestic transmission system.
Concern rises as DOD deploys more battlefield weapons systems operated from bases within the United States running on power from the “civilian” power grid. Remote-controlled, unmanned aircraft attacking targets in Pakistan and Afghanistan are controlled from Nevada. Two dangers: (1) the “civilian” grid is a target for whomever we are fighting and (2) systems directly supporting battlefield efforts need higher reliability than the civilian grid can supply.
Undaunted, FERC Chairman Wellinghoff continues to demand new legal powers so his agency can impose high-voltage power lines on recalcitrant states and communities. His approach would make DOD facilities as well as civilian households even more dependent on far-away generators and hard-to-replace, high-voltage transformers.
Wellinghoff should take a look at the testimony filed by transmission export George Loehr with the Virginia State Corporation Commission in the PATH case. Loehr explains how increased dependence on distant generation makes the entire less reliable and more vulnerable to disruption, hostile or accidental. Not a few critical national-security installations are located in Maryland and surrounding jurisdictions.
No wonder the generals are thinking about ways to get “off the grid” or, at least, reduce their dependence on it. Imagine yourself the commander of a military installation; would you really feel comfortable getting all your electricity from the Eastern Interconnection that is vulnerable to cascading blackouts like the one in August 2003?