By John Herrman
Posting in Design
It's a system so inconsistent and disorderly that an attack against the national--or even a regional--power grid may be technologically impossible.
Researchers regularly sound sirens about the vulnerability of America's infrastructure to terrorist attacks, citing lack of security and incomplete or incoherent disaster preparedness plans. But our power grid, one of the country's most vital technological assets, may be safer than we think. Why? Because it's so screwed up.
The scariest reports about the fragility of our power grid focus on its interdependence. There have been cases in which a grid disruption in one location has led to failures in surprisingly faraway locations. (Science Daily recalls a blackout in 2003 that hopped from Ohio to NYC, then to Canada.) Hearing such a story emphasizes one aspect of the nation's power grid, and power grids in general: They are connected to one another at the speed of light, so disruptions are unpredictable, hard to get in front of and potentially problematic not just at their source, but almost anywhere.
Much has been written about this interconnectedness, and the grid's susceptibility to attack is generally described with so-called "Topographical" models, which emphasize the domino-like effect that has been observed during some outages. This is where doomsday terrorism scenarios come from.
A paper in the American Institute of Physics' Chaos journal comes bearing a different message: Calm down. Why? Because out grid is simply too disorganized and unpredictable to allow a small attack to grow large. Let's call it... security by absurdity.
Researchers from the University of Vermont and Penn State ran a simulation against data provided by the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, designed to match real world failures and their effects against what is predicted by both a topographic model, and a new model of their own making, which focuses on the basic physics of the transmission of electricity. (The paper can be purchased here, and is summarized here.)
The results suggest flaws in the topographic model, in no small part because the way neighboring power stations react to failures is wildly unpredictable. The tight, consistent and predictable interconnection between parts of the power grid required for a wide-scale disruption, or domino effect, just doesn't exist as some had assumed.
This, the researchers claim, is the result of years and years of piecemeal expansion of the power grid that lacked broad consistency and logic, bending to the needs of local and state power providers at a cost to uniformity. Researcher Paul Hines told Science Daily:
Our system is quite robust to small things failing -- which is very good. Even hurricanes have trouble taking out power systems. Hurricanes do cause power system failures, but they don't often take out the whole system.
Great news, right? It's a double-edged sword. Just as the unpredictability of the behavior of our power grid makes it difficult for those with malign ends to damage it, it makes large-scale overhaul extremely difficult. That the grid may confound would-be terrorists is at best an unintended evolutionary side-effect of this country's inconsistent process of modernization.
Oct 14, 2010
My research indicates that if we would roll that highway up into a 14' pipe it would cost a whole lot less and in the secure and controlled environment. Acomplish transport and electrical transmission with out 95% of thier energy consumptions. with out accidents and congestion which is about 300 billion a year. And of course smoothly begin transitioning from petroleum dependency its emissions and economic instabilities and its all ecologically and environmental sound. https://docs.google.com/document/edit?id=1IIN9jq7d4cEWknLAYIS1-cAwvyytj5B7P8Pmfttxikc&hl=en#
act the irony is the 2003 blackout proved how vulnerable the powersystem actuyally is... not how securwe it is by its robustness... which is utterly absurb to anyone that had actually lived through that 22 hour blackout in 2003... which actually was casued simply by an ohio energy company's (FirstEnergy) failure to trim trees... thats right TREES... not terrorists... not an energy disaster, not even malintent of any kind, as a results a single generating plant went offline which in turn place a higher demand oh the high voltage lines, wheich then in turn took the high voltage transmission lines offline... the casade (domino) effect then proceeded to knock more than 100 power plants offline and effected 55 million people... 10 milion whom like myself live in ontario canada, not even in the same country as the screwup occured yet, we were in a blackout just the same. so i'm sorry but this article is completely flawed from premise to explaination... that event proved a disaster at one location can and indeed already has don't exactly what they say can't be done, cause a domino effect of blackouts... which is exactly what the east coast blackout was... and that wasn't even by design... that was just by function of incompetence and cost cutting... if overgrown tree are a threat to the US's powergrid (and they already have proven such), than they would certianly be vulnerable to a deliberate attack... it would be assine to think otherwise, unless in the last 7 years they've completely restructured the power grid (which they haven't)... and for 2, on the practicle side (something not yet considered, obviously) is if the powergrid were to suffer an actual attack, you wouldn't likely get that plant back online... not for several days to months depending on their extent of damages. and for 3, the US has no defense against the biggest threat to their powergrid; EMP, because barring world war 3 it would be lauched from within their borders or on their coast (possibly out of a shipping containership; thats the big worrry about "terrorists" and iran in the last 2-3 years... one to three well placed nuclear explosions at high altitude would completely cripple the mainland US and probably most of north america altogether... and the flip side is it can just as easily come from a natural source (solar flares), and likewise just the same, the US has no defense against this... and we happen to be going into a solar maximum which is predicted to give off several flares (M and X class solar flares) which could do exactly that between 2011 and 2013, litterally right around the corner as far as timelines go... and even at the most liberal estimates it would take months to start recovering from such a catastrophe; and more than likely years... though in either case for this point it wouldn't be a cascade effect, just an epic failure of the powergrid. and here's the kicker... if the energy grid were as important to the US as a military it would have been hardened, made redundant, and having constant oversupply of energy being generated back in the cold war, which would have solved these problems LONG before any of us heard about them, and before many of us were even born... but its simply not one of their priorities, and as such the powergrid still is vulnerable... even to overgrown trees... much less terrorists.
I'm thinking the last hurricane that came thru here in a meaningful fashion was in 2004 or thereabouts and the two weeks I had to haul water to a herd of cows and 5 horses. Not to mention the rest of the farm critters and humans. I was real tired of it by day two. And if I didn't have a generator to keep the fridge and air conditioner in the kids room going I would have been living here alone. So it may be that you don't think the system is down much for storms and such but if you are in a non typical neighborhood instead of 16 units to an acre, you will be without power for a long time. And I can just see how two weeks without the power grid up north during January could be lethal to the people involved. Yeah, it may be "safe" from local terrorists but I still want plans for improvement (underground lines for all , not just the rich), digital meters to prevent tampering and a type of gapzapper to stop a failure before it gets to Canada. For starters.
@ zclayton3, It's quite a bit like that, with one difference: security by obscurity is intentional, while this is entirely unintentional, at least from a security standpoint.
that is normally pegged as relying on obscurity for its security. Microsoft is anything but obscure.
Hmm - Security by obscurity? Isn't that what Microsoft relies on? How has that worked out after a vulnerability is discovered by malware writers?