With the publication of The Red Saguaro slated for mid-January 2018, I have drafted an op-ed for the WSJ to be submitted at the end of December. Here’s the draft. I’d like your comments:
Weapons of Mass Destruction in Our Own Communities
If we learned a radical Islamic faction had secretly installed WMDs around our communities, we would be singularly focused on the immediate elimination of this threat. In fact, our communities are vulnerable to such a devastating attack, but the reality is radicals have not installed these WMDs. We did it ourselves. And for good reason.
I refer to the large power transformers (LPTs) of our electric grid. In addition to concerns of cyber-security and electro-magnetic pulses, add to it our LPTs which are “critical infrastructure points” for the grid. Unfortunately, their exposure to malevolence has not caught the attention of politicians nor the country in general.
Here are some details:
To bring power to our cities economically, electric utilities must increase the voltage from their generators to extra high levels. This is done through a set of “step-up” transformers. With the voltage at these levels, the power is transmitted on tall towers long distances to key transmission substations surrounding a metropolitan area. There, the voltage is stepped back down to a “sub-transmission” level through another – highly critical, massive, and very expensive — LPT. Power is then sent throughout the city to smaller substations with their own transformers which lower the voltage even more. Before the power comes to a home, a final small distribution transformer brings the voltage down to “house level”.
Problem 1: The huge step-up and step-down LPTs are the soft underbelly of our electric infrastructure. A terrorist group, using online maps, can easily locate and plot an attack on these LPTs which each weigh about 40,000 pounds and cost millions of dollars. Flying a small plane into an LPT is not out of the question. It’s easy to envision other non-suicidal methods of destroying them.
Problem 2: The manufacturing time to replace an LPT is a staggering eighteen months! If a single LPT is attacked, utilities can reroute power; homes and businesses will feel little effect. However, if a coordinated attack is accomplished, wherein multiple LPTs are hit, power could be out for many months. Millions could be without electricity, air-conditioning and heating, gasoline, food, water, and emergency services. Anarchy would break out in weeks, if not days. The loss of life could certainly exceed 9-11-01.
Problem 3: Largely, each LPT is unique and not interchangeable, at least without some loss of energy-carrying capacity. This makes sharing between utilities not advantageous.
Fortunately, a relatively simple solution to minimize this threat exists. Each utility could purchase and warehouse – away from these key substations – spare LPTs. With sufficient spares, power could therefore be restored in a matter of days. Terrorists will see the risk of planning an attack on multiple LPTs to be too high, compared with their other sordid forms of terror.
So what’s the hang up? Some investor-owned utilities are pushing for permission from the price regulators to buy — and include in their rates — spare LPTs. So far, their arguments have not been well accepted. Progress is impeded by political considerations; timing of normal, lengthy, and expensive rate cases; arcane accounting principles; and perhaps eroded relationships between utilities and their regulators. Using my own simplified economic model, the cost of this solution appears trivial. A local spare plan of approximately ten LPTs would increase a residential consumer’s bill only about 50 cents each month. That’s less than a movie ticket annually!
Industry and government organizations are in the study phase. Compared to cyber issues, this physical security concern is grossly underfunded at the federal level.
What to do? Citizens should contact their utility price-regulator or municipality, as the case may be, asking for proof of a comprehensive plan for spare LPTs in their locale and if, and of what size, an emergency rate adjustment is necessary. Political pressure is the key.
Some will be concerned my writing is educating terrorists about this threat. Be aware — it is all over the internet. This newspaper has published information on it, as well as the National Academy of Sciences. Security obscurity works only for a short while. What if a novel twenty years ago warned us of the possibility of hijacked planes attacking the World Trade Center? Might the world be different today?
Robert N. Llewellyn is a management consultant and author in the electric-utility industry. He resides in Phoenix, Arizona. His novel about the grid, The Red Saguaro: A Novel of National Import, is forthcoming in January from Wheatmark.
Originally published November 20, 2017 by Robert Llewellyn