Do any of us fully realize the vulnerability of the electricity infrastructure of the United States?
Given the inter-connectivity of our information age, it is undeniable that essentially everyone not only uses the power grid, but they do it every single hour of every single day. From traffic signals and air conditioning to alarm systems and Internet commerce, electricity is absolutely vital to daily functioning.
Many would be shocked at the idea that something this essential would be at the same time so defenseless – and yet, that is the scary reality.
On April 16, 2013, just before 1 a.m., someone slipped unnoticed into an underground vault near PG&E’s Metcalf Transmission Substation, near San Jose, California. They cut the telephone cables and opened fire on the substation. In all, 17 transformers within the complex were destroyed in an attack lasting less than 20 minutes. To date, the perpetrators have not been caught.
Luckily, other plants were able to meet the power need preventing a temporary blackout and continued filling the void during the 27-day repair until the substation was fully operational. Notably, Jon Wellinghoff, then the chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), called the attack, “The most significant incident of domestic terrorism involving the grid that has ever occurred.”
The obvious question: Why would someone attack a substation? Or that substation?
Imagine how easily a small cell of terrorists could destroy infrastructure and create large-scale blackouts, with little risk of being caught. Our Country’s enemies could so easily capitalize on our hyper-vulnerability, this figurative chink in our security armor, making it all the more important to address it—and soon.
A well-planned and executed attack on several substations could easily cause rolling blackouts and leave millions of Americans without power for days, and perhaps far longer. This is not only a security risk, but also a societal threat that would result in an economic nightmare. In a worst case scenario, hospitals, retirement homes, schools, businesses and law enforcement could all be running on emergency lights and generators, assuming they were running at all.
We pass transmission substations daily without giving them a second thought. The lack of apparent security should never make us forget they are vital cogs in the network that makes up the infrastructure of this nation. They serve as hubs for intersecting grid lines and make it possible to move electricity over long distances.
The large transformers targeted in last year’s attack make electricity transmission possible. The fact that they are heavy, expensive and not quickly produced means that a successful, coordinated attack on a number of important substations could result in outages affecting tens of millions and lasting for weeks, months or even longer.
Thus far, everyone seems to be more or less in the dark (pun intended!). Clearly, closed circuit television feeds from cameras, chain linked or occasionally barbed wire fencing and a few warning signs are not going to protect these substations from harm. We need to find a more effective solution.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ numbers from January of 2014 say the unemployment rate among military veterans is 5.6%, which means that roughly 600,000 veterans are currently unemployed. The unemployed rate rises to 7.9% for veterans who served since September 11th, 2001, representing around 190,000 veterans without jobs.
So here’s an idea: It is achievable, not to mention relatively inexpensive, to create a force of guards for America’s transmission substations comprised of unemployed veterans. The size of the force would depend on the specifics of the substation, but teams of between two to three dozen guards would certainly be helpful added protection. We have already invested money in training our military veterans, giving them invaluable skills we can now use to guard our Nation’s infrastructure.
The simplicity of this solution should not detract from its potential effectiveness. It would not take many armed veterans to deter such attacks on these substations. The mere human presence alone acts as a more potent deterrent than all of the methods being used today.
In short, we plug a hole in the defenses of the Country while decreasing veteran unemployment—a true win-win. In terms of funding this measure, a marginal fee could be placed on utility bills coupled with less training overhead and the sheer number of individuals paying the fee; it would be virtually unnoticeable to the average consumer.
This deficit neutral idea, used effectively, to successfully guard the United States from attacks: that’s a plan that should light up Capitol Hill.