Electric grid vulnerability: No time to waste

by John E. Shkor, U.S. Coast Guard Vice Admiral (Ret.).

The coronavirus has made it crystal clear that an existential threat can engulf our entire nation with a speed and level of impact that we previously believed was impossible.

It does not matter that we are the United States of America, or that we are the most technologically and, in this case, medically advanced nation in the world. When it really mattered, even though the warning signs were blinking red, we did not organize promptly and were unprepared to deal with the threat swiftly and effectively.

We’ve been warned repeatedly over the past two years about another “lights are blinking red” threat to our national security that has equal or greater potential than the coronavirus to cast us quickly into collective national chaos: the vulnerability of our national electric grid.

As crippling as the coronavirus situation is for our nation, a major grid catastrophe likely would be considerably worse, for one simple reason: In today’s world, our critical infrastructure cannot function properly without electricity.

Indeed, as we have transitioned to remote work and life, we are even more dependent on the technology of communications, which require power to keep everything from Netflix to personal computers, video conferencing platforms and mobile phones working.

Imagine a United States in which phones, the internet and television cease to operate; cars, trucks, trains and airplanes are idled because fuel pumps and charging stations are disabled; banks and ATMS are inoperable; home heating and air conditioning systems no longer work; food and clean water supplies dwindle, and hospitals and other emergency services are largely unavailable.

It is not an exaggeration to suggest that if our supply of electricity is severely reduced or eliminated, our nation will grind to a halt in a matter of days.

Against this bleak backdrop, a congressionally-appointed blue-ribbon commission known as the Cyberspace Solarium Commission, recently laid out the framework of a clear and effective plan for dealing with a major cyberattack against the United States, including the electric grid.

While the group’s 75-plus specific recommendations cut a wide swath across critical infrastructure industries and agencies, their most important and cross-cutting recommendation is relatively simple — better planning and preparation for foreseeable threats and disasters, supported by strong leadership and execution.

With regard to the electric grid, the accuracy of this overarching recommendation is verified and validated by our experience in numerous prior natural and manmade disasters, including Hurricanes Sandy in the Northeast and Maria in Puerto Rico. As those examples illustrate, the scope, duration and impacts of a major power outage are directly related to the effectiveness of efforts to build protection and resiliency into the grid before an event occurs.

The good news is that we now have no excuse. We have a smart set of more than 75 recommendations on what needs to be done, including new, sharply-focused federal leadership and recognition that resilience is the key to surviving a cyberattack.

The commission report also proposes a “continuity of the economy” program that would clarify how our power supply, banking, health care, food and other essential services and goods could survive a major cyberattack, and provides guidance for state and local governments and private companies.  The report authors bluntly said when they released the report: “We are doing a ‘9/11 report’ to prevent a ‘9/11’ in the future.”

The coronavirus pandemic has proven that we have no time to waste in implementing the recommendations of the Cyberspace Solarium Commission. We need the president to direct relevant agencies to initiate needed rulemakings, and we need congressional leaders to schedule hearings and review draft legislation.  As we are witnessing, the cost of being unprepared is unacceptable and, in the case of the electric grid, wholly unnecessary.

John Shkor

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