Threats to our security dominate today’s headlines – terrorist attacks on innocent people, cyber attacks on airlines and nuclear plants, missiles being launched by North Korea, and Russian malware designed specifically to disable key infrastructure, to name a few.

But a major internal threat to the health and prosperity of the United States is sitting right out in the open, visible to every citizen every day. It’s our electricity system, known as the grid, and this critical national asset is vulnerable to a wide variety of clear and present threats.

The grid is a complex system of power plants, wires, poles, transformers and cables that deliver our nation’s lifeblood – electricity – to hundreds of millions of homes, businesses and critical service organizations every minute, every day. Much of the grid sits above ground, built in piecemeal fashion over the last 100 years, at risk to the intentions of man and the forces of nature. The system works quite well under normal circumstances.

But in today’s perilous world, where normal seems to change every day, our electrical grid is not as well-protected, robust or resilient as times demand. This situation is well-documented. In fact, every U.S. President since 1990 has acknowledged that U.S. infrastructure risks are high, that the threats are real, and each has pledged to promptly address the looming potential risks.

Unfortunately, little has changed. A March 2017 report on U.S. infrastructure risks from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Center for International Studies found: “Relative to the increased resources and sophistication of criminal and nation-state attackers, it is doubtful that the defense has improved at all. Attacks are still easy and cheap to launch and difficult and expensive to defend against.”

The new Administration, similar to those of the recent past, has acknowledged the severity of the situation and issued an Executive Order on cybersecurity threats, including our electrical infrastructure. A report is now due from two Cabinet agencies in less than 60 days, and will surely verify what is already documented – system vulnerabilities are well and widely known, as are the threats, and regardless of what type of major grid disruption occurs – whether cyber, physical or natural – the impact could be long-term and devastating.

In fairness, many entities have been working to make grid improvements – from the nation’s electric utilities, which own and maintain much of the grid, to system operators who oversee the generation and flow of electricity across the nation, to state and federal regulatory agencies and the Departments of Energy and Homeland Security. But those efforts are not well-coordinated or funded on a national scale and, absent cohesive, focused leadership, they will likely only achieve limited success over an extended period of time.

Most importantly, those efforts do not identify appropriate funding mechanisms to pay for what must be done to adequately protect the backbone of our society and economy. Establishing a comprehensive plan for funding major electric grid improvements must be a top priority in any infrastructure legislation.

Improving the grid also supports and ensures resilience in other key infrastructure areas – transportation, air traffic, finance, communications, healthcare, technology integration, and energy development, for example – all of which rely on an adequate and reliable supply of electricity. Simply put, our nation and our economy cannot function without electricity.

After more than 25 years of Presidential acknowledgement of the need for grid improvements, the time for comprehensive, coordinated action is now. With the same sense of urgency and focus which led our government to put a man on the moon, we must begin today to make our national electrical grid less vulnerable, more robust and more resilient.

This will require four components:

  • A thorough and candid assessment of exactly where improvements and upgrades are needed, in order of priority, to be completed as soon as possible;
  • Development of a collective national plan, driven by Congress and the Administration in partnership with the full range of infrastructure entities, to drive key short- and long-term grid improvements;
  • Regulatory reform, including having the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) establish improved, consistent uniform standards for the North American bulk power system that rise to the level of detail and excellence required to meet the threats we face; and,
  • Identification of public and private funding mechanisms to raise the necessary financing in an equitable manner.

Advances in technology have brought significant improvements in electrical efficiency in the last decade. We must continue to use that spirit of innovation to extract ever more energy from every kilowatt of power produced, and to drive electric grid improvements that significantly reduce vulnerabilities. We have the technical prowess to develop solutions.

The timeliness with which we rise to this challenge is critical. As the great military strategist Gen. Douglas MacArthur said: “The history of failure in war, or in any other human endeavor, can be summed up in two words: ‘too late.’”

On this critical endeavor, where the threats and concerns are real, where public opinion polls support government and the private sector working together to address this imperative, where the technology exists, we cannot be too late. The consequences are far too high.

James Cunningham, a former senior electric utility industry executive, is Executive Director of Protect Our Power, a not-for-profit organization seeking to build consensus among key stakeholders, decision-makers and public policy influencers to launch a coordinated, comprehensive and adequately funded effort to make the nation’s electric grid more resilient and more resistant to all external threats. Eric Hatzimemos, of Guiliani and Associates, serves on the Advisory Panel of Protect our Power.