Consensus is growing that the U.S. electricity grid is vulnerable to both hacking and physical attacks, but protecting it remains a work in progress—especially given the spending that would be necessary by financially stretched utilities.
The risks have heightened the calls for officials to address potential threats before they become reality. In November, the North American Energy Reliability Corp. staged a simulated attack on the grid; meanwhile, House Energy and Commerce Committee ranking member Rep. Henry Waxman, D.-Calif., flagged the grid as "not adequately protected" from either cyber or physical attacks at a hearing in December.
Guy Crittenden | Workbook | Getty Images
M. Granger Morgan, the head of engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University, told CNBC that a physical attack on the grid poses a "much greater threat" than a cyberattack. Still, he added that vulnerabilities within the technological network of the power system itself require "real and urgent attenuation."
Government regulators "have a responsibility to establish mandates to increase security," said Granger, one of the authors of a National Academy of Sciences report that outlined risks to the grid.
Meanwhile, utilities and independent system operators "have a responsibility to meet those mandates and also to do continual audits and surveillance," Granger added.
(Read more: US power grid system to undergo simulated attack)
Options include enhanced sensors that can detect breaches or unauthorized personnel, limits on the electronic pathways to external systems, and more physical surveillance.
|2002||Philippines||Half of country affected by power plant outages|
|2003||Algeria||Entire country affected by power plant breakdown|
|2003||Denmark||Power to 5 million customers interrupted by a transmission line fault|
|2003||Georgia, Eastern Europe||Entire country affected by transmission tower collapse|
|2003||North Carolina, Virginia||Power to 2,200,200 customers interrupted by Hurricane Isabel|
|August 14, 2003||Midwestern and northeastern United States, southeastern Canada||Power to 50 million customers interrupted; estimated social costs from $4 billion to $10 billion; massive traffic jams in New York City (U.S.-Canada, 2004)|
|August 30, 2003||London||Power to 410,000 customers interrupted by incorrect relay operation|
|September 18, 2003||Tidewater region, United States||Power to 4 million customers interrupted|
|September 23, 2003||Denmark and Sweden||Power to 4 million customers interrupted|
|August 24, 1992||Florida||Power to 1 million customers interrupted|
|September 27, 2003||Italy||Power to 57 million customers interrupted; at least 5 people died; 30,000 passengers stranded in trains for hours (BBC, 2003; CNN, 2003)|
|2004||Florida, Alabama||Power to 5 million customers interrupted by Hurricanes Charley, Frances, Ivan, and Jeanne over a 6-week period|
|2004||Kyushu, Japan||Power to 1 million customers interrupted by typhoon|
|July 12, 2004||Southern Greece||Voltage instability as a result of high power transfers into Greece; operatorinitiated load shedding unable to prevent voltage collapse; blackout a cause of additional concern due to proximity to 2004 Olympic games|
|2005||Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, and Mississippi||Power to 2.2 million customers interrupted by Hurricane Katrina|
|2005||Moscow||Power to 1.5 million to 2 million customers interrupted by explosion and fire at substation|
|May 24, 2005||Moscow||Power to 4 million customers (2,500 MW) interrupted|
|September 12, 2005||Los Angeles||Large portion of city lost power because error in substation tripped several circuit breakers|
"If they could gain access, hackers could manipulate [control and data] systems to disrupt the flow of electricity…block the flow of vital information, or disable protective systems," says the NAS report, adding that a successful attack could "entail costs of hundreds of billions of dollars," and could render entire swaths of the country helpless to extreme weather.
In November, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) green-lit new reliability standards, some of which are designed to boost information sharing, security audits and contingency planning for mass power outages.
Engineers have warned for years that the nation's power grid is vulnerable to potential foul play. Even as many doubt a cyberattack alone would prove crippling, a combination of both a physical and a technological attack could wreak havoc and prove economically destabilizing.
An attack involving firearms on a San Jose, Calif.-based power station in April, initially dismissed as vandalism, has more recently seen investigators referring to a "higher level of planning and sophistication," according to a report in Foreign Policy magazine. The incident was recently referred to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.