us-electric-grid(by Rebecca Smith, The Wall Street Journal) – The U.S. could suffer a coast-to-coast blackout if saboteurs knocked out just nine of the country’s 55,000 electric-transmission substations on a scorching summer day, according to a previously unreported federal analysis.

The study by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission [FERC] concluded that coordinated attacks in each of the nation’s three separate electric systems could cause the entire power network to collapse, people familiar with the research said. [FERC is an independent regulatory agency within the U.S. Department of Energy. It has jurisdiction over interstate electricity sales, wholesale electric rates, hydroelectric licensing, natural gas pricing, and oil pipeline rates. FERC also reviews and authorizes liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals, interstate natural gas pipelines and non-federal hydropower projects.]


A Maine substation

A small number of the country’s substations play an outsize role in keeping power flowing across large regions. The FERC analysis indicates that knocking out nine of those key substations could plunge the country into darkness for weeks, if not months. …

No federal rules require utilities to protect vital substations except those at nuclear power plants. [Federal government] regulators recently said they would consider imposing security standards.

FERC last year used software to model the electric system’s performance under the stress of losing important substations. The substations use large power transformers to boost the voltage of electricity so it can move long distances and then to reduce the voltage to a usable level as the electricity nears homes and businesses. (see 2nd video under “Resources” below)

The agency’s so-called power-flow analysis found that different sets of nine big substations produced similar results. The Wall Street Journal isn’t publishing the list of 30 critical substations studied by FERC. The commission declined to discuss the analysis or to release its contents.

Some federal officials said the conclusions might overstate the grid’s vulnerability. …

The study’s results have been known for months by people at federal agencies, Congress and the White House, who were briefed by then-FERC Chairman Jon Wellinghoff and others at the commission. As reported by the Journal last month, Mr. Wellinghoff was concerned about a shooting attack on a California substation last April, which he said could be a dress rehearsal for additional assaults. (click here for that news report)

“There are probably less than 100 critical high voltage substations on our grid in this country that need to be protected from a physical attack,” he said by email this week. “It is neither a monumental task, nor is it an inordinate sum of money that would be required to do so.” Mr. Wellinghoff left FERC in November and is a partner at law firm Stoel Rives LLP in San Francisco.

FERC has given the industry until early June to propose new standards for the security of critical facilities, such as substations.

Executives at several big utilities declined to discuss the risks to substations but said they are increasing spending on security. Virginia-based Dominion Resources Inc., for example, said it planned to spend $300 million to $500 million within seven years to harden its facilities.

A memo prepared at FERC in late June for Mr. Wellinghoff before he briefed senior officials made several urgent points. “Destroy nine interconnection substations and a transformer manufacturer and the entire United States grid would be down for at least 18 months, probably longer,” said the memo, which was reviewed by the Journal. That lengthy outage is possible for several reasons, including that only a handful of U.S. factories build transformers.

The California attack “demonstrates that it does not require sophistication to do significant damage to the U.S. grid,” according to the memo, which was written by Leonard Tao, FERC’s director of external affairs. Mr. Tao said his function was to help Mr. Wellinghoff simplify his report on the analysis.

The memo reflected a belief by some people at the agency that an attack-related blackout could be extraordinarily long, in part because big transformers and other equipment are hard to replace. Also, each of the three regional electric systems – the West, the East and Texas – have limited interconnections, making it hard for them to help each other in an emergency.

Some experts said other simulations that are widely used in the electricity industry [to predict problems] produced similar results as the FERC analysis. …

In its modeling, FERC studied what would happen if various combinations of substations were crippled in the three electrical systems that serve the contiguous U.S. The agency concluded the systems could go dark if as few as nine locations were knocked out: four in the East, three in the West and two in Texas, people with knowledge of the analysis said.

The actual number of locations that would have to be knocked out to spawn a massive blackout would vary depending on available generation resources, energy demand, which is highest on hot days, and other factors, experts said. Because it is difficult to build new transmission routes, existing big substations are becoming more crucial to handling electricity.

In last April’s attack at PG&E Corp.’s Metcalf [California] substation, gunmen shot 17 large transformers over 19 minutes before fleeing in advance of police. The state grid operator was able to avoid any blackouts.

The Metcalf substation sits near a freeway outside San Jose, Calif. Some experts worry that substations farther from cities could face longer attacks because of their distance from police. Many sites aren’t staffed and are protected by little more than chain-link fences and cameras.

While the prospect of a nationwide blackout because of sabotage might seem remote, small equipment failures have led to widespread power outages. In September 2011, for example, a failed transmission line in Arizona set off a chain reaction that created an outage affecting millions of people in the state and Southern California.

Sabotage could wreak worse havoc, experts said.

“The power grid, built over many decades in a benign environment, now faces a range of threats it was never designed to survive,” said Paul Stockton, a former assistant secretary of defense and president of risk-assessment firm Cloud Peak Analytics. “That’s got to be the focus going forward.”

Copyright 2014 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Originally published at WSJ March 12, 2014. Reprinted here for educational purposes only. Visit the website at wsj .com.


1. List the following:
a) number of electric-transmission substations in the U.S.
b) number of separate electric (power) systems in the U.S.

2. a) What is FERC?
b) According to the FERC study, how many of the key substations would have to be knocked out to cause a long-term power outage in the U.S.?
c) For how long does FERC estimate a power outage caused by terrorists could last?

3. a) Who owns the utility companies (electric companies, gas companies) in the U.S.?
b) Currently, there are no federal rules requiring utilities to protect electric substations (except at nuclear power plants). Do you think there should be?

4. a) How many critical high voltage substations on the country’s electric grid need to be protected from a physical attack, according to former FERC Chairman Jon Wellinghoff?
b) How does Mr. Wellinghoff view the task of protecting the vulnerable substations?

5. Why would an outage caused by sabotoge take so long to repair?

6. Why are existing large substations so crucial to the electric grid? (see para. 17)

7. What security is currently in place for many substation sites, especially those not near cities?

8. Why doesn’t the power grid have extensive security measures in place, according to Paul Stockton, former assistant secretary of defense?

9. Re-read para. 11 and para. 14. If you were an executive at a large utility company and you were told some of your substations would be attacked within a month, is it realistic to assume you could put security measures in place to prevent such attacks from taking down your power grid?
Explain your answer.

10. What was your initial reaction to this article: disbelief, concern, amusement, incredulity, anger…? Explain your answer.



The New Jersey Regional Operations Intelligence Center (ROIC) is a division of the New Jersey State Police that works with law enforcement and the Department of Homeland Security.

Electric grid compounds across the country have faced an uptick in unauthorized intrusions by unknown individuals, causing concern that the U.S. grid is “inherently vulnerable” to widespread sabotage, according to a recent oversight report issued by ROIC, which monitors the threat level.

Following at least eight “reports of intrusions at electrical grid facilities in New Jersey” from October 2013 until January 2014, the ROIC’s Intelligence & Analysis Threat Unit issued a report warning that the U.S. electrical grid is “inherently vulnerable” to attacks that could wipe out power across large swaths of the country.

The ROIC report, released in late February, is marked as “unclassified” but designated “for official use only.”  Read the full report at:

The report cites at least eight cases of intrusions or attempted intrusions at New Jersey substations or switching stations in the past 12 months. Among others:

  • In East Rutherford, the report says intruders cut a hole in the perimeter fence of an electric switching and substation in East Rutherford in January. Someone also cut the chain on the front gate of that same station last October. 
  • In Burlington, an unidentified subject entered a generating station in January using false ID and claiming to have a gun, the report says. An unknown subject also breached the main gate of that switching station last October and stole $1,000 worth of copper wire.
  • Three unidentified subjects broke into a Jersey City switching station in two separate incidents last summer, according to the report. In one of those cases, a surveillance camera recorded a man wearing gloves and carrying a large pair of wire or bolt cutters.
  • The report also cites attempted break-ins at a generating station in Linden in January and a substation in Cherry Hill in October.

Security analyst Peter Caram tells News 12 New Jersey’s Walt Kane the report should be a wakeup call. “The bottom line is that the electrical and communications grids in this country are one, antiquated and two, they’re all exposed to attack at any given time,” Caram says.

PSE&G spokesperson Kathy Fitzgerald says the utility is well aware that there are threats to the system and works hard to minimize the risk, hiring both a full-time security analyst and homeland security analyst. She tells Kane In Your Corner the best way to protect the grid is to attempt to build in redundancies. “The bottom line is if you make sure that not one station can have major impact on consumers, you’re protecting the electric grid,” Fitzgerald says.

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