Electric grid security is a serious — but fixable — issue

Photo by Kevin Dooley

In 2004, a blue ribbon congressional commission made clear the existential threat of an electromagnetic pulse to the United States. After the 84th legislative session, Lt. Governor Dan Patrick issued an interim charge for the Texas Senate to evaluate the security of the Texas electric grid.

On April 28 and 29, I hosted the 2016 Texas Grid Security Summit to address the Texas electric grid’s vulnerability to existential high-impact threats such as electromagnetic pulse (EMP), geomagnetic solar storms and cyberattacks. The summit also identified readily available shielding technologies designed to protect electric grid components from the severity of these high-impact events. In addition to presentations on the technical aspects of these threats, the summit covered past and present state and federal legislative efforts specific to EMP protection and electric grid security.

For those who are unaware, an EMP is an instantaneous burst of electromagnetic energy capable of destroying solid-state electronic systems and electric power networks. This destructive effect can occur from a natural event such as an intense solar storm, or a man-made deployment of a low-yield nuclear weapon detonated at high-altitude, or from a more localized Intentional Electromagnetic Interference device.

Experts have warned for more than two decades of the electric grid's vulnerabilities to physical, cyber, and EMP threats. However, unlike physical and cyber, the nation's electric grid has not been adequately protected against EMP threats. More than 11 comprehensive studies, either authored by or for the government, have detailed the seriousness of the EMP threat to electronic based infrastructure and specifically to the nation's electric grid. The most recent came from a U.S. Government Accountability Office audit that demanded federal agencies work rapidly to close the space weather (natural EMP) and electromagnetic (man-made EMP) vulnerability gaps to the U.S. power grid.

For more than 50 years, the U.S. military has known about the seriousness of the EMP threat. In fact, the Department of Defense strictly adheres to several EMP protection standards, such as MIL-STD 188-125, to harden critical components and key strategic assets. Irrespective of this understanding, the federal government has failed to take proper actions to protect to the nation's civilian-based electric grid.

Texas Grid Security Summit's agenda featured a wide variety of experts from the national security policy and emergency management fields. In addition, a bipartisan panel of state representatives included Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda (D-Florida), Mike Hill (R-Florida) and Dean Dorman (R-Missouri) who addressed their EMP protection and grid security legislative efforts.

Business representatives from ETS-Lindgren, Hardened Structures, and JAXON Engineering & Maintenance, Inc. detailed how to implement protective technology in unprotected facilities. This technology is already in use in other counties such as Israel, South Korea and the United Arab Emirates.

The summit's agenda incorporated a short reflection of my efforts to pass a grid security bill during the 84th legislative session. The bill I presented would require the state to conduct a study and report its findings on the EMP threat to the electric grid infrastructure in Texas. Unfortunately, although having passed through the Senate, this bill died in the Texas House Calendars Committee. Gov. Abbott supports having a secure grid, but my bill never made it to his desk for a signature.

Historically, the electric industry lobby and North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) downplay the strength of solar storms to near zero in Texas. However, EMPrimus CEO Gale Nordling's summit presentation emphasized report data that showed NERC's solar storm (natural EMP) protection standard drastically understates the threat's strength by a factor of 10.

The summit's keynote presentation was given by U.S. Ambassador R. James Woolsey, a lawyer and former CIA director under President Bill Clinton. He underscored the severe consequences associated with an EMP event and stressed the importance of protecting the nation's electric grid. Specifically citing the necessity of protecting critical components of the electric grid such as the High Voltage Transformer, Ambassador Woolsey stated, "… an electric grid without a transformer is like a human being without a heart."

The summit addressed a very real threat to the Texan way of life. While the failure of Washington to step up and protect against the EMP threat is bad news for our nation, the State of Texas remains in a unique position to act. Unlike the other 47 continental states, the grid in Texas is essentially a stand-alone system contained within its borders. Therefore, the Texas Legislature does not have to wait on Congress — and the Texas power companies do not have to wait on the power companies in other states — to secure our electrical grid and protect our people.

The economic benefits of a secure electric grid are immeasurable. Securing the Texas electric grid provides a golden opportunity for our state to lead the nation and ensure that when the lights go out in other parts of the country, they stay on in Texas.

Bob Hall

State senator, R-Edgewood