They came shrouded by early-morning darkness near San Jose, Calif., equipped with night-vision goggles, AK-47s and an apparent lust to spill some transformer fluid. The snipers opened fire on the electrical substation, a critical “node” in the region’s grid, and disabled huge transformers. It’s a dramatic tale, and — as is any story about a group of people shooting into the night with assault rifles — scary. But in this case, grid operators were able to bypass the substation without cutting off power to Silicon Valley. Disaster averted.
When the attack happened last April, local law enforcement called it sabotage. This February, however, the Wall Street Journal whipped the news media into a frenzy with a report that has top officials calling it a “terror attack.” That prompted leading Democratic lawmakers to send a letter to energy regulators, asking them to consider raising security standards on the grid.
I say they are barking up the wrong tree. Yes, we should be concerned about the safety of our energy system. Yes, we should be putting some cash into making it more reliable and regulating it more strictly. But terrorism is not the greatest threat — far from it.
In the weeks before and after legislators sent their letter, our energy infrastructure was going haywire: A massive spill of a chemical used to wash coal left 300,000 people in West Virginia without potable water, and two other coal-related spills in the region soon followed. A natural gas well in Pennsylvania exploded, killing one worker and injuring another. And on Feb. 13, a major interstate gas pipeline exploded in Kentucky, leveling homes. In mid-February, snow and ice crippled the grid, taking out power to as many as 600,000 people.
Those are just the noticeable disasters. Every day, the energy infrastructure fails in some way or another, sometimes with major consequences. In 2012, the Western Grid alone suffered from 1,644 unplanned outages; 560 were caused by weather, 365 by human error — zero by vandals. And that pipeline explosion in Kentucky? It was hardly unusual. Between 1994 and 2013, 5,621 “significant incidents” involving gas, oil and other hazardous material pipelines in the United States resulted in 359 fatalities, 1,396 injuries, $6.8 billion in property damage, and 3.6 million barrels of spilt stuff, mostly oil and natural gas.
Energy infrastructure terror, indeed. Terrorists, saboteurs or even just yahoos with guns aren’t the ones inflicting the nearly continuous damage. Nature, human error, old and tired infrastructure and a dearth of regulations are the culprits, along with the infrastructure itself. More than 126,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines comprise the Western Grid alone, and 352,000 miles of natural gas, petroleum and CO2 pipelines crisscross the West, not to mention all of the power plants, oil and gas wells, substations, refineries and coal ash pits. It’s so pervasive that the landscape sometimes seems like a cyborg — half-natural, half-machine — with pipelines always under our feet and wires constantly slicing the sky.
Our energy systems are so big, complex and spread out that they are doomed to fail on occasion, sometimes in ways that ripple catastrophically through the system. The electrical grid is especially vulnerable to such cascading debacles, and that’s what has many people worried: If a tiny glitch over here can blot out the lights and air conditioners and commerce of millions over there, then a well-orchestrated terror attack could disable huge swaths of the nation and its economy. But other experts argue the opposite, saying that the very complexity of the system makes it difficult if not impossible to know which “nodes” of the grid need to be knocked out in order to trigger a cascade, or protected in order to prevent one.
We’d be better off focusing on making the grid resilient to the real threats of climate, weather, errant birds, human error and equipment glitches. That, in turn, would enable it to handle a terror attack, on the rare chance that one should ever occur.
We could start by encouraging the creation of micro-grids and distributed generation, because the less centralized our system becomes, the less vulnerable it will be to massive failure. We could encourage efficiency: The less energy we use, the lighter the burden we put on the infrastructure that produces and transports it. And we could stop worrying about guys with night-vision goggles and guns and go after the really scary folks — the corporations that skimp on infrastructure in order to save a buck, thereby imperiling not just our power supply, but our lives and the environment.
Jonathan Thompson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, an op ed syndicate of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a senior editor at High Country News, and lives in Durango.