Keeping the Lights On: Building Resilience in the U.S. Electricity Grid

Posted on May 22, 2018
A hurricane is about to come ashore, a hacker is up to no good, or there is a wildland fire nearby….will the lights stay on? The nation's electricity grid is essential to modern life. We expect the grid to be resilient—to adapt to changing conditions, withstand disruptive events, and recover rapidly. Though most of the electricity grid is owned and operated by private industry, the federal government plays a key role in developing resilience in the grid. Today’s WatchBlog looks at our reports on some of those federal resilience efforts. Solar storms, cyberattacks, and more The nation’s electricity grid faces risks from events that can damage the electrical infrastructure (such as power lines) and communications systems. These include:
  • Electromagnetic events, which can result from a natural solar storm or from a man-made explosion high above the ground creating an electromagnetic pulse. These can disrupt computers and damage electronics and insulators, and can cause significant damage to critical electrical infrastructure, such as transformers.
Figure 1: Example of Estimated Impact Area of High-Altitude Electromagnetic Pulse, by Height of Burst
  • Cyberattacks on the grid’s computer systems and coordinated terrorist attacks on specific facilities.
  • Severe natural disasters, such as hurricanes.
Federal efforts supporting the electricity grid The Department of Energy leads federal efforts to support electricity grid resilience and coordinates with other agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. We reported that since 2013 these agencies implemented 27 efforts that addressed a range of threats and hazards—including cyberattacks, physical attacks, and natural disasters—and supported different types of activities. Types of Activities Supported by 27 Federal Grid Resiliency Efforts We found that although these efforts were fragmented and overlapped to some degree across the three agencies, generally each agency tailored its efforts to its specific mission. For example, three Department of Energy and Department of Homeland Security efforts addressed different aspects of risks to large, high-power transformers—pieces of equipment that transfer electrical energy between two or more points. We’ve also reported on agency efforts to establish industry standards and federal guidelines to address electromagnetic risks. For example, the Department of Homeland Security developed guidelines for safeguarding critical communication equipment and control systems from an electromagnetic pulse attack. Listen to our podcast about how federal agencies are addressing risks to the national power grid, and check out our reports to learn more on the U.S. electricity grid.