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Attacks on states' substations raises questions about power grid safety

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

The U.S. power grid is part of the country's critical infrastructure. Recent attacks on electrical substations in several states have raised security concerns. So Rob Schmitz spoke with Richard Mroz, a senior adviser at Protect Our Power, about the grid's vulnerabilities.

RICHARD MROZ: On the whole, I'd say that the grid is fairly secure, but there are going to be vulnerabilities for a variety of reasons, and we're seeing that from the most recent physical attacks, where some of the substations were shot at by small arms. But we also have other vulnerabilities that include cybersecurity or severe weather. So the grid is in fairly good shape. Investments have been made. But there continue to be vulnerabilities in different regions or different areas and from different types of threats.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: So in 2014, a leaked report indicated that the U.S. had over 55,000 transformers nationwide. However, an attack on only nine could cripple the power grid across the country. That sounds incredible. And I'm wondering if the situation has changed since 2014, and it's now more difficult to do that.

MROZ: Well, first, that report that you're referring to does focus on a handful of critical facilities that, if they were disrupted for the long term, we would probably lose large segments of the grid throughout the country. There are high-impact targets, several critical facilities which probably couldn't get rebuilt very quickly.

SCHMITZ: And how easy would it be for someone or a group to knock out one of those high-impact facilities?

MROZ: Well, knocking out those high-impact facilities is probably harder than everyone would think. Those are being protected. There have been protective measures. They've been identified. And the industry, as well as policymakers and regulators, need to be thinking about the cascading events, where there could be multiple types of threats, storms, plus even an intentional act, that could bring those down. So we need to be continuing to look at these vulnerabilities and try to protect them, even if there are multiple threats to those kinds of critical facilities.

SCHMITZ: Oftentimes, you know, when we talk about the grid, we think about massive power stations - coal-fired, natural gas, et cetera. But obviously, the United States is moving closer to more renewable energy sources. And I'm wondering, you know, how do these sources potentially increase the grid reliability and security?

MROZ: Well, at one level, that movement towards distributed resources, whether it's solar or other small generation sources that are distributed away from those big facilities we just talked about, actually in one way support the security of the grid. They make it less likely that one critical facility will be disrupted, and then a large region goes down. But on the other side of that coin is the fact that much of this new distributed energy resource is digitized. So with the digitization of a lot of this equipment, that increases the vulnerability on things like cybersecurity. So that's why there needs to be this all-hazards approach to whether it's the electric or rest of our critical infrastructure and particularly this increased digitization.

SCHMITZ: Should there be a nationwide outage, which I think is a big if, how easy is it to restart the grid?

MROZ: First, I think you're right. It's a big if. That's a highly unlikely event. But the issue of black start - that is, starting the electric grid up from a total blackout - is not as easy as one might imagine. And it has to be done in a certain manner to make sure that the power can be increased from one level to another.

SCHMITZ: That's Richard Mroz. He's the former president of the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities and a senior advisor at Protect Our Power. Thanks, Richard.

MROZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.