Blog Post

Why an Electromagnetic Threat Shouldn't Be a Smart Grid Issue

powergrid2There’s been a lot of ink dedicated to how an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) from a disaster, like a nuclear bomb exploding above the U.S., could have dire effects on a digital power grid. The idea is that an EMP event could effectively fry all electronics and, thus, leave a smart grid completely disabled. A chief proponent of this issue has been Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.), who has been making the media rounds advocating that we need to allocate $100 million to develop technology that can protect a national smart grid from EMP.

Well, make no mistake, if a large enough EMP event occurred (like a massive nuclear bomb) it could possibly shut down a power grid that was laced with digital communications technology. It’s a serious threat and “a doom and gloom scenario,” explains Andy Bochman, director of Customer Advocacy for security firm Ounce Labs and contributor to the Smart Grid Security Blog. But not only would it be impossible to protect an entire national smart grid from such an event, Bochman tells us, if there were a smaller EMP event, like say, at a harbor into which a nuclear bomb was smuggled, a smart grid could actually be more effective at intelligently healing itself than a traditional power grid.

First off, Bochman says, adding technology to “harden” — as Bartlett describes it — a national smart grid to protect it from EMP would be such a massive and expensive undertaking that it would be impossible to do. That $100 million that Bartlett says could secure a smart grid from EMP “wouldn’t be useful,” says Bochman. “There is very little that could be done to protect our electronics from EMP.”

In addition, Bochman says, if an EMP event were targeted at a specific location, then a smarter power grid could actually isolate that section, contain the damage, or potentially connect to nearby distributed power sources. Power companies call this situation “islanding” and are building out various “microgrids” — independent power grids — to make the national power grid less vulnerable to geographic threats. GE is working on such technology for the military.

Ultimately, an EMP event could be devastating, but I don’t think concerns over it should affect how the smart grid should be built out. We should be focusing on technologies and security fixes that are cost-effective and fixable, like cyber security concerns, and hope that we can avoid the doom-and-gloom scenario.

Image courtesy of NREL.

9 Responses to “Why an Electromagnetic Threat Shouldn't Be a Smart Grid Issue”

  1. I also forgot to mention: Smart Grid would make us more vulnerable to EMP, but advocates of Smart Grid shouldn’t consider this a threat to the good concepts included in the term, rather advocates need to expand the definition to include this. It would be great if green energy as energy security were a parallel that would actually mean something. Right now, it doesn’t. Arguing for windmills in order to decrease our dependence on foreign sources of oil and gas is not going to carry any weight. Arguing for the implementation of Smart Grid, because it protects from cyberthreats, EMP, and makes a better service, will appeal to a broader audience.

  2. Actually, Andy Bochman is wrong on two counts: First, there is no EMP effect if a nuke was detonated in a harbor as mentioned in the article. The blast must take place at a high altitude.

    Secondly, his point that “it’s so big that we can’t do it” is not really a valid claim. It is a big problem, but it may still be the case that we need to plan for this ASAP. Even if we did planning for just 10-20% of the most critical of the most critical of our infrastructure, it could save many lives.

  3. Bill S.

    An electromagnetic threat isn’t limited to nefarious countries with bombs. The solar wind can also produce similar effects during strong periods.

    An event in the late 1800’s shut down telegraph systems. Of course such an event today would cause many more impacts: computers, cars, Internet, etc, etc.

    Thinking about how to protect a multi-billion dollar investment like the smart grid seems like a wise thing to do.

  4. Joe Parascando

    I think the question is really whether or not an upgrade to smart grid technology and controls would make our country more vulnerable in any way. If someone were to donate a weapon right now that destroyed all electronic devices in the country the power grid wouldn’t be much use to us anyway. In fact I would think that there are enough digitally controlled systems in the country with the strong potential to malfunction that the grid would come crashing down anyway due to safety mechanisms. Granted we are already at risk for such an attack, but the decision to move forward with smart grid technology does not put us at any greater risk.

  5. A low yield fission weapon produces a lot more E1 type gamma radiation than the larger fusion weapons. E1 radiation is much more damaging to electronic equipment than the E2 or E3 radiation and also tends to render shielding measures less effective. E1 radiation will destroy common rail fuel injection systems in diesel engines (trucks and locomotives) and electronic engine controls in gasoline engines (cars). Aircraft flight and engine control systems will also be rendered inoperable.

    The long duration E3 pulse seen in high yield fusion weapons is the one that will create very high voltage pulse in the power grid. However, the point could be moot if an E1 pulse destroys the electronic controls for the grid.

    Fission weapons are relatively easy to make and comparatively light. Fusion weapons are much more complex and are heavy. Countries like Iran and North Korea can make fission weapons, and can them mate them to a launch vehicle. The entire “package” could fit inside an ISO shipping container….. Or on a small freighter…

    Launch several small weapons to ensure “coverage”, detonate them at altitude, and you can set your clock back 100 years. Or perhaps 200…..

    There is some logic to “hardening” critical systems in our infrastructure. This is a long term and very expensive process that might not yield optimum results. Perhaps focusing our efforts on a diplomatic solution, and then perhaps a military one, might be more practical.


  6. @JMR, I think the threat is no small concern, but I’m concerned that by the media constantly linking the EMP threat to the smart grid it could either get in the way of a smart grid rollout or cause unnecessary funding for a fix that won’t work.

  7. Agreed! The threat is way overstated. Recent online outages like Twitter or an entire country like Georgia getting knocked offline have shown us that cybersecurity is paramount. Attacks against the smart grid are likelier to come from hackers than from someone in possession of nuclear launch codes.

  8. This is no small concern. It does not take a nuclear bomb to cause a large EMP event. We used what is called a type of EMP bomb in Iraq to disable the power system grid. It can be activated above a city and no one knows it occured with the exception that all electric/electronics die or are disabled most permanently. This is also a threat (maybe more importantly) to all vehicles with all the electronic controls. Everything would be disabled. I can’t imagine a million auto’s all needing elctronic controls replaced in order to operate.