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.

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