Congressional Hearing: How Prepared Are We For a Failure of the Power Grid?

On April 14, the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure held a hearing on the threats to our electrical grid from cyber-attacks, EMP events, and natural disasters entitled “Blackout! Are We Prepared to Manage the Aftermath of a Cyber-Attack?”

The hearing dealt with what the potential damage would be to the power grid from such an event, as well as what preparations state and local governments should take.

Rep. Lou Barletta (R-PA), the chairman of the Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings, and Emergency Management, said that there is a “huge disparity” in what different groups think is a potential scenario for which governments should prepare, and how much they should prepare. He also stated that according to the Department of Homeland Security, 40% of all reported cyber-attacks have targeted the energy sector

Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR), called the recent cyber-attack in the Ukraine which caused power outages “perhaps a harbinger of things to come,” and also brought up risk from earthquakes in disrupting electric service.

Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator Craig Fugate, a witness on the panel, spoke of the “flurry of activities” that results when the lights go out. People get trapped in elevators and traffic control system breakdowns cause accidents. In addition, police may need to go on patrol in a situation where power is lost, because the 911 call system and dispatch centers themselves may have disrupted service. He said that “the longer you have disruption, the longer you have cascading effects.”

Fugate said that localities having emergency power to maintain necessities (such as 911 dispatch centers) is important, but that he often sees local governments that are unprepared for that. They may have generators (emergency power) but not enough fuel to run them. Fugate highlighted what he called the “big difference” between a cyber-attack and a natural disaster – the geographical spread of a cyber-attack. It is somewhat easier to predict the area that a natural disasters will impact, but cyber-attacks are less predictable. He also cited the potential damage of a geomagnetic storm, calling it the “biggest potential impact” after an EMP attack.

A video recording of the hearing may be found here.

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