One year after gunmen armed with high-powered rifles led a stealth attack that damaged 17 transformers at an electrical substation in California’s Silicon Valley, utilities and Clemson engineers are working in tandem to prevent similar attacks in South Carolina while they build an advanced energy grid for the future.
South Carolina is vulnerable to cyber attacks or sabotage to its current electrical grid through a coordinated attack on power substations, grid security experts said.
And if an attack occurred, it could knock out power to millions of homes, businesses and facilities along the East Coast because grids are interconnected over large areas, grid security experts said.
Duke Energy said the risk has drawn its attention, and the utility is working with engineers from Clemson University to reduce risks to key facilities from grid attacks and develop technology at state-of-the-art research sites in North Charleston to create a new smart grid that could reduce the scope of damage if a grid is attacked.
Energy experts expect the state’s electrical grid to change dynamically in coming years for the first time since it was developed a century ago. The rise of renewable energy sources and the threat of sabotage have raised the stakes for those who protect and innovate the grid that transmits the electricity needed to power our modern lives.
The nation’s power grid security got a jolt last April 16 when gunmen armed with semi-automatic rifles attacked a remote substation and nearly knocked out power to California’s Silicon Valley.
The yet-unsolved attack has drawn scrutiny from federal regulators and members of Congress, who said information about the attack should have been kept confidential due to national security risks.
Cheryl LaFleur, acting chair of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, said in a February statement after the grid attack became public that “a major interruption in service could have devastating effects on our nation’s citizens and economy.”
LaFleur said FERC would work with grid stakeholders to enhance security against physical attacks.
“That’s something that definitely has our attention,” said Randy Wheeless, a Duke Energy spokesman. “We know that grid security is vital because people are depending on the grid, not only at your home but also businesses and key facilities.”
Wheeless said an attack like what happened in California could happen any place, “so we’re trying to put things in place to make sure that our grid is secure as can be.”
The energy grid also faces a significant risk of a successful cyber attack, which could be unpredictable, difficult to diagnose and costly both in repair costs and economic loss, according to a report from the Bipartisan Policy Center.
National cybersecurity teams responded to 198 cyber attacks that targeted critical infrastructure in fiscal year 2012, according to the report. Forty-one percent of those attacks involved the energy infrastructure.
Dr. Keith Corzine, a Clemson University computer and electrical engineering professor, said utilities are increasingly preparing themselves against cyber attacks, but he sees the greatest risk from a skillful physical low-technology attack like what happened in California.
“If that attack was repeated over the country it could have a high impact,” Corzine said.
And since the electric grid in South Carolina has connections to grids that run from Florida up the eastern seaboard all the way to Maine, a series of attacks could knock out power to large swaths of the country, he said.
After the California attack, Corzine said utilities realized they were vulnerable to physical grid attacks and have been improving security and adding cameras to monitor transmission equipment.
Large portions of electric grids are located in rural areas, which complicates security measures, he said.
Breaking the large utility grids into thousands of smaller micro grids could minimize the effects of a grid attack, Corzine said.
Corzine has developed a new way to advance micro grids by creating a new type of circuit breaker that would safely allow micro grids, which use DC current rather than the utility-scale AC current, to disconnect from the main grid and operate even if the main grid loses power.
Corzine has received funding through the U.S. Navy to develop the micro grid technology for use on its large ships, he said. He’s laboratory testing the circuit breaker now, but said it’s still a long way from coming to market.
Your neighborhood grid?
There may come a day in the not-too-distant future when a windmill or a bank of solar panels or a small natural gas generator produces the energy needed for a neighborhood.
The future of the energy grid is up in the air with the advent of renewable energy sources.
Rather than a few dozen giant power stations that produce electricity for South Carolina, we could also see thousands of smaller stations pushing energy onto the grid when the sun is shining or a strong wind is blowing, Wheeless said.
Utilities like Duke have to prepare for when the wind is calm or the skies are cloudy and the renewable power fluctuates, he said.
“It’s not like Oconee Nuclear Station which is running at 100 percent for weeks on end. It’s going to be scaling up and down,” he said.
The intermittent generation adds stress on equipment, much like stop-and-go driving adds stress on a car engine, he said.
Nevertheless, Duke Energy sees the advancement of micro grids as another wave of the future as renewable energy creates a foothold in South Carolina, Wheeless said.
Duke isn’t opposed to micro grids, but as the energy experts, the utility would want to be involved as the grid changes, Wheeless said.
In Charlotte, the utility is testing its own micro grid technology by trying to isolate a single fire station to run completely on battery and solar energy, he said.
The renewables effect
In a report that detailed the potential effects of solar and wind energy on the operation of South Carolina’s utility grids, the Energy Advisory Committee (made up of utilities, conservationists and electric cooperatives) noted that higher penetration of solar and wind energy could add operational issues to electric grids.
“These impacts will vary substantially from utility to utility based upon ... the size of the utility, its location, its configuration, and the nature of the loads it serves,” according to the report.
The issue is how renewable energy is generated and delivered to the grid. When the sun shines brightest, homes and businesses that use solar energy may produce more power than they need. That excess power is delivered back onto the electric grid.
If just a small percentage of customers use solar power, the effect on the grid is minimal.
“But what happens when its 3 percent? Five percent? How does your system react to that? What kind of investments do you need to make?” Wheeless said.
The addition of renewables to the grid means that a system designed to send power in one direction — from utility to customer — will now have to go both ways, said Clemson’s Dr. J. Curtiss Fox, director of operations of the eGRID, which stands for Electric Grid Research, Innovation and Development at Clemson’s Restoration Institute.
“The model and how it all works is changing,” Fox said. “You take a system that you’ve perfected to work in one way over 90 or 100 years and start saying, ‘OK, we want to dramatically change how that works.’
“That’s where the challenges come in.”
Duke invested $5 million in the eGRID. South Carolina Electric and Gas, the Lowcountry’s primary electric provider, donated $3.5 million into the SCE&G Energy Innovation Center, which houses the eGRID.
Though it’s just coming online, the eGRID will use a simulator to allow utilities to test how wind turbines, solar panels or other advanced technology interact on the grid.
Danny Kassis, vice president of customer relations/renewables for SCE&G, said the research is a big step forward. “Right in our own backyard, we’re going to be able to figure out how to change the whole energy economy in South Carolina.”