Will energy department fix security gaps that could cause environmental calamity?

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The deadly California wildfires in recent years that have caused significant environmental and economic damage and even killed numerous people were at times caused by electric grid infrastructure. However, the loss of electricity over large portions of the country for an extended time could cause an even worse environmental calamity.

Recent recommendations to Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm and revelations about how the Department of Energy (DOE) intends to spend its portion of the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Bill may provide hope that we can avoid such a catastrophe.

The revelations took place during an important meeting of Secretary Granholm’s “Secretary of Energy Advisory Board” (SEAB) on January 25th which unveiled the budget allocations assigned to a new Office of Clean Energy Demonstrations, created to “support clean energy technology demonstration projects in areas including clean hydrogen, carbon capture, grid-scale energy storage, small modular reactors, and more.”

This new DOE office is intended to “help deliver on President Biden’s bold climate agenda, create new, good-paying jobs for American families and workers, and reduce pollution while benefitting disadvantaged communities.” It must also include grid security demonstrations.

This would fit with DOE’s indicated support for “demonstration projects [to] prove the effectiveness of innovative technologies in real-world conditions at scale in order to pave the way towards widespread adoption and deployment.”

Real-world conditions should include realistic natural and manmade threats to electric grid infrastructure, ranging from hurricanes and solar weather to cyberattacks, including electromagnetic pulse (EMP) – the most horrific cyberattack strategy included in the military doctrines of Russia, China, North Korea and Iran.

Unfortunately, the nation’s electric grid – which will grow in size and importance as the Biden administration prioritizes electric transportation – is currently very vulnerable to all those threats.

For example, the electric grid depends on massive, hard to replace transformers to move electricity throughout the country and these transformers have NEVER been comprehensively tested against realistic cyber and EMP threats. Rather than utilizing real-world test data to understand the effects of EMP on these irreplaceable assets, the DOE currently relies on optimistic modeling from industry-funded studies that dangerously underestimate the threat.

This is despite DOE having had access, for over four years, to a multi-million-dollar transformer donated by Duke Energy for the specific purpose of having it tested at the Savannah River National Laboratory. DOE leaders under both the Trump and Biden Administrations have been informed about this transformer and the urgent need to have it tested but have failed to act.

Credible experts have also warned DOE of two major cyber gaps: (1) cyber vulnerabilities associated with engineering/management of power flows between America’s eight separated grid regions and (2) sensor vulnerabilities associated with process sensors, which currently have no cyber security, authentication, or cyber logging.

The new Office of Clean Energy Demonstrations must use some of its $5 billion for “upgrading grid demonstrations” to test Duke’s transformer against real-world EMP and cyber threats and to establish a Security Technical Implementation Group (STIG) to work on closing the cyber gaps associated with power flows and sensors.

The Office should also ensure that security-based demonstrations extend beyond their current essentially total focus on the power plants and high voltage transmission lines of the “Bulk Power Grid.” It must also address the “Distribution Grid,” which constitutes over 90-percent of the overall grid and actually delivers lower voltage electricity to most, if not all, the nation’s critical civil infrastructures – water-wastewater facilities, emergency managers, hospitals, homes, businesses, etc. Funding local grid protection projects, such as those in San Antonio Texas and on Lake Wylie in South Carolina, could validate needed “bottom up approaches” for fixing the whole grid’s vulnerabilities.

Finally, this new Office has received $2.5 billion in funding for “Advanced Reactor Demonstrations” which should be used to prioritize the development and eventual deployment of advanced reactors that are passively cooled (which is better for the environment), resilient to all hazards (including EMP), and capable of recycling spent nuclear fuel.

The Secure the Grid Coalition, a nationwide group of national security experts, engineers, and grid security advocates, has previously made these recommendations to the Department of Energy but thus far they have fallen on deaf ears.

Fortunately, during Secretary Granholm’s January 25th meeting, she and her advisory board accepted public comments and thus received the same pleas.

Now, the question is whether Secretary Granholm and her advisory board will act.

For the sake of both our national security and our environment, let’s hope they do.

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