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Make Me Smart with Kai and Molly

New tool against terrorism: a spare transformer

Scott Tong Jun 12, 2015
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When you think about critical energy infrastructure, your mind might go to the U.S. strategic petroleum reserve. But what about the power grid? Key nodes in the system, high-voltage transformers, are indispensable. And the utility industry has announced a new plan to ensure critical spares are at the ready.

Large transformers are so critical that if attackers took out a small number of them, the country would go dark. “These power transformers are much bigger than the transformer that you’re conceiving in your backyard that’s looks like a trash can up on a pole,” says Rich Lordan of the Electric Power Research Institute. “This is the size of a school bus.”

Two years ago, snipers took out 17 transformers in California, knocking out an entire substation. Industry woke up and started thinking more about the need for backup transformers. Most are not made domestically.

“Much of the manufacturing ended up being offshore,” says Carl Imhoff of the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. “So the challenge is, if a transformer is damaged through some sort of physical event or other things that occur, then oftentimes it can take six to 12 to 18 months to move them.”

The new plan is to form a company to buy and pre-ship key equipment to the U.S. The money would come from fees paid by electricity companies.

It’s all part of what Brian Harrell at Navigant Consulting calls an infrastructure culture shift to be more mindful of bad guys.

“When you see a substation shooting out in Northern California, or a very susceptible water treatment facility, oil refinery,” Harrell says, “all of these things looks very attractive to terrorist elements.”

He says the grid was never designed to be safe from physical attack.

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