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A Workshop on Electricity Security and Survivability
November 28-29, 2001
Carnegie Mellon University

Sponsors: Carnegie Mellon Electricity Industry Center, Carnegie-Bosch Institute


The terrorist attacks of September 11 highlighted the problem of international terrorism and raised new concerns about the vulnerability of large, industrial systems to attack.  The electric power system is particularly vulnerable because it is so widely distributed that it is essentially indefensible.  It is vulnerable to cyber as well as conventional attack since the systems that operate it on a second-by-second basis as well as plan operations for the next several days (e.g. power markets) generally consist of distributed communication and computation networks.  Further, electric power system must balance supply and demand at every instant, so modest disruptions in key locations can have major effects systemwide. 

Research into electricity security has been underway for some time.  For the most part, this work has been accomplished by the federal government through various Departments and a number of National Labs, as well as by a few industry groups.  Much of this research has focused, naturally enough, on near-term actions and on the protection of the existing electric power system.  Much less research has been conducted on the fundamental characteristics of complex networked systems, the interactions and interdependencies of complex networked systems, and the potential security and survivability aspects of different future configurations of the electric power system.  This last set of issues was the focus of a workshop hosted by the Carnegie Mellon Electricity Industry Center, with the support of the Carnegie Bosch Institute.

The workshop highlighted the fact that a few parts of the power system, such as nuclear power plants, dams, and large fuel storage sites may need more physical protection.  However, the most important finding from the workshop is that the U.S. electric power system is already designed and operated to respond effectively to disruptions, including intentional attacks, both physical and cyber.

The workshop was attended by a total of 39 people, 11 people from industry, 9 from government, and 3 people from other universities.  The large government representation is due to the fact that law enforcement and national security are clear government functions, and because the electricity industry is highly regulated.

The results of the workshop have already been briefed to Congressional staff as part of the current electricity restructuring debate.  Articles for various policy and engineering publications are being prepared.  Further details of the results of the workshop follow on the next page.

Workshop Summary

The current electric power systems in industrialized countries already cope with massive ice storms and hurricanes, and has also dealt with disgruntled groups who have destroyed transmission towers or otherwise disrupted electricity services.  While some homes have been without power for extended periods after these disruptions, power is rapidly restored to critical users such as hospitals and airports and loss of life is extremely rare.  Only the most extraordinary terrorist attack on the power system, itís fuel supplies, and electronic control systems could cause a serious disruption of nationís electricity supply.  However, while such a massive, coordinated attack appears unlikely, the magnitude of vulnerabilities to such threats and effective means to cope with them are currently unknown.

The workshop found that the most significant security problem for the electric power system is that economic restructuring of the industry, aimed at increasing competition and consumer choice, has so far failed to give companies that operate transmission systems incentives to invest in upgrades.  Thus, the nationís electric power system is more stressed today than it has ever been in the past.  Competitive markets ignore collective objectives such as national security, so ensuring the security and survivability of the electric power system against terrorism (and natural stresses) must fall to state and federal governments. 

Rather than trying to build a fortress around the existing electric power system, regulators should focus on resolving the institutional and regulatory problems which currently beset the industry in a way that encourages the system to evolve towards a more resilient configuration that can quickly recover from any disruption that nature or terrorists may create.

One way to make the system more secure may be to add small, distributed sources of power.  Current research at Carnegie Mellon University on efficient technologies that produce electricity, heat and air conditioning on-site, shows that such an approach holds promise, but that there may be trade-offs in terms of financing, system operation, and local air pollution.  More research is needed, the workshop participants agreed, to develop technologies and policies that will lead to a resilient, survivable electric power system.