Think power is expensive now? Just wait until we need security guards to protect our substations from extremists and fascists.
- Jan 15, 2023 5:45 am GMT
The recent spate of attacks on electrical infrastructure in the USA is a worrying trend; widely reported as an escalation of domestic terrorism. The threat is significant, but the implications are more broad than the short-term interruption in supply usually described in the media. These strikes have long-term implications for the cost of living crisis and the stability of democracy.
Electrical infrastructure has been a target in international warfare since World War 2 and domestic terrorism since at least 1975. It is easy to see why: electricity plays a role in almost every aspect of advanced economies. It is vital for industries like mining and manufacturing, essential services like food storage and wastewater treatment and conveniences like the Internet and lighting. Without electricity life in our cities would look very different within days. However, electrical infrastructure is difficult to protect and time consuming to fix.
While electricity companies take physical security seriously, current measures haven’t been enough to stop determined attackers. Protecting the entire system of poles and wires is unrealistic due to their enormous scale, but fortunately the impact of such an attack would be limited and electricity companies deal with failures in those assets every day. It is the substations - specifically the power transformers - where the real vulnerability lies. Anecdotally, the wait time for power transformers has ballooned out to three years and that could significantly increase if demand spikes due to intentional destruction.
There are many thousands of substations at risk and measures to defend the system will need to be applied at scale. The cost of security will be high but the price of failing to protect could be catastrophic. Ultimately any increase in physical security expenditure will be passed onto consumers or taxpayers, which will exacerbate the cost of living crisis and harm those who can least afford it.
It is positive that this rising threat is on the radar of the security services, and hopefully traditional law enforcement techniques will reduce the likelihood of attacks from small-time players. But there is a real threat that more organised groups could conduct a large-scale false flag attack to advance their own aims, like a modern day Reichstag Fire. If successful, such groups could also act as a playbook for similar attacks in other jurisdictions, further endangering stable democracy.
Until the situation deescalates, our society needs to add the increased threat from domestic terrorism to the balancing act between security and affordability.
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