National Research Council calls for universal recovery transformers to strengthen grid against terrorist attacks

A promising solution to the U.S. electric power delivery system’s vulnerability to terrorist attacks is to develop, manufacture and stockpile a family of universal recovery transformers that would be smaller and easier to move, according to the National Research Council.

High-voltage transformers, which are large, difficult to move, often custom-built and difficult to replace, are of particular concern because they are vulnerable from within and from outside the substations where they are located, the National Academies said on Nov. 14 in discussing the council’s newly released report.

The council is the principal operating agency of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering, which are part of the National Academies.

Most high-voltage transformers are no longer made in the United States and the delivery time for new ones could run from months to years.

Universal recovery transformers would be less efficient than those normally operated and would be only for temporary use, but they could reduce delays in restoring disabled electric power systems.

The National Academies also said that in line with this recommendation, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has recently cooperated with the U.S. power industry on the RecX program to develop and test a recovery transformer.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), the recovery transformer (RecX) project will allow rapid recovery and resiliency of electrical power. A prototype RecX is being developed to allow recovery within days rather than months or years.

According to the council’s “Report in Brief” paper, physical protection of critical facilities would include hardened enclosures for key transformers, improved electronic surveillance and system tools that can identify physical and control system problems and potential incidents.

Such measures may deter as well as blunt an attack, the council said, adding that strengthening background checks for new and existing employees and contractors can reduce the risk of insider-assisted attacks.

Furthermore, since the complete elimination of all possible modes of failure is not feasible, a key design objective should be the ability to sustain critical social services while an outage persists.

“Thus, in addition to strengthening the grid, federal, state and local governments should also focus on identifying critical services and developing strategies to keep them operating in the event of power outages, whether accidental or the result of terrorist attack,” the council said.

The best way to make needed changes affordable is through research and for the most part, this is the same research that would also address the broad problems faced by the aging transmission and distribution grid.

The council also noted in the paper that the DHS should develop a coherent plan to address the incremental cost of upgrading and protecting critical infrastructure to that higher level.

The National Academies said that the U.S. electric power delivery system is vulnerable to terrorist attacks that could cause more damage to the system than natural disasters such as Hurricane Sandy, blacking out large regions of the country for weeks or months and costing billions of dollars.

Sandy made landfall near Atlantic City, N.J., on Oct. 29 as a post-tropical cyclone, leaving millions of utility customers without power in the East Coast.

The power grid is inherently vulnerable physically because it is spread across hundreds of miles and many key facilities are unguarded. This vulnerability, the National Academies added, is exacerbated by a reorganizational shift in the mid-1990s, prompted by federal legislation to introduce competition in bulk power across the country, resulting in the transmission network being used in ways for which it was not designed.

Consequently, many parts of the bulk high-voltage system are stressed, leaving it at risk to multiple failures following an attack. Key pieces of equipment are decades old and lack improved technology for sensing and control that could help limit outages and their consequences – not only those caused by a terrorist attack but also in the event of natural disasters.

The National Academies also said that while it is not reasonable to expect federal support for all local and regional planning efforts, DHS and/or DOE should begin and fund several model demonstration assessments across cities, counties and states. Those assessments should systematically examine a region’s vulnerability to extended power outages and develop cost-effective strategies that can be adopted to reduce or eventually eliminate such vulnerabilities.

The National Academies also said that the council completed the report in the fall of 2007, but the sponsoring agency, DHS, decided at that time that the report would be classified in its entirety. After a formal request from the council for an updated security classification review, the report was cleared for public release this fall. 

Ralph Cicerone, president of the National Academy of Sciences, and Charles Vest, president of the National Academy of Engineering, wrote in the report’s foreward: “We regret the long delay in approving this report for public release. We understand the need to safeguard security information that may need to remain classified. But openness is also required to accelerate the progress with current technology and implementation of research and development of new technology to better protect the nation from terrorism and other threats.”

A workshop is being planned to address changes that have occurred since the report’s completion in 2007 and where future efforts should be directed to improve grid resilience, the National Academies said.

About Corina Rivera-Linares 3058 Articles
Corina Rivera-Linares, chief editor for TransmissionHub, has covered the U.S. power industry for the past 15 years. Before joining TransmissionHub, Corina covered renewable energy and environmental issues, as well as transmission, generation, regulation, legislation and ISO/RTO matters at SNL Financial. She has also covered such topics as health, politics, and education for weekly newspapers and national magazines. She can be reached at