As the U.S. military increases its use of drones in surveillance and combat overseas, the danger posed by a threat back at home grows. Many drone flights are piloted by soldiers located in the U.S., even when the drones are flying over Yemen or Iraq or Syria. Those pilots and their control systems depend on the American electricity grid – large, complex, interconnected and very vulnerable to attack.
Without electricity from civilian power plants, the most advanced military in world history could be crippled. The U.S. Department of Energy has begged for new authority to defend against weaknesses in the grid in a nearly 500-page comprehensive study issued in January 2017 warning that it’s only a matter of time before the grid fails, due to disaster or attack. A new study by a team I led reveals the three ways American military bases’ electrical power sources are threatened, and shows how the U.S. military could take advantage of solar power to significantly improve national security.
A triple threat
The first threat to the electricity grid comes from nature. Severe weather disasters resulting in power outages cause between US$25 billion and $70 billion in the U.S. each year – and that’s average years, not those including increasingly frequent major storms, like Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.
The second type of threat is from traditional acts of crime or terrorism, such as bombing or sabotage. For example, a 2013 sniper attack on a Pacific Gas and Electric substation in California disabled 17 transformers supplying power to Silicon Valley. In what the head of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission called “the most significant incident of domestic terrorism involving the grid that has ever occurred,” the attacker – who may have been an insider – fired about 100 rounds of .30-caliber rifle ammunition into the radiators of 17 electricity transformers over the course of 19 minutes. The electronics overheated and shut down. Fortunately, power company engineers managed to keep the lights on in Silicon Valley by routing power from other sources.