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Debunking Theories of a Terrorist Power Grab

• December 17, 2010 • 5:00 AM

A Penn State power-system expert cites laws of physics to pull the plug on worries that a terrorist attack on a minor substation could bring down the entire U.S. electric grid.

You know all those doom-and-gloomers who get up before Congress and testify about how terrorists are going to attack America’s electric grid, sending blackouts toppling across the country like dominoes? Well, here’s what Seth Blumsack, a power-system expert at Pennsylvania State University, has to say about the terrifying prospect: “That’s a bunch of hooey.”

Blumsack and his colleague Paul Hines at the University of Vermont have just published a report in the journal Chaos — and we can only imagine what the deadlines there are like — that refutes the drumbeat of warnings, many of which have made it to the halls of Congress. Last March, a military analyst testified about a study in the journal Safety Science that described how an attack on a minor substation could bring down the whole U.S. grid; a similar paper appeared the next month in Nature, presenting a model of how failing interconnected networks led to a cascading blackout over Italy in 2003. But the problem with those models, according to Hines and Blumsack, is that they are only models — mathematical, topographical approaches to understanding complex systems like the power grid, which is notoriously unpredictable.

As Hines puts it in a press release accompanying his study: “Some modelers have gotten so fascinated with these abstract networks that they’ve ignored the physics of how things actually work — like electricity infrastructure. And this can lead you grossly astray.”

January-February 2011 Miller-McCune In contrast, Hines and Blumsack’s study, funded by the National Science Foundation, drew on two fundamental laws of physics — Ohm’s and Kirchhoff’s laws, for those scoring at home — and real-world data from the Eastern U.S. power grid in 2005. Their research shows that the most vulnerable points are the ones that have the most energy flowing through them — like huge power stations or highly connected transformers.

“If the government takes these topological models seriously,” Hines says, “and changes their investment strategy to put walls around the substations that have the least amount of flow, it would be a massive waste of resources.”

But when has that ever stopped the government?

The Cocktail Napkin appears at the back page of each issue of Miller-McCune magazine, highlighting current research that merits a raised eyebrow or a painful grin.

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Matt Palmquist
A graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, Matt Palmquist, a former Miller-McCune staff writer, began his career at daily newspapers such as The Oregonian and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. In 2001, he became a staff writer at the SF Weekly in San Francisco, where he won several local and national awards. He also wrote a humorous current affairs column called "The Apologist," which he continued upon leaving the Weekly and beginning a freelance career.

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