Last March, the U.S. Congress heard testimony about a scientific study in the journal Safety Science. A military analyst worried that the paper presented a model of how an attack on a small, unimportant part of the U.S. power grid might, like dominoes, bring the whole grid down.
Members of Congress were, of course, concerned. Then, a similar paper came out in the journal Nature the next month that presented a model of how a cascade of failing interconnected networks led to a blackout that covered Italy in 2003.
These two papers are part of a growing reliance on a particular kind of mathematical model — a so-called topological model — for understanding complex systems, including the power grid.
And this has University of Vermont power-system expert Paul Hines concerned.
“Some modelers have gotten so fascinated with these abstract networks that they’ve ignored the physics of how things actually work — like electricity infrastructure,” Hines says, “and this can lead you grossly astray.”
For example, the Safety Science paper came to the “highly counter-intuitive conclusion,” Hines says, that the smallest, lowest-flow parts of the electrical system — say a minor substation in a neighborhood — were likely to be the most effective spots for a targeted attack to bring down the U.S. grid.
“That’s a bunch of hooey,” says Seth Blumsack, Hines’s colleague at Penn State.
Continue reading Why It’s Hard to Crash the Electric Grid