Title:
Electricity infrastructure threats and policy response

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Author(s)
McGrath, Jenna K. C.
Authors
Advisor(s)
Thomas, Valerie M.
Brown, Marilyn A.
Kosal, Margaret E.
Matisoff, Daniel C.
Moreno-Cruz, Juan
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Abstract
The overarching research question of this dissertation is how are policymakers responding to threats to the electricity grid? The database of attacks on the United States electricity system, created and analyzed in Chapter 2, underscores that targeted attacks have been a persistent threat for the electric grid for the past nearly 50 years. In recent years, attacks have become more sophisticated and coordinated. Given this development, Chapter 3 considers how policy makers have responded to grid attacks, focusing on a more recent timeframe of seventeen years and uses risk perception theory as a guide. The results of the regression time series analysis indicate that policymakers respond to malicious attacks on the grid in terms of federal funding and allocation to grid-related improvements. There is no response associated with disruptions caused by severe weather or human or technical failures. This suggests that policymakers are perceiving malicious attacks as a threat and are stating policy priorities to address this issue in the federal budget appropriations. In addition to funding for emergency response and funding for research, federal policy, utilities have proposed measures to improve grid security. Chapter 4 addresses the adequacy of this response. The effectiveness of current grid security standards are simulated when faced with actual attack scenarios as well as possible future attacks that become increasingly more sophisticated and threatening in nature. The simulations indicate that security upgrades involving improved lighting and visibility are not effective, while improved barriers are effective. More broadly, the limited effectiveness of the proposed security upgrades suggests that there is substantial scope for research and testing, and for consideration of how utilities are securing electric infrastructure assets. Chapter 5 considers critical infrastructure as a whole, evaluating federal emergency response and management across the different critical infrastructure sectors. Here, the goal is to determine how electricity sector response compares to the policy responses to the challenges and events impacting other sectors. Analysis across multiple large incidents affecting different components of critical infrastructure shows a largely linear and consistent relationship between the impact of a disaster in terms of both human health and cost, and the sum of the public sector funding and insurance response. Attacks on the U.S. electric grid are a continuing challenge, as demonstrated in Chapter 2. In line with the prevailing risk perception literature, the analysis in Chapter 3 indicates that malicious attacks on the electric grid receive a larger response, in terms of federal R&D funding, than natural disasters or failures. This study finds that threats to national security are a driver of policy priorities and actions to both repair and improve the electric grid. Federal and state governments as well as the utilities and private sector bear significant costs when attacks occur. As concluded in Chapter 4, utility efforts to increase security are not fully public, but those that can be evaluated have significant weaknesses. Across all infrastructures, Chapter 5 demonstrates that government and private insurance payments largely pay fully for the impact of each disaster, irrespective of cause or sector, with terrorist attacks receiving emergency response funding at the same level as accidents and natural disasters. Similarly, federal research and development funding related to grid security has remained largely steady, with increases in response to large incidents irrespective of cause.
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Date Issued
2018-11-08
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Dissertation
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