Floridians have power, but not answers to how a small equipment malfunction in South Florida triggered a massive blackout that left millions of people as far away as the Tampa Bay area in the dark Tuesday afternoon.
Florida Power & Light, Florida's largest provider of electricity and the source of the malfunction, said it might not have answers for weeks.
"We're still in the middle of a major investigation to figure out why what happened happened," said Sarah Marmion, spokeswoman for the Juno Beach utility.
Florida's outage spurred new concerns about the vulnerability of the electric grid. The state's utilities sought to reassure customers that all was well. But experts from around the country pointed out the system's fragility due to aging equipment, breakneck growth and ever-evolving cyber threats.
"The grid has vulnerabilities that are both blessings and curses," said Eric Byres, chief technology officer for Byres Security, a Canadian firm that focuses on cyber-security for critical infrastructure. "The grid is the most complicated machine that man has ever made."
The power network has two basic problems, he said. It's highly interconnected, so power can move throughout the system and customers aren't solely dependent on one power plant. But that also means that an isolated problem can quickly amplify.
"The other problem with the grid is that it's old. It uses technology built largely 25 to 30 years ago," Byres said.
Power outages cost the nation about $80-billion a year, said Joe Eto, a scientist for the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
The North American Electric Reliability Corp. estimated that the nation's electric system is rapidly nearing its capacity. The organization is an independent nonprofit whose mission is to ensure electric security and reliability. It oversees a system with more than 211,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines and $1-trillion in assets that provides power to more than 334-million people.
"We are operating the grid closer to the edge than ever before — and we're frankly at the point where we need to consider how to make do without the resources we need," said Richard Sergel, president and CEO of the North American Electricity Reliability Corp.
Linda Campbell, vice president of the Florida Reliability Coordinating Council in Tampa, said Florida has particular vulnerabilities of its own. It relies on natural gas for about 30 percent of its power. That dependence is expected to increase to about 50 percent by 2017. In addition, Florida has limited transmission connections to other states.
In response to those vulnerabilities, the state has maintained a substantial reserve capacity to meet growing demand. It is also working to reduce its dependence on natural gas, Campbell said.
Emerging cyber threats have placed an additional burden on the industry, Byres said. Until January, the industry didn't have mandatory computer security standards. An interconnected system is only as strong as its weakest link.
"It's an arms race, as to whether we can get our systems adequately secured," he said.
Byres offered some sobering examples. In 2002, hackers in Venezuela were able to shut down part of that country's oil and gas industry. Hackers have already caused multi-city blackouts outside the United States, and there are indications that attempts have been made to breach vital power systems within the country.
Hackers aren't necessarily terrorists, he said. "In actual fact, I am much more scared of criminals any day of the week. Where there's money to be made, there's resources."
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