Power networks as targets: Hazards, vulnerabilities and protection of electricity networks from the Second World War to 21st century asymmetric conflicts

By Angélique Palle

Power networks are “critical infrastructures” for industrialized western societies. The electrification of energy use is growing, while the electricity sector is at the same time undergoing major changes through energy transition, climate change mitigation and sustainable development dynamics. The evolution of the role and the increasing influence of these networks calls for a renewed analysis of their exposure to risks. This paper explores the recent developments of these risks, brought by new hazards and vulnerabilities stemming from recent changes in the environment of the networks. The point here is not to suggest technical resilience prospects, but to explore how the US and the EU have comparatively built a culture around these risks and how they manage them.The paper first analyses the recent evolution of the status of these networks that serve as a base for the entire economy and lifestyles of Western societies. From military objectives in the twentieth century, they have become in the last ten years targets for physical sabotage (at the Metcalf substation powering Silicon Valley in 2013) or cyberattacks (in the Ukraine and Baltic states). This analysis is, secondly, confronted with the new vulnerabilities induced both by the integration of networks on a European scale which produces cascading effects (as in the case of the European blackout of 2006), and by the energy transition that opens networks to digital controls and makes them more vulnerable to cyberattacks. Thirdly, a comparative analysis of the American, European and French responses to these new risks for the networks is proposed.The analysis draws on various field and technical collaborations in the EU and in the US, while most of the technical data stem from incident reports, security guidelines, stress test feedbacks and risk assessments from the network operators.

  • power networks
  • critical infrastructure
  • risk
  • European Union
  • United States
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