Study reveals vulnerability of Israel's electricity grid

IEC control room  picture: Tamar Matzapi

An Institute for National Security Studies paper maps the threats to the electricity system, and says Israel's preparedness is inadequate.

"The potential risk to Israel's infrastructure, including the electricity grid, will increase with the years, given the improved accuracy of the missiles in Hezbollah's hands and those Hamas is likely to obtain (not to mention Syria and Iran). This is liable to make attacks against the civilian population and a variety of infrastructure in Israel extremely dangerous," the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) warns. Furthermore, there are other threats in addition to the missile threat. In a new comprehensive study, the first of its kind, the researchers map the threats, damage they can cause, and Israel's readiness for them.

According to the study's authors, INSS Homeland Security and Socio-Military Relations head and former IDF Intelligence Directorate head Gen. Meir Elran (res.) and INSS external energy consultant Dr. Dan Weinstock, the decision to conduct research on the security of the electricity system reflects the recognition that more than any other infrastructure system, this system is a key and critical focus for command continuity in Israel. They assert that severe damage to this system is liable to not only create significant disruption of electricity supplies, but also to greatly disrupt other critical systems, thereby severely damaging the economy and the country, including the functioning of the IDF.

The study's importance is made still clearer by the Israeli economy's growing dependence on a supply of electricity the authors claim. They explain that this dependence can be estimated through an economic concept called the "cost of energy not supplied" the price in shekels per kilowatt-hour that people are willing to pay for a supply of electricity at times of shortage. The greater this cost is for a given economy, the more the economy is dependent on a continuous supply of electricity. Over the years, this cost in Israel has been estimated at NIS 25 per kilowatt hour, but an up-to-date estimate by the Ministry of National Infrastructure, Energy, and Water Resources is NIS 111 per kilowatt-hour.

The INSS therefore decided to examine the ability of the electricity grid to withstand external threats, both in terms of immediately dangers by people and in terms of natural disasters, especially earthquakes, climate changes, and a sunami.

Where natural disasters are concerned, the researchers concluded that Israel was reasonably prepared for an earthquake, which is less likely to damage the system's core facilities, but not adequately prepared for other natural disasters, such as tsunamis or a rise in the sea level. "Because Israel does not have extreme weather, our level of preparedness in this matter is poor. A ridiculous snowstorm shuts the country down completely," Weinstock argues, and mentions the tens of thousands of Israelis who went without electricity for days in the storm that took place last October. "What would have happened had the storm been two levels stronger?"

He adds that a tsunami, for example, is regarded by many as a danger threatening only countries with ocean shores, like the US and Japan, but this idea is wrong. "25% of the tsunamis in human history happened in the Middle East, and in a case like this, there will be a catastrophe here, especially because Israel Electric Corporation (IEC) (TASE: ELEC.B22) has quite a few power stations along the coast."

10,000 attacks a day

The researchers also concluded that the system is only partially prepared for major missile attacks and cyber-attacks. Weinstock says that while IEC is investing large amounts of money in defense against cyber-attacks (the company comes under 10,000 cyber-attacks per hour, and the number rose to 300,000-400,000 during Operation Protective Edge), as the IEC grid is upgraded and become a smart network, the threats increase accordingly. As far as electromagnetic threats are concerned, Israel is completely unprepared, according to the study. Such a threat can result from what is called a "sun-storm," which has a very paralyzing effect on communications systems and electronic equipment, or it can be induced deliberately. "It can result from a nuclear explosion at a height of 30-40 kilometers, which is something that Iran can do, or on a smaller scale, such as a suitcase placed by someone with a pickup truck near military headquarters," Weinstock explains. "Beyond the severe damage to the electricity grid, such an event can paralyze the central IDF command system."

The main weak points are as follows:

Dependence on a single natural gas reservoir and a single gas pipeline

Inadequate use of renewable energy

No storage of electricity for an emergency

Weak point in the electricity system: "Repairing a malfunction in the gas pipeline is liable to take a long time"

After mapping the threats, the researchers discuss the weak points in the electrical system in Israel, first and foremost its dependence on a single gas reservoir with a single pipeline, and with not storage solution. "A disruption in the regular supply of gas (or in the diesel substitute) will constitute a grave challenge to the production system," the report states. "This is a very dangerous situation, because repairing a malfunction in the undersea section of the natural gas system is likely to take a very long time."

The study cites the example of British Petroleum (BP), which needed no fewer than 87 days to close the leak (not to repair the malfunction itself) in its well in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. "Needless to say, BP had access to means that Israel may very well not have," the study states.

According to the researchers, another weak point for which a solution should be found is the concentration of electricity production sites and the shortage of renewable energy production. They state, "A widely dispersed electricity system makes efficient use of the system's resources, and substantially reduces the effect of a natural disaster or emergency situation by making it a local event." Weinstock brings up another interesting point in this context: the production sites for renewable energy are naturally spread over an enormous area, which reduces the extent of damage in the event of an attack for example.

He gives an example: "Say that you are an adviser to Nasrallah, and you have to decide where to shoot the missiles. If you shoot them at the IEC power plant in Hadera, you will be able to cause serious damage to the station, but if you shoot at a giant solar facility, the expected damage will be much less. You might hit 10,000 of the 400,000 panels. The same is true about wind energy: you might hit three out of 30 turbines."

A third problem is that Israel has no solutions for storing electricity for the economy to use in an emergency. In this context, the researchers recommend encouraging mainly pumped-storage hydroelectricity. "The allocation for pumped-storage electricity production (currently 800 megawatts) should be increased, because they are very defendable against various threats, because of the increase in total installed capacity, and because of their contribution to expanding the ability to establish production facilities for renewable energy," the report states.

According to Weinstock, even without storage solutions on a national scale, the government can encourage individual storage solutions. For example, as part of the building code, it is possible to require preparation for small rooftop solar production facilities, or to encourage the purchase of diesel-operated generators able to supply electricity to a household for several days.

Another question that should be emphasized is the issue of burying power lines. In contrast to most Western countries, most of IEC's transmission and distribution lines are elevated. Elevated lines are more exposed to weather damage and damage caused by missiles and rockets. In his report published last September, the State Comptroller attacked the Ministry of National Infrastructure, Energy, and Water Resources and the Public Utilities Authority (Electricity) for not having prepared an estimate for the cost of burying the power lines.

"The systematic responses, which are currently subject to threats to the electricity system, given Israel's special geostrategic characteristics, are not sufficient, and require systematic, expanding, and comprehensive handling by the government and industry," the researchers conclude. They point an accusing finger at the political and bureaucratic constraints making it difficult to design a balanced and systematic response. "Until such an arrangement is instituted, the system will find it difficult to reach the required level of preparedness for an emergency."

Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - www.globes-online.com - on April 10, 2016

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2016

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IEC control room  picture: Tamar Matzapi
IEC control room picture: Tamar Matzapi
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