The Department of Energy (DoE) needs to do more to improve electric grid resilience by ensuring there are adequate reserves of spare power transformers, which are susceptible to cyberattacks and other physical threats, according to a new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report.

Large power transformers (LPTs) help to efficiently transmit electricity across the grid, but replacing them could take a long time. For example, if LPTs were hit by cyberattacks on computer systems that control parts of the grid, DoE estimated that it could take years to replace the LPTs.

Additionally, GAO warned that “cyberattacks can damage transformers and create vulnerabilities for other types of attacks, such as by disabling physical security systems.”

There are many challenges to keeping reserves of spare power transformers, GAO said, such as supply chain constraints and costs.

“Utilities identified supply chain constraints as the most pressing challenge, including long (and increasing) manufacturing lead times, limited manufacturing capacity, and labor and material shortages,” the report says. “Moreover, the costs of purchasing and transporting LPTs prevents some utilities from keeping spares. For example, utilities reported that LPTs can cost as high as $10 million to purchase and hundreds of thousands of dollars to move.”

DoE has identified ways it can support the electricity industry as it works to ensure adequate reserves of spare transformers. However, GAO recommends that DoE develop plans to put these ideas into action.

For example, DoE gathered information from industry and issued a report last year on how the Defense Production Act could be used to expand domestic transformer manufacturing capacity. It also issued a report in 2017 that recommended supporting industry efforts to ensure adequate LPT reserves “by encouraging the participation of smaller, resource-constrained utilities in such efforts.”

However, GAO said DoE officials have not identified actionable objectives or a plan for these efforts.

“Without plans to guide DOE’s efforts to address supply chain challenges and to facilitate solutions to ensure adequate reserves, these efforts could stall or remain incomplete, leaving critical grid infrastructure vulnerable,” the report says.

GAO made two recommendations for DoE to establish plans, including time frames for developing solutions and support for addressing transformer supply chain challenges, as well as guiding its support for utilities and facilitating greater participation in industry sharing efforts.

DoE partially concurred with the two recommendations.

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Grace Dille
Grace Dille
Grace Dille is MeriTalk's Assistant Managing Editor covering the intersection of government and technology.