Could the electrical equipment we use become an opportunity for the Chinese government or other governments to hack or cyberattack the U.S.?
The U.S. has three main electrical grids: one serving the western half, one serving the eastern half, and one just for Texas. That Texas grid has been in the news in recent days as the state suffered one of the most severe electrical blackouts in U. S. history, after unusually low temperatures caused both a spike in demand for electricity and the majority of the grid components to freeze.
China has become the world’s leading supplier of transformers. Many find that worrying, especially after China hacked into 100 U.S. government firms and agencies last year.
In May 2020, President Donald Trump issued an executive order banning the purchase or use of equipment in these power grids by a company “owned by or controlled by… a foreign adversary.” Six countries qualify: China, Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Russia, and Venezuela. Trump said this move was necessary to prevent hacking of our power grid by an enemy nation.
On Joe Biden’s first day as president in January 2021, he issued an executive order suspending Trump’s executive order for 90 days. This didn’t formally repeal it, but instead tasked the Energy Department and Office of Management and Budget to review and decide during those 90 days whether a replacement policy should be implemented. Indeed, Biden’s Energy Department subsequently clarified that the ban on purchasing or using power grid equipment from those six countries still remains in effect for the moment.
What the bill does
The Stopping Chinese Communist Involvement in the Power Grid Act would codify Trump’s executive order into law, banning the U.S. from using electrical equipment from China, Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Russia, or Venezuela for its main power grids.
It was introduced in the House on February 18 as H.R. 1119, by Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-SC3).
What supporters say
Supporters argue the bill is necessary for national security. The Texas shutdown happened by accident; what if a mass electrical shutdown was triggered by a foreign nation intentionally? Last month, as-yet-unidentified hackers were caught attempting to poison the water supply of Oldsmar, Florida.
“Last year, after finding that foreign adversaries were increasingly creating and exploiting vulnerabilities within our bulk-power system, President Trump issued an executive order declaring a national emergency with respect to the threats to our nation’s electric grid,” Rep. Duncan said in a press release. “This was a common-sense solution implemented.”
“This 90-day suspension could potentially yield additional threats to our power grid, which would in turn put our national security at risk. Unfortunately, this is not the first time President Biden has proven his inability to stand firm against our adversaries, especially the Chinese Communist Party,” Rep. Duncan continued. “We must ensure the security and reliability of our nation’s power grid are upheld.”
What opponents say
Opponents counter that Trump’s executive order, even if well-intentioned, could prove too wide and inadvertently stifle development on the power grids themselves, since so much of the supply chain for this industry involves Chinese manufacturers.
“Renewable energy and power storage developers are worried the order’s language is so broad — covering nearly 20 types of equipment — that they may be forced to put projects on hold for fear their components could be banned,” a Politico article noted, though the article itself did not take a position on the issue.
Odds of passage
The bill has not yet attracted any cosponsors. It awaits a potential vote in either the House Energy and Commerce, Foreign Affairs, or Oversight and Reform Committees.