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The U.S. Has 300 Chinese Large Power Transformers

Large Power Transformers are the Backbone of our Electric Grid

Okay class. Let’s try a word problem: If large power transformers are the backbone of our electric grid, and we have bought 300 large power transformers from China – what could possibly go wrong?

Between 2006 and 2019, according to data from the U.S. International Trade Commission, the U.S. imported 300 “Liquid dielectric transformers having a power handling capacity exceeding 10,000 kVA” from China.

At least 200 of these Chinese large power transformers found their way into our electric grid. Others may have been bought by large industries, but it is certain that most of these 300 Chinese large power transformers have embedded themselves in some of our critical infrastructures in the U.S.

Where Are the Chinese Transformers?

Do the regulators even know where these 300 Chinese transformers are? The North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) did not inspire confidence when they testified in 2019 that did not know if any of the entities in the grid had Kaspersky, Huawei, or ZTE equipment in their systems. If NERC can’t answer basic questions on supply chain cybersecurity, I don’t have a great deal of faith that they are handling security issues with the Chinese transformers.

Even if NERC and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) know where these Chinese transformers are, there is no requirement that anybody do anything about it.

As I have been reporting, on January 20, 2021 President Biden signed Executive Order 13990 entitled: “Executive Order on Protecting Public Health and the Environment and Restoring Science to Tackle the Climate Crisis.” Buried deep in the 7 page wide ranging order is this provision:

(c) Executive Order 13920 of May 1, 2020 (Securing the United States Bulk-Power System), is hereby suspended for 90 days. The Secretary of Energy and the Director of OMB shall jointly consider whether to recommend that a replacement order be issued.

Presidential Executive Order 13920 was issued to address the electric grid Supply Chain Cybersecurity threat. Precisely the threat that Chinese transformers on our electric grid could pose! Luckily, the Senate has questioned the suspension of this order, and the incoming Secretary of Energy, Jennifer Granholm, has committed to look into it.

On May 27, 2020 the Wall Street Journal reported that a Chinese built transformer was seized by the government and diverted by the federal government from its intended destination (the electric grid that feeds Denver, Colorado) to Sandia National Laboratories. Control Systems Cybersecurity Expert, Joseph M. Weiss noted that Executive Order 13920 was issued in response to real nation-state supply chain cybersecurity threats to the US grid:

“Government and public utility procurement rules often push organizations into buying equipment due to price and without regard to origin or risk. In this case, it resulted in a utility having to procure a very large bulk transmission transformer from China. When the Chinese transformer was delivered to a US utility, the site acceptance testing identified electronics that should NOT have been part of the transformer – hardware backdoors. That transformer now resides at a government installation.”

Back on April 25, 2019, E&E News discussed this issue in an article entitled “China and America’s 400-ton electric albatross.” They reported:

“There have been over 200 Chinese transformers that have come into the U.S. energy sector in the last 10 years,” said Charles Durant, deputy director of counterintelligence at the Department of Energy. “Before that, there were zero.”

So, we have learned that the U.S. has been buying these large power transformers from China since 2006 and at least 200 of these – perhaps more, have ended up in our critical infrastructures. Here is the breakdown of these U.S. Imports from China by year:

Chinese Large Power Transformers
Click for Larger View
Year Chinese Large Power Transformers Imported
2006 2
2007 1
2008 6
2009 13
2010 10
2011 18
2012 19
2013 22
2014 47
2015 48
2016 32
2017 24
2018 24
2019 34
Total: 300

One last question class: How did we let this happen? And more importantly, what are we going to do about it?

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