We face many problems and ongoing threats in America today, but one of the most pervasive and the most pressing or threats to our power grid. It is difficult to understand just how important electricity is to our modern society, and most folks are totally, completely unprepared for a sustained loss of electricity.
Far from being a luxury that can turn on lights at the flick of a switch or animate all of our wondrous modern gadgetry, electricity is now woven into the DNA of our society, and is quite literally the beating heart of commerce, communications, national defense and more.
It is terrible, then, to consider how old, decrepit and increasingly vulnerable to disaster or attack the entire power grid is.
But consider it we must and a thorough understanding of the vulnerability of our national power grid and our attendant dependency on it is the first step towards insulating ourselves against a long-term or indefinite loss of that power. The consequences of such an event can barely be put into words.
This article will serve as your assessment of the current status of the United States power grid, its vulnerabilities and the likely outcomes you’ll be facing should a regional or nationwide grid down scenario occur.
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Electricity is Essential for Modern Life and Continuation of Services
Virtually everyone living in the United States today, and indeed throughout much of the West, quite literally cannot imagine life without the reliable, constant presence of electricity.
It is no overstatement to assert that our electrical grid is the single, most important part of our nation’s infrastructure. It is even more important than our telecommunications hubs, any financial industry, national defense or transportation.
This is because our electrical infrastructure is quite literally integral to the continued operation and sustainment of all of the other mentioned components of our society.
If the electrical grid goes down many elements will cease working entirely until power is restored, and what few remain working will be severely degraded or limited in capability.
The ongoing operation of our electrical grid is the keystone to modern life as we know it and anything that threatens it threatens to start disastrous dominos falling in rapid succession, ending in calamity.
But in a strange sort of symbiosis, our electrical power grid is itself dependent on many other utilities and other parts of our infrastructure.
Natural gas, oil, transportation and telecommunications systems are all vital to the ongoing upkeep and operation of electrical grids from coast to coast and if any of these systems are delayed or disrupted it will start an already complex and tottering electrical grid to begin swaying, and perhaps collapse.
Aside from big picture national infrastructure and societal initiatives, all of us “little people” are still entirely dependent on electricity for running our day-to-day lives.
99 times out of 100, electricity is what will make the lights come on to banish the darkness. We rely on electricity to power our devices that keep us connected to the internet, receive radio signals or operate our televisions. Electricity keeps our banks on and functioning, be it at the teller counter or at the ATM.
Electricity keeps grocery store shelves replenished and stockrooms receiving. We even need electricity to fill up our personal vehicles with gasoline, or to recharge them directly in the case of all electric vehicles.
Imagine all of that, everything, ceasing in an instant and perhaps not coming back on for a very long time. When it fails, it will fail quickly and with ever-increasing rapidity.
Seemingly Minor Incidents Can Lead to Regional Outages
Despite this extraordinary importance to the preservation of life and society in the United States, our electrical system is frighteningly vulnerable both from within and without.
The actual components of our electrical system, the very equipment that allows it to operate and transmit electricity to facilities and homes is old and outdated, and getting older by the day.
The layout of the system is also a major point of vulnerability, being both obsolete and highly Byzantine in design in many regions.
The principles of engineering used to construct and connect it are also proving to be increasingly out of date compared with modern, better practices.
In total, all of these shortcomings add up to a nationwide grid that is by and large incredibly frail, fragile and vulnerable to disruption if not outright destruction.
Aside from quality of life and production problems like high failure rates throughout the nation that just get worse as time goes by, inefficient production and delivery of power and rising repair costs we must also deal with maintenance and refits that grow increasingly expensive and complex owing it to the slap dash, antiquated nature of the grid.
What does this mean in practical terms? It means that our electrical grid, considered at local, regional and national scales, is highly vulnerable to everything from natural disasters and direct action attacks to simple rough weather and seemingly minor accidents.
Any or all of them, as you will soon learn, or enough to trigger total blackouts over a shockingly wide area, potentially affecting millions or tens of millions of people, to say nothing of other critical infrastructure.
As the Demand on the Grid Increases, Funding for Critical Maintenance and Protection Decreases
It is not bad enough that the power grid is old, outmoded, and vulnerable to internal and external threats, along with the odd brush from bad weather or legitimate natural disasters.
Further compounding the problem geometrically are the ever increasing demands in society for electricity along with maintenance and upgrade budgets that are slashed and slashed again as the political football is kicked about or is otherwise raided as part and parcel of the graft that all of our elected officials engage in.
The government is also interested in converting every single one of its vehicles, at least those used in civic roles, to fully electrically-powered. The increasing funneling of taxpayer money to Tesla and other companies pioneering these technologies is proof enough of their commitment.
Consumers, driven by a counterfeit ecologically-conscious ideology or from government mandates in various states, are likewise starting to buy into electric consumer vehicle technology.
Constant attacks against reliable forms of major power production like coal, natural gas, oil and especially nuclear power in lieu of inefficient dead ends like solar and wind power likewise mean that demand is only going up, up, up while production of electricity barely grows at all, goes stagnant or even operates at a net loss due to ever-increasing inefficiency as mentioned previously.
This means that the already overburdened, vulnerable and inefficient power grid will be subjected to growing demands that it can barely handle as is, in ideal conditions.
What do you think will happen to the power grid and to consumers’ access to steady, reliable electricity when times are tough?
Heat waves, direct action attacks, successful cyber warfare intrusions, major natural disasters, cosmic EMP events and more all have the potential to completely capsize our power grid.
Make no mistake: there is going to be no nationwide initiative to revamp our power grid in any meaningful way. There will not even be any money found to afford it a significant overhaul or badly needed maintenance in many areas.
Things are going to limp along like this for the foreseeable future, with everyone involved happy to kick the can down the road or sweep the problem under the rug until such time as the inevitable happens and a total systems collapse occurs.
What is likely to be the instigating factor for that collapse? We have no shortage of possible offenders to look forward to.
Keep reading to get an overview of the most serious and pervasive threats to our power grid, and after that we will examine a selection of some of the biggest and most destructive, not to mention most costly, power grid failures in the 20th and 21st centuries.
Specific Vulnerabilities and Threats to the U.S. Power Grid
The following section details just a few of the major threats to our power grid. though some of the entries on this list may seem minor, even trivial, they take on an entirely new significance when you consider that the US power grid consists of more than 10,000 functioning power plants, nearly 20,000 electrical generators and a combined 450,000 miles of distribution and transmission lines serviced by over 55,000 substations.
This astonishingly massive, intricate and interconnected network could be taken offline entirely, and I mean the whole thing taken offline, if just nine strategically chosen substations out of those 55,000 plus were taken down by force majeure or direct action.
Keep that in mind as you read through this list.
We all take for granted that the electricity will be there when we plug in the appliance or flip the switch. Luckily, it is much of the time but there is no endless fountainhead of electricity to supply all needs at all times. As hard as it is to imagine for lay people, that supply is decidedly finite.
As demand increases, especially peak demand that arises as a result of changing conditions or unforeseen circumstances, operators of the electrical grid at large must begin making choices about where and when they will supply power.
This involves a sort of “shell game” process by which power may be reduced or cut off in some areas and redirected to others.
Obviously, if you’re one of the unfortunates left in the dark that is bad enough, but the intricate nature of the power grid means that the very process of rerouting power entails a certain amount of risk as it is fraught with opportunities for error and then subsequent catastrophe.
When power grid operators are forced to “rob Peter in order to pay Paul” when it comes to supplying power to a hungry populace it is only a matter of time before a confluence of circumstances and human error result in a cascading failure.
Naturally we all want to think that the people who very literally keep the lights on represent our best and brightest minds, and thankfully so much of the time this is true, the inescapable reality is that they are still, at best, human and prone to making mistakes or, at worst, barely qualified to be operating the milkshake machine at a greasy spoon diner.
Human error and good old fashioned incompetence have before and will again result in calamitous power grid failures.
I don’t mean to say that flipping switch a when they should have pulled lever b instead means a ruined parade or Christmas tree lighting. I mean to say that monstrous blackouts affecting tens of millions can be a direct consequence of even a single procedural error.
Such is the nature of electrical generation and continual power supply in America today thanks to our problems I have spent much of this article outlining.
With layoffs, walkouts, worker shortages and more affecting every facet of society thanks to a mysterious pathogen of unknown origin turning the world upside down you can bet on rush replacements, under qualified workers and endless overtime taking its toll on our power grid workforce very soon. When that occurs, lights out.
Accidents great and small are another common cause of power outages. We have all been there. A windy day or stormy night sends tree branches toppling into power lines or even knocks over power poles themselves resulting in a localized, hopefully, power outage.
Bigger disasters, too, can have deleterious effects on our supply of electricity, everything from automobile and plane crashes to industrial accidents and even mishaps at power generation facilities themselves.
Any or all of these can plunge our society into darkness, but what you might not know is that even the most mundane of accidents could turn into gargantuan regional blackouts that last for days, weeks or potentially even months with all of the attendant effects we have discussed.
You’ll read about one such comparatively recent incident just below. Something as simple as a branch toppling from a tree onto nearby power lines could result in a sequence of events that knocks out power across multiple States for millions of people. No joke.
One of the most obvious and pervasive causes of blackouts are natural disasters. Relatively small ones like tornadoes, unpredictable ones like avalanches and wildfires and massive, regional scale catastrophes like category 5 hurricanes.
Each and every one of them can result in widespread, total systems damage to the power grid and the aftermath of these events makes diagnostic and repair tasking considerably more difficult.
In the case of the largest disasters society as a whole in the affected areas can be completely ground to a halt. Even accessing the affected areas to begin to assess the level of damage can take weeks.
Naturally, the loss of power in these areas complicates rescue and retrieval efforts in addition to other post disaster initiatives.
Some disasters don’t even necessarily take place on our planet, but instead happen to it.
Cosmic phenomena like solar storms and coronal mass ejections can project incredibly powerful electromagnetic energy across the gulf of space, potentially impacting the atmosphere of our planet and raising merry hell with all electronics, including the transmission lines and substations of the power grid itself.
A particularly powerful event could quite literally fry the entirety of the grid in the blink of an eye, rolling us back to the Stone Age.
The most severe disasters can disable power for millions, even tens of millions, across a regional area and leave them in the dark for months on end.
As mentioned above, our power grid is a network, a colossal system comprised of millions and millions of components.
Each of these components, seemingly barely significant in terms of the whole, is nonetheless vulnerable to direct attack by malicious entities or individuals in a bewildering number of ways.
Most of these installations and components are completely, totally unguarded, and practically cannot be protected except in the most rudimentary ways or in the case of the most sensitive or crucial installations.
Just in the past couple of decades we have seen small groups or individuals target substations with rifle fire, damaging transformers and other components, fuel tanks targeted with improvised explosive devices, power lines sabotaged and so much more.
The ubiquitous, distributed nature of the power grid combined with a lack of protection means that simple, human ingenuity is more than enough to inflict catastrophic damage on all but the most heavily defended or hardened components or installations.
Frankly, it is a small wonder that the US has not yet been plunged into a long night by a simple, easy to execute attack by an organized enemy.
By far the most insidious, and increasingly one of the most likely, threats to our power grid is that posed by cyber warfare efforts or individual cyber attacks.
An incredibly complex topic, made even more complicated by the patchwork nature of our electrical grid, ongoing efforts to research and bolster the cyber defenses of our power grid have been ongoing since 2005.
We have already seen what devastating computer viruses like the Stuxnet worm can do to even critical infrastructure. One need look no further than what happened to the Iranian nuclear program for proof of that.
Though that worm was not deployed against the United States it takes no imagination at all to believe that similar cyber weapons are ready and waiting in their digital silos for deployment against the U.S. by our near-peer enemies, or worse yet, are already lurking out in cyberspace primed to infect essential systems before being activated.
Ongoing testing and “red teaming” of the United States various electrical systems has shown that electronic warfare efforts, including computer hacking and autonomous viral weapons are capable of logging keystrokes, manipulating system status and various controls, and interfere with data monitoring and other essential, ongoing tasking.
A coordinated cyber attack could offline the American electrical grid almost instantly and by design or accident cause calamitous, coast to coast damage.
Examples of Major 20th and 21st Century Regional Power Grid Failures and Incidents
The scenarios I have alluded to throughout this article are not theoretical. History, even near history, furnishes for us many examples of just how bad and how widespread power grid failures can be, and gives us a grim estimator of just how bad the damage can be. The only thing theoretical for our purposes is just how long the next big one could last.
Read through the following historical blackouts, and their causes, and you’ll have an accurate picture of what we are up against and what you will be facing the next time something similar happens.
Great New England Blackout, 1965
This humongous blackout affected eight states throughout New England and resulted from human error, though a tragically tiny one. A cascading failure resulted after a technician set a protection mechanism in the wrong position. Five minutes of failing power later more than 30 million citizens had no electricity at all.
Today this is a classic example of the societal effects of a sustained, widespread power outage. Some people were trapped in blackened skyscrapers or in halted subway trains deep underground.
New York City did as New York City always does and immediately began looting and pillaging. Beleaguered police blunted the edge of the chaos but could hardly contain the outbreak of crime.
New York City Blackout, 1977
Another Big Apple blackout, this one caused by multiple lightning strikes that completely knocked out power to the vast majority of New York City proper. Though not particularly catastrophic from a technical perspective, this blackout could not have occurred at a worse time.
With socioeconomic tensions at an all-time high and the city already on the brink of paranoia from the ongoing Son of Sam murders, pandemonium erupted in the immediate aftermath of the blackout.
Rioting, looting, arson and murder are always on the menu in New York City and all were being served by the cartload.
Homes were broken into by the hundreds, thousands of stores were robbed or looted and more than 1,000 instances of arson or committed, including more than a dozen multiple alarm call-outs. Every police structure that could hold prisoners was committed to doing so.
Even though this blackout lasted little more than a day, total damages were over a billion dollars.
West Coast Blackout, 1982
This massive blackout originating near Tracy, California was the result of a simple accident. Freak high winds knocked one high tension transmission tower into another, which subsequently toppled into another, creating a literal domino effect of cascading failure.
Worst came to worst when response teams bungled the initial procedures and compounded it with shoddy communications.
Communities as far away as Las Vegas, Nevada were plunged into total darkness and had no idea why.
This blackout should serve as one of the best, recent examples of how even comparatively minor mishaps can be compounded by human error, improper procedure and confusion.
Northeast Blackout, 2003
In upstate Ohio, during August of 2003, transmission lines that were already strenuously overloaded by high demand or contacted my branches from overgrown trees and other vegetation.
This transmission line tripped and went offline, normally a minor event; however, a malfunction with the notification alarm systems controlling software meant that power company operators were none the wiser at first.
By the time they became aware of the situation, three more transmission lines were rendered offline and then things got really bad.
The subsequent cascading electrical failure resulted in a massive blackout virtually unprecedented in its scope, impacting more than 45 million residents throughout the American Midwest, Northeast and portions of Southeast Canada.
More than 250 power plants were put into failure states and multiple, major American cities, among them Cleveland, Detroit and New York were plunged into darkness.
The full restoration of power took more than a week.
Southwest Blackout, 2011
This blackout, shockingly widespread in its scope, was the result of human error and resulted in a loss of power or interruption of power to more than two and a half million people in the American southwest, predominantly southern California and Arizona.
A technician made a grave mistake while working on a capacitor bank at a substation in Arizona and the consequences were yet another cascading power failure.
Airlines, schools, public resources, water, sewage, banks and more were all affected with many being brought to a standstill. Though the outage lasted less than a day this instance sharply illustrates how bad even the simplest of errors can be when dealing with our power grid.
Hurricane Sandy, 2012
The landfall of Hurricane Sandy in October of 2012 knocked out power in 22 states and more than 8 million residences.
The damage to regional power grid installations and facilities was nearly total, and included destroyed terminals, flooded or submerged substations and badly damaged power plants.
As a direct consequence of grid damage from the storm, airline flights were canceled, aircraft were grounded, trains could not run and public water and sewer systems catastrophically failed.
In many places, the total loss of electricity including reliable backup systems meant that sewage actually contaminated drinking water supplies. Radio and cellular communications were likewise affected in the most badly hit areas, further hampering efforts to alleviate the problem.
This outage cost anywhere from an estimated $15 to $22 billion dollars in damages and losses. Full restoration of electricity and services took months.
California Substation Sniper Attack, 2013
Early in the morning on April 16th, 2013, multiple shooters using various rifles began shooting at and severely damaged 17 transformers at the Metcalf transmission substation in Coyote, California.
These transformers were perforated by gunfire and leaked more than 50,000 gallons of oil before overheating. Prior to the direct attack, the gunman or others associated with them cut fiber optic telecom cables elsewhere.
Though low-tech in nature, the attack was highly organized and professional in execution with the perpetrators going uncaught to this very day. Though mercifully no cascading failure resulted from the attack, damage was substantial, totaling more than 15 million dollars.
Multiple experts consulted on the attack agreed that if conditions were even slightly different, the impact on the electrical grid could have been massive.
It remains one of the best examples of how easily and severely small organized teams could affect the power grid
Arkansas Grid Attack, 2013
Coming just a scant few months after the attack on the substation in California, another coordinated series of three attacks took place against substations and transformers in Cabot and Scott, Arkansas.
The first attack sabotaged a support tower for a massive electrical line that resulted in it being dropped onto adjacent railroad tracks and severed after a passing train ran over them. Power to the entirety of Cabot, Arkansas was cut. A later direct attack on a substation in Scott, Arkansas caused more than 2 million in damage but thankfully minimal disruption.
These perpetrators were caught, but it again further illustrates the extreme vulnerability of even the most essential components in the transmission of electricity. Minimal planning with plenty of motivation and low-tech tools and weapons are more than capable of crippling the power grid in a local or regional area.
Arizona Diesel Supply Attack, 2014
Nogales, Arizona, June 2014. An incendiary IED was placed under a 50,000 gallon diesel storage tank serving a liquid fueled generator and a power station. Mercifully, the strike failed to ignite the diesel fuel even though it functioned.
This was a comparatively localized attack, and if it had gone off as planned it would have instantly cut power completely to tens of thousands of people in the area.
The United States power grid is a massive conglomeration of installations, equipment and interconnected systems that are increasingly decrepit, poorly maintained and frighteningly vulnerable to a variety of mishaps, accidents, disasters and enemy action including cyber warfare.
As time goes on, relatively minor incidents will cause bigger and bigger problems until eventually the whole system comes crumbling down. This is not a matter of if, but when.
Tom Marlowe practically grew up with a gun in his hand, and has held all kinds of jobs in the gun industry: range safety, sales, instruction and consulting, Tom has the experience to help civilian shooters figure out what will work best for them.