What was once considered something that can only happen in a science fiction novel is now a very real possibility: the complete shutdown of our entire electrical grid.
Power grid failures are nothing new; in fact, during the winter of 1965 the United States experienced one of the worst power outages in its history. Over 30 million people from seven northeastern states and the province of Ontario in Canada were plunged into darkness when maintenance workers mistakenly tripped a safety relay. Almost forty years later, the same area was hit by the great Northeast blackout of 2003, where over 55 million people experienced power outages as a result of a software bug.
While most power outages are caused by storms or utility company mistakes, a growing number of these outages are being blamed on everything from our deteriorating electrical infrastructure to terrorists and hackers.
History of Major United States Power Outages
Over the last couple of decades, power outages have affected just about every American. These outages cause the average U.S. electrical utility customer to go without power for an estimated 214 minutes every year, costing the U.S. economy up to an estimated $55 billion annually.
- July 1977: 9 million New Yorkers lose power for over 24 hours after lightning strikes an electrical substation on the Hudson River
- January 1981: Almost the entire state of Utah goes dark after prisoners on a work assignment accidentally knocked out transmission lines. 1.5 million people, in nearly all of Utah, as well as parts of southeastern Idaho and southwestern Wyoming lost power.
- October 1989: The Loma Prieta earthquake knocked out power to over 1.4 million people in Northern California due to damaged electrical substations.
- January 1998: Over 3.5 million people were affected by blackouts that hit northeastern North America when ice destroyed transmission towers.
- 2000-2001: The Western U.S. Energy Crisis of 2000 and 2001 hit California causing rolling blackouts that lasted for over 12 months.
- August 2003: Power line problems in the Midwest triggered the worst blackout in U.S. history, cutting power to 55 million people in eight states and Canada, some for more than a day.
- September 2011: Days before the tenth anniversary of 9/11, the largest Blackout in California history left nearly seven million people without power, in what many believe was an act of Terrorism. No official cause has ever been given.
- 2012: Hurricane Sandy and the Mid-Atlantic storms of 2012 leave over ten million people without power, some of them for weeks.
The list above is only a fraction of the power outages that have been experienced over the last couple of decades, and experts are warning about a frightening increase in non-disaster-related outages. Significant power outages have risen from 76 in 2007 to 307 in 2011.
Electrical Grid Threats
Our Aging Power Grid
One of the largest threats we face is an old failing electric grid that still relies on 1960s and 70s era technology to power a vast majority of the country. The electrical grid in the United States is made up of a patchwork of interconnected power generation plants, transmission facilities, distribution facilities and over 400,000 miles of electric transmission lines, some of which dates back to the 1880s.
According to an article at the Washington Post, U.S. electric customers are now paying 43 percent more to build and maintain local power grids than they did back in 2002. At the same time, the grid is also becoming less reliable, with blackouts now taking 20 percent longer to fix.
The Cyber/Terror Threat to the Grid
It’s really not a secret; our power grid is incredibly vulnerable to attacks from terrorists, hackers and rogue nations.
According to a report from the National Academy of Sciences, which was sponsored by the Department of Homeland Security, our power grid is incredibly vulnerable to an attack which could cause widespread blackouts for weeks, maybe even months. This is incredibly worrisome, especially when you consider that most Americans says they wouldn’t be able to survive for longer than 2 weeks without power.
Last year, cyber security expert Eugene Kaspersky warned about the very real threat of crippling attacks against key infrastructure throughout the world. He said that the threat of cyber terrorism had reached a point that could spell “the end of the world as we know it”.
The EMP Threat
An electromagnetic pulse (commonly referred to as an EMP) is a burst of electromagnetic radiation caused by the detonation of a nuclear device above the earth surface. In my opinion, this is one of the worst case scenarios that we can think of. If a terrorist group or rogue nation were able to detonate one, it could shut down the entire country’s power grid for years, possibly permanently.
An EMP attack over the United States could literally put an end to the world as we know it in a matter of minutes. The damage caused by an EMP would be catastrophic. In a matter of minutes, everything our country depends on would come to a screeching halt.
From ATM’s and banking systems to key infrastructure like power, water and gas utilities, you would immediately see failures across the board. Our way of life would change in the blink of an eye, and it would take years to even begin to repair the damage.
In testimony late last year, Brandon Wales, director of the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Infrastructure Threat and Risk Analysis Center, admitted that DHS is not adequately prepared to deal with an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) event or attack.
Wales testified that the United States power grid is even more vulnerable to attack than it was only a few years ago, and that DHS had no real plans to deal with the possibility of an attack.
The situation is pretty clear, and it’s pretty grim. We have severely neglected key infrastructure throughout the country. On top of that, our government is either ignoring, or is willfully negligent in protecting the county’s power grid from attack. This has left a large portion of our country, which has become incredibly dependent on these systems, extremely vulnerable if they fail.