Estimated reading time: 10 minutes
The U.S. electric grid is the largest machine in the history of mankind. No one person owns or controls it. It’s actually 3,000 different companies, both public and private sector, that own or operate little pieces of the electric grid.
What’s unfortunate is it’s a machine that is rapidly deteriorating. It has grown and evolved over more than a century with new technologies added and in some cases, piled on top of old and antiquated technologies.
Complicating matters is that the grid has vulnerable points across the country that often rely on neighboring utilities and infrastructure to compensate for local failures. The result is the potential for a cascade failure if systems and infrastructure become overwhelmed.
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Complexity = Vulnerability
The U.S. electric grid contains approximately 7,700 power plants, 3,300 utilities, and over 2.7 million miles of power lines, according to the Council on Foreign relations. Yet it functions as three separate U.S. grids, or “self-contained interconnections of power production and transmission” that include Eastern, Western, and Texas interconnections.
The Primary Vulnerability
The most critical component across the complexity of the U.S. power grid are high voltage transformers (HV). They literally transform the voltage delivered by either increasing or reducing voltage or “transforming” it to the voltage needed.
Most HV transformers transmit voltages greater than 100 kV or 100,000 volts. It’s what makes transmission of electricity over great distances possible as it’s delivered to thousands of substations where smaller transformers reduce the voltage.
What’s alarming is that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) has identified 30 of these HV transformers as being critical to the integrity of the grid. They went on to report that the simultaneous loss of just 9 HV transformers, in various combinations, could cripple the power grid and lead to a cascading failure, resulting in a “coast-to coast blackout.”
If the HV transformers are irreparably damaged, it is highly problematic whether they can be replaced in a timely matter if at all. The factory price for an HV transformer is in excess of $10 million, making it impossible to maintain an inventory of spares for emergency replacement. And by the way, they’re not manufactured in the U.S. anymore and only Germany and South Korea still produce them for export. Total time for delivery for an HV transformer: 3 years.
Threats to the Grid Are Real
Many threats to the U.S. power grid feel like science fiction. Geomagnetic storms and electromagnetic pulses from outer space sound like the stuff of asteroid strikes and pole shifts. And while EMP’s and geomagnetic storms from space are a statistical possibility, the real threats are much more down to Earth.
The 3 Largest Threats to the Grid
- Severe Weather
Weather is a continuing threat to electric power supply but for the most part, any power outages are short-term and usually localized as a result of weather. The dominant reason for a weather-related outage is downed trees on above ground power lines.
A notable exception was the weather related damage that hit Texas in February of 2021. A winter deep freeze knocked out power for days and more than 200 people died as a result of hypothermia and carbon monoxide poisoning from poorly improvised heaters. It’s believed that much of this was due to Texas having an independent power grid that was not linked to the eastern and western U.S. grid, leaving it without a power sharing capability.
Climate change is presenting a looming threat as severe weather fueled by climate change is pushing aging electrical systems past their limits, often with deadly results. In 2020, the average American home endured more than eight hours without power, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration — more than double the outage time five years ago.
As weather patterns continue to worsen in the midst of global climate change, the frequency of power outages will continue putting stress on an already overwhelmed power system. New technologies are being applied to better manage power distribution, but new technology may actually pave the way for the greatest threat to the U.S. power grid.
A cyberattack is an intentional disruption of computer code through an intentionally directed computer virus that compromises or destroys a computer’s ability to function. Russia has notoriously attacked the U.S. grid in the past with viruses.
On March 15, 2018, the Department of Homeland Security issued an alert that the Russian government had engineered a series of cyberattacks targeting American and European nuclear power plants and water and electric systems. It is reported these attacks could allow Russia to sabotage or shut down power plants at will.
As the situation in the Ukraine continues to deteriorate, the threat of a Russian cyberattack against the United States in retaliation for sanctions is a very real and distinct possibility. In fact, Russian cyberattacks on power grids is nothing new. In 2015, a Russian cyberattack was directed against the Ukraine and took down the Ukraine national grid for 6 hours.
One of the hardest parts of a grid failure due to a cyberattack is repowering it following a collapse, and the biggest outages could require a tricky maneuver known as a “black start.” A black start involves restarting the grid without power from outside the blackout zone—a particularly nightmarish scenario, and one that the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has simulated in drills. They tested a hypothetical scenario where hackers stay in the system and repeatedly disrupt the restart process. In this situation, a blackout that would’ve lasted hours could extend to weeks.
We’ve now moved from the hours and days of a weather-related power outage to a power outage that lasts weeks to months.
3. Terrorism/Physical (Kinetic) Attacks
The U.S is no stranger to terrorism—from 9/11 to Waco, Texas. An emerging terrorist threat has been identified by the Department of Homeland Security indicting that domestic violent extremists have been planning to try to disrupt the U.S. power grid and will probably keep doing so. In actual fact, they already have.
On the night of April 16, 2013, a mysterious incident south of San Jose marked the most serious attack on our power grid in history. For 20 minutes, gunmen methodically fired at high voltage transformers at the Metcalf Power substation. Security cameras captured bullets hitting the chain link fence. These are the same HV transformers we described earlier as the primary weakness in the grid. But even smaller substations present a unique vulnerability.
There are 55,000 across the country, each housing transformers, the workhorses of the grid. Inside these massive metal boxes, raw electricity is converted to higher or lower voltages by smaller transformers. According to the Wall Street Journal, the U.S. could suffer a coast-to-coast blackout if saboteurs knocked out just nine substations.
If any terrorist attack, foreign or domestic, manages to take out substations and particularly HV transformers, the resulting blackout would be measured in years.
And A Word About EMP’s
While an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) from space is rare and unlikely, there is a more ominous source of EMP’s: A nuclear detonation. In this instance, the nuclear bomb would not explode in a conventional way. It would be detonated at high altitude, causing little if any physical or radioactive damage.
What it would do is broadcast an electromagnetic pulse over thousands of square miles and literally fry electronics, specifically computers. The results across all electronic systems in a society would be catastrophic, and the grid would just be one of many casualties.
Back to the Russian Threat
If Russia were to detonate an EMP over Europe or the United States, the results would be devastating. Worse, the temptation may be great. An EMP burst would not directly kill anyone or cause any physical damage as a result of the detonation. Russia could defend it as a defensive maneuver not designed to kill but to warn. The result would be a grid failure that lasts for years if not decades.
Preparing for a Long-Term Power Outage
This isn’t about buying a gas generator or stocking up on batteries. Gasoline will quickly become a rare commodity, and batteries inevitably die. This is about looking for sustainable ways to generate electricity and, most importantly, conserve power as much as possible after you generate it.
In the grand scheme of things, electric power will be only one of many needs and preparations anyone would have to contemplate including fundamental basics like water, food, cooking, heating and cooling, light, defense, first aid and communication. For now, we’ll focus on electricity.
Here’s a Checklist of Things to Consider:
It may be the most dependable way to generate your own power in a sustainable way. How much power you need depends on your situation, your conservation practices and, to some degree, where you live. Southern locations historically receive more sunlight, but the sun eventually finds its way to all locations.
Take the time to learn more about solar power and investigate buying a solar power system based on your budget and your needs. You can expand a system slowly to meet your budget and if you connect to the grid (while it’s still operating) you will get an energy credit reducing your electric bill for any generated power you don’t use.
Wind power is another sustainable way to generate your own electricity. A lot depends on the prevailing winds in your area and your neighborhood. Windmills are noisy, and while that may be less of an issue after a national grid failure, you could run into local restrictions on windmills under normal circumstances.
You need a way to store any power you generate. There are numerous battery options for solar and wind powered systems. Some are based on traditional lead/acid batteries and others feature new technology and materials. All of them will hold power in reserve.
Generating your own power requires more than a solar panel attached to a battery. You need various other pieces of equipment including regulators, controllers, power inverters, power banks and cables. Take the time to understand the basic hookups or consider buying a complete kit that should include all necessary peripheral equipment.
This is all about the intelligent use of any power you generate. One of the best ways is to invest in energy efficient equipment including rechargeable power tools, LED lighting, and an energy efficient equivalent of anything else you want to use with electricity.
Better yet, start thinking about alternative tools and equipment that don’t require power. It also helps if everyone remembers to shut off the lights.
It Will Represent a Radical Change in Lifestyles
A power outage of any duration has immediate effects. Those effects grow with time and as other services and utilities are effected the overall impact on society increases. We’ve all endured power outages and in most cases it has resulted in hours if not a day of discomfort and inconvenience.
Any outage that stretches into days, weeks, months and an unthinkable number of years would have devastating consequences, especially in a highly developed and energy dependent nation like the United States. Prepare if you can, but if and when the grid fails, any preparations will need to go well beyond the convenience of a light switch and our total reliance on electricity.
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