A catastrophic, prolonged failure of the electrical grid—the sort of event whose effects are  depicted in National Geographic Channel’s upcoming American Blackout, which premieres Sundaymay seem like just apocalyptic science fiction to some viewers.  Unfortunately, though, the possibility of such a breakdown is all too real.  (See related interactive: “Survive the Blackout.”)

Government and utility industry officials are so concerned, in fact, that in November, they will stage a massive emergency drill, called GridEx II,  that will involve thousands of utility workers, business executives, National Guard officers, FBI antiterrorism experts and government officials from the U.S., Canada and Mexico.  They’ll practice responding to a simulated failure of large parts of the electrical system across North America. (See related quiz: “What You Don’t Know About Electricity.”)

The scenario envisioned by GridEx II is a particularly scary one, in which terrorists or an enemy country stages a combination of cyber attacks and physical attacks that destroy or render inoperable crucial power facilities and take down large sections of the grid.  As a May 2013 Congressional report noted, sophisticated cyber saboteurs may already be probing our vulnerability to a massive blackout. U.S. utility companies already come under frequent attack from Internet hackers who continually try to infect utilities’ computer networks with malware and search for security flaws. One company alone told congressional investigators that it was hit with an astonishing 10,000 attacks in a typical month.

If hackers managed to penetrate utility companies’ electronic defenses, they might be able to give instructions to key pieces of equipment that would cause them to fail. In a 2006 study, researchers at the Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory demonstrated that an attacker could instruct an electrical generator’s turbine to spin wildly out of control until smoke began pouring out, as this video illustrates. Since then, we’ve seen a real-life example of how such vandalism easily could be ratcheted up to a massive scale.  In 2010, a piece of malware called Stuxnet destroyed as many as 1,000 centrifuges in an Iranian nuclear fuel-processing plant, in an attack that some suspect was launched by U.S. and/or Israeli clandestine agencies.

No wonder that former federal counterterrorism advisor Richard Clarke has warned that such an “electronic Pearl Harbor” could cause devastating damage and thousands of deaths across the nation. A 2012 National Academy of Sciences report concurred, envisioning that attackers using a combination of hacking and physical sabotage could cripple the U.S. power grid and cause cascading failures of equipment that could take months to fix.

“We are woefully unprepared for any large-scale geographic outage that might take place over an extended period of time,” explained Joel Gordes, research director for the U.S. Cyber Consequences Unit, an independent group that assesses the danger of such attacks and what it would take to thwart them.  He said that while some generators and transmission lines probably would survive such an attack, they might not be able to muster enough juice to reboot the grid, which experts call a “black start.”  And if critical equipment is damaged beyond repair, it might be necessary to transport replacement units long distances—an undertaking that would be difficult, if communications systems were also seriously damaged by the attack.

U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz said the Energy Department had recently created a new internal cyber council, spanning four offices. “We believe this is an area of increasing focus,” he said at a Center for Strategic and International Studies on Thursday. “Our energy infrastructures are coming under increasing and more sophisticated cyber attacks, and we have to stay ahead of that.”

Besides a cyber attack, experts have envisioned other scenarios for a grid collapse.

EMP (electromagnetic pulse) attack:  In this scenario, terrorists or an enemy nation would detonate a nuclear weapon at a high altitude above the U.S., releasinga burst of radiation that would interact with the Earth’s magnetic field and atmosphere—including the ionosphere, the thin upper layer filled with free electrons, which facilitates radio communications. As a result, a powerful electrical current would radiate down to the Earth and create additional currents that would course through manmade electrical circuits as well. Electrical infrastructure and electronic devices would receive severe shocks, causing severe, widespread damage. A 2004 Congressional commission warned that such an attack could cause “unprecedented cascading failures.”  But even a localized EMP attack could cause a lot of damage. A 2008 Congressional Research Service report predicted that an attack on the Washington DC-Baltimore region that only damaged 10 percent of communications systems and the electrical grid and 20 percent of electronic devices would still require a month of recovery time and inflict as much as $34 billion in economic losses.

Solar flare:  Not all of the threats to the grid are from human enemies. A solar storm, which would spew a surge of radiation across the 93million-mile distance between the Sun and our Earth, causing an electromagnetic pulse similar to the one that a high-altitude nuclear blast would trigger–except that it might be even bigger, and have even more devastating effects. While we’ve known the destructive effects of solar weather on Earth’s electrical infrastructure since the 19th century, the first really clear-cut warning came in 1989, when a moderate-intensity solar storm caused northeastern Canada’s Hydro-Quebec power grid to fail, leaving millions of people without electricity for nine hours. Yousef Butt, a scientist at Center for Astrophysics at Harvard University, argued in a 2010 article in the online journal Space Review that the likelihood of a devastating EMP from a solar storm is greater than that from an intentional EMP attack.  (See related story: “As Sun Storms Ramp Up, Electric Grid Braces for Impact.”)

Grid failure:   There’s also the possibility that the grid simply could break down on its own. (See related photos: “The World’s Worst Power Outages.”) That’s because of a crucial design flaw: when one part of the grid breaks down, it can cause a phenomenon called “cascading failure,” in which the whole grid progressively collapses like a stack of dominoes. “What happens is, a failure occurs somewhere and weakens the system a bit,” Iowa State University engineering professor Ian Dobson explained in a 2012 article. “On a bad day, something else happens. Usually it doesn’t, but on that day, let’s say, it does. If it’s a really bad day, then a third thing happens and the system becomes degraded. You’re in a situation where it’s more likely that the next failure is going to happen because the last failure already happened. That’s the idea of cascading failure…Everything in the power system is protected so it doesn’t fry when something goes wrong. Things can disconnect to protect the equipment, but if you disconnect enough things, you get a blackout.” (See related blog post: “Preparing for the Zombie Apocalypse: Are Microgrids Our Only Chance?”)

In an article published in Nature Physics in August 2013, U.S. and Israeli physicists concluded that for a system dependent upon a number of critical nodes, such as the U.S. electrical grid, such cascading failures are pretty much inevitable.  We’ve already had a preview:  In 2012 , three sections of India’s massive electrical grid collapsed, leaving 620 million people—nearly twice the population of the U.S.–without power for several hours in the biggest blackout in world history so far.  (See related photos: “India Power Outage Darkens Cities, Stops Trains.”)

Comments

  1. Carolyn
    MT, USA
    October 31, 2013, 10:23 pm

    From what I have understood, not TOO long ago, the US was given the option to go solar however the politicos didn’t want to lose their money ‘friends,’ $elf or $upporters. Another country now RESELLS solar energy what they generate/took on in the same time frame. OUCH. No one seems to acknowledge that without electricity, no shopping at the store. Very few know how to count back, prices of anything, it’s all done in computer codes. The corps wouldn’t allow it, regardless. I live off the grid, completely 240 solar, with a generator seldom used. Even if a Grid attack comes, how am I to eat? Buy gas? Guaranteed, I won’t be sharing electricity with someone needing to run a Latte machine but while some hang the BLAME GAME high in the air, a bunch of ‘acts’ won’t be doing much when the time comes.
    *** Carlo in WI, YOU Rock!**
    Daniel, why do you think I moved Here? ; /

  2. sherry
    ohio
    October 30, 2013, 8:11 am

    Is the footage in the movie real?

  3. Sally
    indiana
    October 29, 2013, 9:22 pm

    You can watch it on YouTube at

    http://youtu.be/PreJvrljihI

  4. BH
    TN
    October 28, 2013, 6:21 pm

    I live in an apartment and just started prepping. After watching this I wonder how I can protect myself and my supplies. In the movie even the prepper with security and a bunker couldn’t keep his supplies safe Hopefully this will make people who watched it realize they need to @ least keep a supply of food and water

  5. Carlo Vance Santarelli
    Milwaukee, WI 53223
    October 28, 2013, 5:16 pm

    If the power plants had stand alone computer systems which
    are not connected to the Internet, then hackers would not be
    able to shut down those plants.
    What is also needed is emergency electric power fuel cells at
    our nuclear power plants to keep water flowing to the reactors and storage pools, so that there would be no melt downs.
    Hydrogen could be produced and stored at night using electric power not used then, as all power plants need more
    electric power during the day then night time.

  6. Denise
    Ga
    October 28, 2013, 12:04 am

    Wondering if this will be available on video 4 those of us who do not get NG channel.

  7. Al Sharpton
    DC
    October 27, 2013, 9:38 pm

    When that happens the koas will usher in the birth off a new nation obamafrica a nation for pepoles of color.

  8. ML/NJ
    North Caldwell, NJ
    October 27, 2013, 9:19 am

    You left out willful shutdown by our own government.

  9. Daniel Ferra
    United States
    October 26, 2013, 7:40 pm

    The Southwest is in the midst of a record drought, some 14 years in the making, which means the water supply for many Western states – California, Arizona, Utah, Nevada – is drying up. Last month the Bureau of Reclamation announced they’re cutting the flow of water into Lake Mead, which has already lost 100 feet of water since the drought began.

    What happens if the Southwest drought does not end soon?

    Will we keep using 3 to 6 million gallons of Clean Water per Fracked well, to extract natural gas?

    This petition will ask the California Regulators and Law makers to allocate Renewable Portfolio Standards to Ca. home owners, the RPS is the allocation method that is used to set aside a certain percentage of electrical generation for Renewable Energy in the the State.

    The State of California has mandated that 33% of its Energy come from Renewable Energy by 2020.

    The state currently produces about 71% of the electricity it consumes, while it imports 8% from the Pacific Northwest and 21% from the Southwest.

    This is how we generate our electricity in 2011, natural gas was burned to make 45.3% of electrical power generated in-state. Nuclear power from Diablo Canyon in San Luis Obispo County accounted for 9.15%, large hydropower 18.3%, Renewable 16.6% and coal 1.6%.

    There is 9% missing from San Onofre and with the current South Western drought, how long before the 18.3% hydro will be effected ?

    Another generator of power that jumps out is natural gas, 45.3%, that is a lot of Fracked Wells poisoning our ground water, 3 to 6 million gallons of water are used per well. If Fracking is safe why did Vice Pres Cheney lobby and win Executive, Congressional, and Judicial exemptions from:

    Clean Water Act.

    Safe Drinking Water.

    Act Clean Air Act.

    Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.

    Emergency Planning Community Right to Know Act.

    National Environmental Policy Act.

    “Americans should not have to accept unsafe drinking water just because natural gas is cheaper than Coal. the Industry has used its political power to escape accountability, leaving the American people unprotected, and no Industry can claim to be part of the solution if it supports exemptions from the basic Laws designed to ensure that we have Clean Water and Clean Air” Natural Resources Defense Council.

    We have to change how we generate our electricity, with are current drought conditions and using our pure clean water for Fracking, there has to be a better way to generate electricity, and there is, a proven stimulating policy.

    The Feed in Tariff is a policy mechanism designed to accelerate investment in Renewable Energy, the California FiT allows eligible customers generators to enter into 10- 15- 20- year contracts with their utility company to sell the electricity produced by renewable energy, and guarantees that anyone who generates electricity from R E source, whether Homeowner, small business, or large utility, is able to sell that electricity. It is mandated by the State to produce 33% R E by 2020.

    FIT policies can be implemented to support all renewable technologies including:
    Wind
    Photovoltaics (PV)
    Solar thermal
    Geothermal
    Biogas
    Biomass
    Fuel cells
    Tidal and wave power.

    There is currently 3 utilities using a Commercial Feed in Tariff in California Counties, Los Angeles, Palo Alto, and Sacramento, are paying their businesses 17 cents per kilowatt hour for the Renewable Energy they generate. We can get our Law makers and Regulators to implement a Residential Feed in Tariff, to help us weather Global Warming, insulate our communities from grid failures, generate a fair revenue stream for the Homeowners and protect our Water.

    Why it is better to own your own Renewable Energy System

    “The benefits of owning a renewable energy system far outweigh the benefits of a lease or a power purchase agreement (PPA). Under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, homeowners are eligible for a federal personal income tax credit up to 30% of the purchase cost of their renewable energy system, without a maximum limit.** Homeowners can utilize the incentive money in any way they choose. But homeowners that choose to lease their systems turn over their rebates and incentives to the third party lease or PPA companies associated with the solar systems installed on their homes.”

    “The owner of a renewable energy system is also sheltered from rising electricity costs, which have historically increased on average of 3-5% each year. This presents homeowners with opportunities to save money each month on energy and also reduces their reliance on third-party utility companies. By purchasing a renewable energy system with cash or through a loan, a homeowner can completely pay off his or her system and then independently produce clean energy.

    By choosing a lease or a PPA option homeowners are essentially substituting their utility companies with third-party leasing companies. Additionally, homeowners will likely be required to purchase their systems, renew their leases, or have the systems removed from their roof and revert to paying utility rates once their leases have ended.” Charlie Angione.

    “There’s absolutely no such thing as a $0 down solar lease or PPA and here’s why. A requirement of both of these financing programs is that you agree upfront to give the leasing or PPA company your 30% federal tax credit which is worth thousands of dollars as well as any other financial incentives.

    At $5.57 per Watt. a 6 kW solar system would yield a federal tax credit of $10,026!

    With a $0 down loan instead of a lease, you’ll get to keep the 30% federal tax credit as well as all other applicable financial incentives for yourself and you’ll own your solar system instead of renting it, for a much greater return on investment.

    And if you do decide to lease instead of own, good luck ever selling your home with a lease attached to it. What homebuyer will want to purchase your home and assume your remaining lease payments on a used solar system on your roof, when they can buy and own a brand new system for thousands less.” Ray Boggs.

    We also need to change a current law, California law does not allow Homeowners to oversize their Renewable Energy systems.

    Campaign to allow Californian residents to sell electricity obtained by renewable energy for a fair pro-business market price. Will you read, sign, and share this petition?

    http://signon.org/sign/let-california-home-owners

    Individuals and farmers own 46% of renewable energy production in Germany. Are you in control of your energy future?

  10. Puskar
    October 25, 2013, 10:12 pm

    For an economy like India that is growing day by day, we should not face blackouts due to grid failure but we do frequently.
    Even in cities like Delhi which is the capital, there is not a single household which doesn’t have an inverter or generator.

    http://greencleanguide.com/2012/08/02/the-collapse-of-northern-grids-in-india-2012/