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Power outage in Savannah, Georgia (Photograph courtesy Dave Hale, Flickr)

’American Blackout’: Four Major Real-Life Threats to the Electric Grid

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.”)