Of all our infrastructure, the electrical power grid is the most fragile. In the 2013 Infrastructure Report Card, prepared by the American Society of Civil Engineers, Energy received a grade of D. The only reason it was that high, was that the energy category includes all classes of energy, not just electrical energy.
However, in the narrative, the ASCE described the true condition of the electrical grid, declaring that it needed over one trillion dollars of investment to survive the next ten years.
The problem is that our electrical grid, like much of our infrastructure, was designed for a 50 year lifespan. If you look at the average age of our power plants and distribution network, it’s clear that way too much of it is over well over the halfway point in its lifespan. In fact, there is a considerable amount of it that is still in use, even though it is past its programmed life.
It doesn’t take much to leave us without electrical power. A good snowstorm or thunderstorm will knock down power lines, leaving people without electrical power. Larger storms, like hurricanes can do enough damage to the electrical grid to leave people without electrical power for weeks.
However, that’s a little misleading. The only reason that the damage to the grid is fixed so rapidly in cases like a hurricane is that that power companies send in teams from outside the area to help with repairs. If there was a nationwide event that caused the loss of electrical power, it would take much longer to repair the damage; both due to a lack of crews and a lack of necessary equipment.
When we talk about the grid, we are actually talking about three independent, but interconnected grids. There is an eastern grid, a western grid and the Texas grid. So, taking the grid down actually requires taking three separate grids.
Destruction of the grid, regardless of whether it is by intent or by accident is actually not all that hard to accomplish.
The entire grid is interconnected and to some extent automated. When one part of the grid becomes overloaded by demand or by loss of power production capability, it automatically compensates, bringing in resources from farther away to provide the needed power. Were that to happen enough times, the whole system would become overloaded.
Of course, before that happened the engineers controlling the grid would put emergency procedures into effect, probably cutting off power to certain regions, in order to save the whole. There are probably automated protocols already in the system which would kick into effect automatically.
Experts in the energy industry have said that the entire grid could be taken down, nationwide, by destroying ten specific sub-stations. These ten sub-stations (which for security reasons aren’t mentioned in the open press) are the most critical nodes of the grid. Loss of them would make the rest of the grid non-functional.
So, what sorts of situations could cause a nationwide problem with the power grid, creating a general collapse?
1. EMP (Electromagnetic Pulse)
Of all the possible disasters which could cause problems with the grid, an EMP attack has the potential to be the most dangerous. An EMP occurs when a nuclear bomb explodes above the Earth’s atmosphere. Since there is no atmosphere to convert the bomb’s energy to mechanical energy in the form of a shock wave, all of the bomb’s energy goes out as electromagnetic energy.