electric grid

Blackout: What we learn from electric grid failures



BlackoutWhat we learn from history is that we do not learn from history


I’ve always loved this quote from Benjamin Disraeli. But it occurs to me that perhaps what is more dangerous than not learning from history, is learning from history.

What most Americans have learned from their experiences with blackouts is quite dangerous: Our collective experience with blackouts is that they are temporary. The power will be back in a few hours (or days, at most) so all we need to do is wait it out. The power company will rescue us.

Maybe some of us are even “prepared” for a blackout and have a generator and some gas. Maybe we have 72 hours worth of canned food stored away like FEMA  tells us. Even in the Emergency Management world, every exercise comes to an end. Every hurricane comes to an end. Every blackout comes to an end. Moreover, we have the “edge effect” where there are always resources available from outside the blackout area to assist us until the power comes back.

We are complacent. “Blackouts are temporary” we think.Blackout

But what if the power went off and did not come back for a year? While Congress has studied – and failed to act – on this scenario for years, more and more people in Emergency Management are thinking about a long-term blackout scenario.

There have been several recent articles of note, including an article in Fire Engineering by Ken Chrosniak: Electric Power Blackout: The Power of One. Another good article to read is by Garrison Wells published by Emergency Management Magazine: Threat of Massive Grid Shutdown Increasing in Face of Disasters. If you are an emergency manager, you really need to read these articles: You and your jurisdiction are not prepared for a long-term blackout. And more recently, Eric Holdeman has blogged about electromagnetic pulse in Emergency Management Magazine online.

There can be no serious debate that our electric grid is vulnerable to a number of things, from terrorist attack, electromagnetic pulse weapon, solar flare to a good old fashion ice storm or errant tree branch. While a long-term failure is considered by some to be a remote possibility, the possibility is frightening. And now there is evidence that both Iran and North Korea are actively pursuing electromagnetic pulse weapons with the specific purpose of taking down the U.S. electric grid.

Does anybody out there really think that they wouldn’t do it? U.S. “retaliation” means little to either country. Taking out “the great Satan” (in Iran’s case) would be worth whatever we sent back – so our usual deterrent strategy is not helpful here.  There is an excellent article about this in the Washington Times by R. James Woolsey and Peter Vincent Pry: “When Iran goes nuclear: Failure to protect the nation would amount to dereliction of duty“.

In fact William R. Graham, Chairman of the congressionally chartered Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Attack noted in 2008 that:

BlackoutElectrical power is necessary to support other critical infrastructures, including supply and distribution of water, food, fuel, communications, transport, financial transactions, emergency services, government services, and all other infrastructures supporting the national economy and welfare. Should significant parts of the electrical power infrastructure be lost for any substantial period of time, the Commission believes that the consequences are likely to be catastrophic, and many people may ultimately die for lack of the basic elements necessary to sustain life in dense urban and suburban communities. In fact, the Commission is deeply concerned that such impacts are likely in the event of an EMP attack unless practical steps are taken to provide protection for critical elements of the electric system and for rapid restoration of electric power, particularly to essential services.

Okay. Even if there was a massive grid outage, somebody would rescue us, right? Wrong. The United States is completely unprepared. The sad thing is, we don’t have to be. Even if Congress fails to act, individual communities can do much to prepare for and mitigate such a scenario.

So, one of the most dangerous things we have learned from history is that blackouts are temporary events lasting hours or at most a few days. We are completely unprepared for a long-term national scale blackout. Until we start thinking about it, the lives of millions of Americans remain in peril. 9/11would just a minor incident on the scale compared to what a long-term national power outage would be.

But, it can start in your community. FEMA won’t be there to rescue us in a long-term national blackout. We will have to rescue ourselves.



A compilation of news reports on the 2003 Northeast Blackout


New York Times, November 11, 2013: The Blackout That Exposed the Flaws in the Grid

New York Times, August 15, 2003: The Blackout of 2003: The Overview; Power Surge Blacks Out Northeast, Hitting Cities In 8 States and Canada; Midday Shutdowns Disrupt Millions

New York Times, August 15, 2003: The Blackouts of ’65 and ’77 Became Defining Moments in the City’s History

CBC: The ‘Great Northeastern Blackout’ of 1965

CBC: 2003: The great North America blackout

Department of Energy Emergency Situation Reports: http://www.oe.netl.doe.gov/Emergency_sit_rpt.aspx

List of major power outages: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_major_power_outages



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Woolsey: Threat to electric grid ‘keeps me awake at night’

Mar. 06, 2015 Fox News – Former CIA director James Woolsey issues dire warning about the dangers a nuclear Iran poses to the U.S. electric grid – and our very survival.

Iran and North Korea are threats to the U.S. Electric Grid.

Read the Washington Times article by R. James Woolsey and Peter Vincent Pry: “When Iran goes nuclear: Failure to protect the nation would amount to dereliction of duty”. Here’s an excerpt:

James Woolsey: Threat to electric grid 'keeps me awake at night'The new factor that makes one or a few nuclear warhead-carrying missiles launched into orbit much more dangerous than during the Cold War is the possibility of an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack against the critical infrastructures that are the foundation of modern societies, especially the national electric grid. Electronics are increasingly vulnerable to EMP — more than a million times more vulnerable (and, yes, also much more capable) than they were at the dawn of the age of modern electronics a half-century ago. Moore’s Law has not been kind to our electronic vulnerabilities.

Consequently, even one nuclear warhead detonated at orbital altitude over the United States would black out the national electric grid and other life-sustaining critical infrastructures for months or years by means of the electromagnetic pulse it would create. The Congressional EMP Commission assessed that a nationwide blackout lasting one year could kill nine of 10 Americans through starvation and societal collapse. Islamic State-like gangs would rule the streets.

Just such a scenario is described in Iranian military documents.


James Woolsey: Threat to electric grid 'keeps me awake at night'

R. James Woolsey

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The GRID Act is reintroduced in the House and Senate

Grid Reliability and Infrastructure Defense Act (GRID Act) Reintroduced

The GRID Act is back on the table. Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) and Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) introduced the Grid Reliability and Infrastructure Defense Act (GRID Act) in the both the House (H.R. 4298) and Senate (S. 2158) on March 26, 2014.

“Unless we act now, the United States will continue to remain vulnerable to the 21st century cyberarmies preparing to wage war on our banking, health care, and defense systems by knocking out America’s electricity grid,” said Sen. Markey, original House co-author of the GRID Act.  “The GRID Act will help secure our nation’s electrical grid against devastating damage from physical or cyber terrorist attacks or from natural disasters.  Previous passage of the GRID Act in the House on a bipartisan basis is testament to our ability to reach consensus on this critical national security issue.  I thank Rep. Waxman for his leadership in the House, and look forward to working with my colleagues in the Senate to take action on this important issue.” 

Read the text of the Act here.

Read Sen. Markey’s press release here.

Read Rep. Waxman’s press release here.

Read a summary of the Act here.

For a large collection of federal documents and reports on the critical infrastructure, click here.





Rep Henry Waxman


Sen. Edward J. Markey


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