This is the second in a two-part series regarding preparing for an inevitable lengthy power outage. Read the first installment, “Preparing for the coming blackout.”
In “Preparing for the coming blackout,” we took a look at what would happen if an electromagnetic pulse caused by a massive solar flare or a terrorist attack caused a long-term blackout. This type of threat has gained considerable attention the past several years, but blackouts caused by violent weather are much more likely occurrences.
According to the Edison Electric Institute, 70 percent of power outages in the U.S. are caused by the weather. Fortunately, most of these power outages last a few hours or less and are more of an inconvenience than a tragedy.
However, sometimes the storms producing them — including everything from thunderstorms to tornadoes to hurricanes — are so severe that our aging and vulnerable electrical grid is unable to handle them. Some storms have been known to cause blackouts lasting days and even weeks.
In 1977, a lightning-sparked outage left 9 million New Yorkers without power. Extreme heat that caused high-voltage lines to stretch and sag onto overgrown tree branches in northern Ohio in 2003 resulted in the worst blackout in North American history. Eleven deaths and $6 billion in damages were blamed on the accident that shut down 100 power plants.
Ice storms cut power to more than 1 million homes and businesses in Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska in 2007. A line of thunderstorms caused a blackout for more than 3.8 million in 10 states and Washington, D.C., in 2012. An historic storm named “Nemo” struck the Northeast U.S. and Canada in early 2013, resulting in record snow amounts, hurricane-force wind gusts, and approximately 700,000 homes and businesses losing power.
Those are just a few of the thousands of storms that have disrupted power to homes and businesses in the U.S. through the years. And it’s not just storms causing this damage. Extreme heat is a serious weather factor causing blackouts. In fact, heat is the worst culprit when it comes to overloading a power system because air conditioners run much longer than normal during heat waves, causing power lines to lose some efficiency and transformers to fail.
As a society, we have become almost completely dependent on electricity. We use electrical devices and appliances numerous times every day, and we assume they are going to work just fine when we turn them on. During blackouts, we are given harsh reminders of exactly how much we depend on electricity.
While extreme weather is the main cause of blackouts, physical and cyber sabotage against the electrical grid are increasing at alarming rates. In April 2013 near San Jose, California, there was an attack on a power transmission substation. Shortly after telephone cables were cut, multiple snipers fired shots on the Pacific Gas and Electric Corporation’s Metcalf substation. It took nearly a month for workers to make the repairs and bring the substation back to life.
To this day, no one has been arrested in connection with the sabotage; and we still don’t know whether this was an isolated incident conducted by vandals or a dress rehearsal by terrorists. Either way, it demonstrated that a coordinated attack on substations in major cities across the country could plunge much of the country into the dark, possibly for an extended period of time.
Jon Wellinghoff, former chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, said that the attack was “the most significant incident of domestic terrorism involving the grid that has ever occurred” in the United States. Other critical electrical grid sites remain just as unprotected as this one was.
Coordinated attacks in each of the three nation’s electrical systems could cause the entire power network to collapse, according to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Losing key substations would be devastating. They use large power transformers to boost the voltage of electricity so that it can move great distances before reducing the voltage to a usable level as that electricity gets closer to businesses and homes.
Physical attacks against the U.S. electrical grid may be more dramatic than cyberattacks, but cyberattacks are much more frequent. In fact, one power company reported that it receives approximately 10,000 attempted cyberattacks per month. Many other electrical utilities are reporting either daily or frequent cyberattacks, including probes on their networks that are searching for vulnerabilities.
According to the (Colorado Springs) Gazette, thousands of cyberattacks strike power grids in the U.S. every day. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers said at a recent Reuters summit on cyber terrorism that the only thing holding terrorists back from launching a massive cyberattack on U.S. infrastructure is that they don’t have the ability. If a terrorist group finds out how to do it, Rogers said, “[I]t’s a game changer. My concern is it’s just a matter of time.”
A recent National Academy of Sciences report stated that, “If they could gain access, hackers could manipulate (control and data) systems to disrupt the flow of electricity … block the flow of vital information, or disable protective systems.” The report added that a successful attack could “entail costs of hundreds of billions of dollars” and could render entire swaths of the country helpless to extreme weather. A Wall Street Journal article shook readers merely by its headline: “Hacking the grid is very easy.”
Everybody is busy these days, but don’t allow your busyness to keep you from preparing for the coming blackout, because it could be a long one. If you only have time to do four things to get ready, make it these four:
- Stockpile and properly store food and water;
- Gather together essential nonfood items, including flashlights and batteries;
- Protect your home against intruders;
- And acquire a reliable generator.
Those activities will give you a leg up on the vast majority of people when it comes time to surviving an emergency that knocks out the electrical grid.