What happens if the power goes out? Although this is not a new question, it remains very timely because the grid is being attacked repeatedly and the attacks are becoming more sophisticated. Let’s hope the grid remains intact, because if it’s knocked out, our lives would quickly become a nightmare.
Of course, minor technical and weather-related problems can and do happen; sometimes they’re so minor that people are inconvenienced only briefly. But when we’re talking about a serious and prolonged outage, that’s a very different issue.
In that event, chas v’shalom, “Virtually every aspect of life would come to a halt,” Newsweek explains. “Casualties could run into the millions” and there would be huge financial losses and personal suffering. Newsweek cites security experts who believe that the chance of such a disaster is higher than it has ever been before and is rising.
So exactly what would happen if the power goes out? Everything electronic that we’ve come to depend on would stop working.
While electricity may not be necessary for water to flow out of our faucets, treatment and disinfectant systems need power. Both landlines and cell phone service may be disrupted. Cars and public transportation would grind to a halt. The groceries and take-outs we patronize would be forced to close, ATMs would not work, and the stock market would be shut. Police, fire, and other emergency services would not be able to respond to calls for help.
“The US power grid is one of the most vulnerable infrastructures we have,” sums up Security Magazine. And it’s not becoming more secure.
Logically, the grid is the one thing that should never be attacked because if power goes out, everyone suffers – people we hate but also those whom we like. Unfortunately, the world is not always logical, and to the bad guys, the grid’s vulnerability makes it an even more tempting target.
The Balance Of Power
Here’s a surprising statistic compiled by the Electricity Information Sharing and Analysis Center: Physical attacks on the grid are surging. There were nearly 4,500 incidents over the last two years.
Last year, attacks were 71% higher than in 2021, and security experts fear they may continue to increase this year. Attacks included gunfire, intrusion, throwing objects at electrified equipment, setting fires, destroying equipment, and tampering with switches.
These are taking place both inside and outside the perimeters of electrical infrastructures – all aimed at undermining power supply. On a separate but related issue, there also have been repeated cyber-attacks against crucial infrastructure like power plants, including some against nuclear power plants.
And that poses an even more serious threat, not only to infrastructure but to society at large and to areas near and far. This became a real-life issue in September 2022 when Russian forces captured the Zaporizhzhia power plant in Ukraine. The Wilson Center think tank said at the time that “this poses a massive range of threats: radiation accidents, energy deficits, security, economic loss and industrial espionage.”
Last December, there were deliberate shootings at power plants in North Carolina, which knocked power out for days for 45,000 people. Police are still searching for the suspect(s) behind those attacks.
But that was far from the only one. Power substations in at least five states have been the targets of attacks in recent months. Potentially there are numerous groups that have interest in attacking these (and other sensitive) targets.
Why would any normal person choose to get involved in such a horrendous attack? There are several answers, and one is that not everyone is normal. And these days, even some criminally insane have access to various weapons. Another explanation is theft, as tools, copper, catalytic converters, and other items could be sold easily for big bucks.
There are still other motives. Deeply held political views, and/or racial or religious prejudices also could lure some people to get involved with extremist groups and commit violent attacks; these include people from both the right, the left, and radical environmentalists.
Unbelievable as this may sound, techniques and procedures explaining the most effective ways of taking down power plants are available online.
And if this were not enough, Republican Congressman from Tennessee Mark Green said that “bad actors” potentially working either with or on behalf of hostile countries could sponsor them. Private groups also might be recruited for these objectives.
In early February, two individuals, one the founder of Atomwaffen, described by civil rights organizations as a neo-Nazi network, were indicted by a federal grand jury for allegedly plotting to attack five substations in Maryland and Pennsylvania –efforts to destroy power to the Baltimore area. CBS reports that both the FBI and Homeland Security are concerned about the possibility of copycat attacks.
Currently, there is no single government agency responsible for protecting the US power grid – including the Dept. of Energy.
But that doesn’t mean that government agencies are unaware of the dangers or that they are not taking measures to deal with them.
For example, officials at Homeland Security told CBS that they’ve increased discussions with critical structure owners and operators to improve security.
And the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is said to be about halfway through a study evaluating security at power grids; certainly, they will make recommendations, and those will be implemented as soon as possible.
But an important question remains: “Will that be enough?” According to a former head of Homeland Security, simple modifications such as improved lighting and fencing would be a step in the right direction, but will not be enough to protect the grid from increasingly sophisticated and unpredictable attacks.
A former head of Homeland Security said, “It was important to go beyond Band- Aid approaches to security.” According to CBS News, this means “the owners and operators of (power plants) will have to invest in resilience, even to the point of adding redundancies to the system to remove a single point of failure.”
Also, there are many industry experts and lawmakers pushing for attacks on power systems to be treated as domestic terrorism by the courts.
Hopefully, governments, power companies, and related parties will cooperate and treat this as a life and death situation. They should, because that’s exactly what it is.
Sources: cbsnews.com; extension.psu.edu; ready.gov; wilsoncenter.org; wsj.com. YouTube: Facts Matter With Roman Balmakov