The Three Major Threats to The Nation’s Power Grid: Could We Really Face a Nationwide Blackout?

Aside from the occasional blackout, most Americans cannot comprehend the possibility of a total failure of the nation’s power grid. However, the possibility of such a massive catastrophe is actually more real than most of us are comfortable with thinking about.

There are three major threats to the nation’s power grid, but before we look at them, we have to realize that the country actually has three power grids. Texas has its own grid and then there is one east and one west of the Rocky Mountains.

Threat #1: EMP / Terror

The worst possible devastation that any enemy could cause to the United States would be through a single nuclear warhead, whose blast will kill nobody directly. This is an EMP (electro-magnetic pulse) attack.

Detonated high above the earth (at least 20 miles), the nuclear explosion generates electro-magnetic energy that “rides the waves” of the earth’s own magnetic field down to the ground. Just about everything that runs on electricity from horizon to horizon is damaged, with electrical lines being totally fried.

The interesting thing about this phenomenon is that it was first observed in an airburst in the South Pacific, where it did damage to streetlights in Hawaii even though it was 1300 km away. The nature of the earth’s magnetic field is such that it would have been far worse over North America, where the magnetic field is perfect for creating more damage.

The fear is that terrorists could get their hands on a Scud missile and put a nuclear bomb in it and detonate it over the U.S. to throw us back into the 19th century without electricity. However, weaponizing a nuclear bomb small enough to fit on a missile is very difficult.

Also, a missile that most terrorists could get their hands on, like a Scud, does not have the range to reach mid America, though it could certainly cause a regional power outage if it was launched from a ship offshore.

Threat #2: Hackers

The nation’s power grid is constantly probed by hackers, with most recent reports being that the perpetrators were Chinese. Since everything is controlled by computer, the fear is that a virus or a hacker could shut things down or cause a lot of damage.

This scenario is especially frightening given what happened to the Iranian nuclear plant, which was totally shut down due to damage from the Stuxnet virus, even though the plant was totally unconnected from the Internet. Evidently, agents were able to infect laptops in the area with the virus, which waited until it was able to get into the plant via a laptop and then activate.

Threat #3: CME – Coronal Mass Ejection

Solar storms from the sun happen on a predictable cycle and 2013 will see a lot of energy shot at the earth from Coronal Mass Ejections. “The Carrington Event” was one such storm that sent so much electro-magnetic energy to the earth 150 years ago that some telegraph poles started on fire.

Whether the threat is one of the three mentioned above or just aging infrastructure and some very bad winter storms that knock out power lines, we should all be aware that the electricity we take for granted might not always be there. And even if it is, the ability to count on it may be compromised.

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