What is a catastrophic power outage?
• Events beyond modern experience that exhaust or exceed mutual aid capabilities
• Likely to be no-notice or limited-notice events that could be complicated by a cyber-physical attack
• Long duration, lasting several weeks to months due to physical infrastructure damage
• Affects a broad geographic area, covering multiple states or regions and affecting tens of millions of people
• Causes severe cascading impacts that force critical sectors—drinking water and wastewater systems, communications, transportation, healthcare, and financial services—to operate in a degraded state
While it may seem the product of some Hollywood screen writer's over-active imagination, the all-too-plausible and biggest nightmare scenario for any industrialized nation is loss of all or a large part of their electrical grid for a prolonged period of time.
Without electrical power, water taps run dry, gasoline pumps don't work, elevators, lights, and air conditioners won’t run, the internet shuts down, ATM machines and banks close, grocery stores can’t take debit or credit cards and their inventory of produce, meat and frozen foods quickly spoil.Doing everything - from cooking or heating your home, to communications, to travel, to flushing toilets - becomes either difficult or impossible. And unlike with a localized outage due to a hurricane or blizzard, help from neighboring states or communities may not be coming.
While the end result may be the same, the catastrophic loss of all or part of our electrical grid could come about by a variety of ways, including:
- A Severe `Carrington class' Solar storm / Coronal Mass Ejection (CME)
- A Cyber attack on our grid
- An EMP attack
- A large-scale natural disaster
- A cascading failure of old or fragile infrastructure
In 2014 a study was published suggesting the odds of earth being struck by one of these solar super storms is actually a lot higher than we’ve previously thought. From a NASA article:
In February 2014, physicist Pete Riley of Predictive Science Inc. published a paper in Space Weather entitled "On the probability of occurrence of extreme space weather events." In it, he analyzed records of solar storms going back 50+ years. By extrapolating the frequency of ordinary storms to the extreme, he calculated the odds that a Carrington-class storm would hit Earth in the next ten years.Unlike most of the scenarios previously discussed, a Carrington-class CME could take out the electrical grid on a hemispheric - perhaps even global - scale. There would be little or no `mutual aid' as just about everyone would be in the dark, and recovery could take years.
The answer: 12%.
The grid can also be taken down by more nefarious means, a topic explored by well known journalist Ted Koppel in his 2015 book called Lights Out: A Cyberattack, A Nation Unprepared, Surviving the Aftermath.
There are hours of interviews with Ted Koppel about his book on YouTube, including with PBS, Charlie Rose, and the following hour long discussion with the National Press Foundation.Despite congressional committees and national GridEx preparedness drills - a recent Congressional Research Service report warns that the US power grid remains vulnerable to attack.
Just over a year ago, in DHS: NIAC Cyber Threat Report - August 2017, we looked at a 45 page report addressing urgent cyber threats to our critical infrastructure that called for `bold, decisive actions'.Equally sobering, every four years the ASCE (American Society of Civil Engineers) releases a report card on America’s infrastructure, and their most recent report (2017) warns that our cumulative GPA for infrastructure sits at only a D+, and two of our most vulnerable infrastructures are drinking water and the electrical grid (see When Our Modern Infrastructure Fails).
Some excerpts from that report:
From Energy, which they rate as a D+:
It is against this multi-faceted backdrop that the NIAC (National Infrastructure Advisory Council) has issued a new, 94-page report that examines the United State's current ability to respond to and recover from a widespread catastrophic power outage.Overview
Much of the U.S. energy system predates the turn of the 21st century. Most electric transmission and distribution lines were constructed in the 1950s and 1960s with a 50-year life expectancy, and the more than 640,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines in the lower 48 states’ power grids are at full capacity. Energy infrastructure is undergoing increased investment to ensure long-term capacity and sustainability; in 2015, 40% of additional power generation came from natural gas and renewable systems. Without greater attention to aging equipment, capacity bottlenecks, and increased demand, as well as increasing storm and climate impacts, Americans will likely experience longer and more frequent power interruptions.
From the Executive Summary:You can download the full document from the Homeland Security Digital Library.
"The President's National Infrastructure Advisory Council (NIAC) was tasked to examine the nation's ability to respond to and recover from a catastrophic power outage of a magnitude beyond modern experience, exceeding prior events in severity, scale, duration, and consequence.
Simply put, how can the nation best prepare for and recover from a catastrophic power outage, regardless of the cause? After interviews with dozens of senior leaders and experts and an extensive review of studies and statutes, we found that existing national plans, response resources, and coordination strategies would be outmatched by a catastrophic power outage.
This profound risk requires a new national focus. Significant public and private action is needed to prepare for and recover from a catastrophic outage that could leave the large parts of the nation without power for weeks or months, and cause service failures in other sectors-- including water and wastewater, communications, transportation, healthcare, and financial services--that are critical to public health and safety and our national and economic security"
While a prolonged grid down scenario may not be the most likely disaster scenario you or your family might face, it would easily be the worst-case scenario for most people, and the most difficult to survive.
Difficult, but not impossible.As private citizens you and I can't do much about the vulnerabilities of our national infrastructure, but we can - as as individuals, families, and businesses owners - increase our preparedness and resilience, which will in turn reduce our burden on local governments and relief agencies, while making our lives easier for the duration.
While few of us could be prepared well enough for a months-long outage, having enough resources to handle a few weeks could buy enough time for relief efforts to begin. And if you are prepared for a grid-down situation, you are pretty much prepared for anything.So . . . if a disaster struck your region today, and the power went out, stores closed their doors, and water stopped flowing from your kitchen tap for the next 7 to 14 days . . . do you already have:
- A battery operated NWS Emergency Radio to find out what was going on, and to get vital instructions from emergency officials
- A decent first-aid kit, so that you can treat injuries
- Enough non-perishable food and water on hand to feed and hydrate your family (including pets) for the duration
- A way to provide light when the grid is down.
- A way to cook safely without electricity
- A way to purify or filter water
- A way to stay cool (fans) or warm when the power is out.
- A small supply of cash to use in case credit/debit machines are not working
- An emergency plan, including meeting places, emergency out-of-state contact numbers, a disaster buddy, and in case you must evacuate, a bug-out bag
- Spare supply of essential prescription medicines that you or your family may need
- A way to entertain yourself, or your kids, during a prolonged blackout
Some other preparedness resources you might want to revisit include: