Tuesday, September 14, 2021

#NatlPrep: Prolonged Grid Down Preparedness

Current Texas Power Outages 

Note: September is National Preparedness Month.  Follow this year’s campaign on Twitter by searching for the #NatlPrep #BeReady or #PrepMonth hashtags.

This month, as part of #NPM21, I’ll be rerunning some updated preparedness essays, along with some new ones.


Last night CAT 1 hurricane Nicholas battered the Texas coast leaving - at last report - nearly 500,000 people temporarily without electrical power. In late August a much stronger CAT 4 hurricane Ida struck southeastern Louisiana, plunging more than a million people into darkness, and two weeks later roughly 100,000 remain without power.

Last summer, Cat 4 hurricane Laura slammed into Southwest Louisiana, leaving tens of thousands without electricity for weeks, and there are similar tales following almost every major landfalling hurricane. 

  • In 2017, Puerto Rico was without power for months following Hurricane Maria, which undoubtedly contributed to the excess mortality there following the storm (see NEJM Mortality in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria).
  • A few weeks earlier, Hurricane Irma left millions of Floridians without electrical power for days.  According to press reports, at least a dozen people died due to heat-related complications at one Florida nursing home. 
  • In late June of 2012 a Derecho swept across the Eastern United States – killing 15 people – and leaving millions without electrical power (see Picking Up The Pieces). The region remained under an EHE (Extreme Heat Event) advisory for two weeks, leading to at least 32 additional heat-related deaths (see MMWR: Heat-Related Deaths During an Extreme Heat Event). 

Prolonged power outages - which can occur for a variety of reasons, not just hurricanes - are one of the most common things people should be prepared for during, and following a disaster. 

Beyond the loss of lights, fans, and air conditioners - without power - ATMs and gas pumps won't work, credit/debit cards may not work, wells and municipal water supplies may be offline, and grocery store shelves will be wiped clean in hours. 

To those of us who live in hurricane country, prolonged power outages are a rare - but miserable - fact of life. But nowhere in the country is exempt, tornadoes in the Midwest - earthquakes, wild fires, and `red flag days' in the western states - and equipment failures anywhere can lead to a extended grid down situation.

And between our aging electrical infrastructure and increasing power demands, matters are likely only to get worse. 

Every four years the ASCE (American Society of Civil Engineers) releases a report card on America’s infrastructure, and their most recent report (2021) warns that our cumulative GPA for infrastructure sits at only a C-, and two of our most vulnerable infrastructures are drinking water and the electrical grid (see When Our Modern Infrastructure Fails).

For Energy, which they rate as a C-, they warn:


In a digital, connected world, Americans increasingly rely on readily available and uninterrupted electricity. Over the last four years, transmission and distribution and reliability-focused pipeline investments have increased, and outages have declined slightly. Annual spending on high voltage transmission lines grew from $15.6 billion in 2012 to $21.9 billion in 2017, while annual spending on distribution systems — the “last mile” of the electricity network — grew 54% over the past two decades. Utilities are taking proactive steps to strengthen the electric grid through resilience measures.
However, weather remains an increasing threat. Among 638 transmission outage events reported from 2014 to 2018, severe weather was cited as the predominant cause. Additionally, distribution infrastructure struggles with reliability, with 92% of all outages occurring along these segments. In the coming years, additional transmission and distribution infrastructure, smart planning, and improved reliability are needed to accommodate the changing energy landscape, as delivery becomes distributed and renewables grow.

In December of 2018, in NIAC: Surviving A Catastrophic Power Outage, we looked at a NIAC (National Infrastructure Advisory Council) 94-page report that examined the United State's current ability to respond to and recover from a widespread catastrophic power outage. 

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 systemscommunications, transportationhealthcare, and financial services—to operate in a degraded state
 (Excerpt From Dec 2018 NIAC Report)
Four years 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'. 

Two years earlier, well known journalist Ted Koppel published a book called Lights Out: A Cyberattack, A Nation Unprepared, Surviving the Aftermath, that explored our vulnerability to a deliberate cyber attack.

While the NIAC report and Koppel's book both concentrate on a deliberate cyber or physical attack on the grid, there are other plausible ways the grid could fail, and the outcome would be every bit as bad (or perhaps, even worse).
Perhaps the most worrisome is a `Carrington-class' Solar storm. 
According to NASA, we actually came very close to seeing it happen in 2012 (see NASA: The Solar Super Storm Of 2012).  We've a report and a 4 minute video from NASA explaining earth's close call, then I'll return with more.
Near Miss: The Solar Superstorm of July 2012

July 23, 2014: If an asteroid big enough to knock modern civilization back to the 18th century appeared out of deep space and buzzed the Earth-Moon system, the near-miss would be instant worldwide headline news.

Two years ago, Earth experienced a close shave just as perilous, but most newspapers didn't mention it. The "impactor" was an extreme solar storm, the most powerful in as much as 150+ years.

"If it had hit, we would still be picking up the pieces," says Daniel Baker of the University of Colorado.  
A ScienceCast video recounts the near-miss of a solar superstorm in July 2012. 
Play it
(Continue . . . )

Regardless of how it happens (natural or deliberate), or the scale (local, regional, national), our fragile power grid is the Achilles heel of our nation, and our economy.   

While some scenarios - like an EMP attack - are frankly too overwhelming for the average person to prepare for, there are plenty of less severe grid down scenarios that can be partially mitigated by a modicum of individual preparedness. 

Most disasters boil down to unscheduled camping - for days, or sometimes weeks - in your home, in a community shelter, or possibly even in your backyard.  Preparedness can not only make that process possible, it can make it less miserable as well. 
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
If your answer is `no’, you have some work to do.  A good place to get started is by visiting Ready.gov.

Last year, in My New Solar Power System (Updated For 2020), I outlined my `off-the-shelf' low cost solar power solution for prolonged power outages (see photo below); one that provides fans, lights, communications, and limited power for other low-power devices (cell phones, tablets, etc.). 

In June of 2020, I described my `home-brew' solar/CPAP power station in My New (And Improved) Solar Battery Project (for CPAP).  Although neither of these solutions will run air-conditioning, refrigerators, or big screen TVs, they nevertheless can provide useful amounts of power during a prolonged grid down disaster. 

Whether you go with a USB system, buy a `solar generator' - or build an `old school' system like mine - having the ability to generate and store electricity can reduce a prolonged power outage from being a genuine emergency to more of an inconvenience. 
But if you want to be prepared for the next grid down emergency, you need to invest the time and money now, before the next threat appears on the horizon. Once it become apparent, it is usually too late to do anything about it.