Power Grid

Introduction

There are lots of things to be concerned about when it comes to being prepared. There are the large-scale events like natural disasters, economic and social instability, epidemics/pandemics, war, terrorists, and then there are smaller, more personal ones like job loss and medical issues.  But to me, the biggest issue concerns our power grid. We are dependent on electricity and the computer systems that use it for every facet of our lives. Manufacturing, food production, water, sanitation, and medical facilities all rely heavily on electricity.

If the flow of electricity was disrupted for an extended period of time, the world as we know it would come crashing down. Not many people have the skills, knowledge, supplies and equipment to weather the effects of a long-term power outage so the risk is huge.

This is part 1 of 2 posts on the power grid where I will talk about reliability and threats. Part 2 will dive into the effects of a long-term power outage and how to be prepared for them.

Reliability

Age, maintenance and the design of our power grid present problems that our nation needs to resolve. There seems to be a lot of studies and assessments that the government does but minimal action has been taken. Part of the issue is cost but there is also a divide for who should be responsible, the government or utility companies. Ultimately, businesses and citizens will end up paying either through an increase in utility rates or taxes and possibly both.

The grid is aging.  The average age of the large transformers is 40 years and aging transformers are subject to increased risk of failure. It is costing more and more each year in maintenance to keep the grid up and running.

We have three grids in the U.S. One that serves the states east of the Rocky Mountains, one that serves the west coast and one that serves most of Texas. A catastrophic event could cause cascading black outs within these three grids and possibly cause issues with the other 2 grids. The grids were based on designs from decades ago and newer ways of decentralizing the grid have yet to be implemented

High Voltage (HV) Transformers enable electricity to travel long distance to thousands of substations where smaller transformers reduce the voltage for commercial and public use. These HV Transformers are the weak link in the system. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission says that 30 of these are considered as being critical. The simultaneous loss of 9 of these could lead to a cascading failure that could result in a coast to coast blackout. If they are damaged beyond repair, it could take 12 to 24 months for new ones to be built and shipped within the U.S.  Currently only Germany and South Korea manufacture these large transformers for export and it could take 3 years to get one from them.

Threats to the Power Grid

There are several threats to our power grid, but you won’t see a lot in the mainstream media. Why? Good question. Are they afraid of creating panic, do they think it is not a big deal or is it just not part of their agenda?  Whatever the reason, it is a disservice to the country to not motivate people to prepare and to push the government and utility companies to harden the grid. The threats to our power grid include:

Conventional Weapons

Certainly, if we were attacked by another country, the power grid would be a high value target with conventional or nuclear bombs. Most of us are not too concerned about this because hey, we are the most powerful country on the planet. Who would attack us on our own soil? Conventional weapons like explosives or rifles could also be used to destroy transformers, power lines or even substations.  In 2013, domestic terrorists fired over 100 rounds into a central California substation. A blackout was averted but it took almost a month to repair the damage. What would happen if a coordinated attack was implemented on multiple substations?

Natural Disasters

Although this applies mostly to coastal communities, natural disasters like hurricanes cause a lot of damage to our power grid. A lot of these occurrences are somewhat minor but increasingly more damage is being done, more people are being affected and it is taking a lot of time to restore power to individuals and businesses.  With Hurricane Katrina, only 75% of Louisiana residents had power after 23 days. It took Florida and Texas almost 3 weeks to restore power to 95% of customers after Wilma and Ike and it took 13 days to restore power to 95% of customers from Superstorm Sandy. A couple of days without power doesn’t seem too bad but 3 to 4 weeks? Can you imagine?

Cyber Attacks

This one is very disturbing to me. Attempts to hack into our power grid are happening every day. In March of 2019, the first “reported” attack in the U.S. disrupted operations in the western power grid with a denial of service attack. It did not cause a black out or any disruption in service though, just the supervisory control monitoring that is used remotely. I think these attacks are really just trial runs about determining what the hackers can do to our grid. 

Electro Magnetic Pulse (EMP) and Coronal Mass Ejection (CME)

I am not going to go into details on EMPs or CMEs except to say that they could cause a massive amount of damage to our grid that would take years to recover, if at all.

If you want to learn more about EMPs and CMEs, there is a ton of information on the web but a very good resource is a recent article by Mathew Weiss and Martin Weiss called “An Assessment to Threats on the American Power Grid”.  It was an excellent source of information for this article.

Conclusion

As you can see, there are several issues with our power grid that should cause concern for all of us. Are you prepared for the grid being down for a week? A month or longer? Do you have the equipment and supplies to sustain your family if this happens? This is something to be concerned about so I strongly encourage you to research more and start preparing.

Part 2 of this series will dive into the effects of a prolonged power grid and how to prepare for it. Please sign up for our newsletter so that you will be notified when it is published. If you sign up now, you will receive a free PDF called “Overview of Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Planning” that is a good primer to get you started on preparedness.

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Prepare and be blessed!

4 Comments

  • Large Carl

    More electric power generating plants have switched to natural gas as a fuel. Fewer are burning coal. The reason for the switch is mostly economic: natural gas is now less expensive than coal.
    If the natural gas lines which feed these generating plants are sabotaged, the plants will be down for some time.

    • Chip Feck

      I would say that the majority of preparedness info that is coming out is not new. My targeted audience are people that are new to preparedness so if it was something you already knew you could have added constructive information that helps instead of the same ole surface comments that are prevalent on the web. The article that a lot of the info this post was based on was from an academic article. What technical things are not correct? We could ask the authors about it.

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