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RALEIGH – What if I told you that there are fringe groups in the United States whose goal is to cause the breakdown of the nation’s power grid? They want electricity to fail across wide swaths of the country so that chaos ensues and there is a collapse of American society.
What if I told you that these groups believe that a widespread power grid failure would cause so much chaos that millions of people would die and that rioting and looting could destabilize the nation, to the point where society and order break down completely.
What if I told you that there were multiple grid attacks in 2022, cutting power for tens of thousands of people at a time? What if I told you that these fringe groups are hoping that a coordinated effort could very well cause a much larger grid collapse?
As we enter 2023, this is the reality we face: that a small group of fanatical people in the United States hope to cause societal collapse by destroying the nation’s power grids. Let’s start by looking at the successful grid attack that occurred in Moore county, NC in December of 2022.
The Moore County, NC grid attack on December 4, 2022
On December 3, 2022 at approximately 7PM, people started shooting high-powered rifles at two of the county’s major electrical substations. In this case, the substations delivered power to about 35,000 people in Moore County. This video can help you understand what happened: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ebE665o144c
The target of an attack like this is usually the transformers. In some cases, the large transformers are filled with oil to help with cooling. A shot from a high-power rifle punctures a transformer’s casing, so the oil leaks out. The transformer overheats and fails. If the bullet is powerful enough, it can cut into the coils of wire inside the transformer and destroy the transformer by shorting it out.
The problem is that these transformers take time to replace. Therefore, many of the people in Moore County experienced four or even five days without power. As you can imagine, being without power in cold winter weather can become a major problem. The lack of heat can be deadly if temperatures are low enough. In addition, water pipes can freeze and burst, causing extensive and expensive damage in homes.
The problem is that the Moore County attack was just one example of a growing phenomenon:
“The U.S. power grid is suffering a decade-high surge in attacks as extremists, vandals and cyber criminals increasingly take aim at the nation’s critical infrastructure. Physical and computerized assaults on the equipment that delivers electricity are at their highest level since at least 2012, including 101 reported this year through the end of August… white nationalists, neo-Nazis and other domestic extremists seeking to sow unrest have taken responsibility for other high-profile attempts to take down swaths of the grid — prompting security experts to grow increasingly concerned about the U.S. electricity system’s vulnerability.”
The Problem with a big power failure
The attack in Moore County was a big deal for the area. Roughly half of the county’s residents were affected and had zero electricity for multiple days.
However, this incident did not cause societal collapse or anything close to it. There have been lots of power failures over the years, some of them affecting many millions of people, but they did not cause societal collapse either. The Northeaster blackout of 2003, for example, affected 55 million people.
In order to cause a societal collapse, two things must happen simultaneously. First, millions of people need to have the power cut off. Second, the power needs to be out long enough for things like food shortages to start causing death and mayhem.
Imagine if the Northeast blackout of 2003 had lasted two months rather than two days. 55 million people would be without power, along with everything they depend on to live a normal life:
- Most grocery stores, pharmacies and other stores do not have backup generators. Without electricity, all the refrigerators and freezers fail, the lights are out, HVAC is out, and credit card processing systems are out. The stores are all closed, so it is impossible to buy food.
- Most gas stations do not have backup generators, so it becomes difficult or impossible to purchase fuel. And electric cars are completely useless in a power failure once their batteries drain. Deliveries of food and medicine into the area become much more difficult.
- Even if people can drive their cars or trucks on the fuel in the tanks, all of the traffic lights are out.
- There is no way to recharge phones, power laptops, or stay connected to the Internet.
- Emergency services and hospitals probably do have backup generators, but: a) the generators need fuel to keep running and fuel supplies may dry up after two or three weeks, and b) all of these services get overwhelmed as people get more and more desperate.
- The water supply also has backup power, but may also be affected by fuel shortages, causing a failure in the municipal water systems.
- No one can get to work, so the whole economy of the area starts shutting down. Any factories cease production.
- And so on…
The biggest problem is that the grocery stores all close, people eat all the food they have in their homes, and then people begin to starve.
In the case of a short power failure, none of these problems with the food supply affect people because people can easily last a day or two if the grocery stores are closed.
In the case of a small power failure affecting only tens of thousands of people, it is easy to drive 20 miles and find food, water, fuel, and medicine.
It is the case of a long power failure affecting millions of people where societal collapse can set in due to starvation and other deprivations. Starving people become desperate. Evil people are able to start looting and destroying things with abandon. Once things tip far enough, it can be difficult to recover.
Texas shows us how to have a months-long grid failure
In February, 2021, the state of Texas (population 30 million people) came minutes away from a complete grid failure. This video can help you understand what happened: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zcrsgdl_hP0
Had this complete grid failure occurred, it is estimated that several months would be required to restore the power:
“The worst case scenario: Demand for power outstrips the supply of power generation available on the grid, causing equipment to catch fire, substations to blow and power lines to go down. If the grid had gone totally offline, the physical damage to power infrastructure from overwhelming the grid could have taken months to repair, said Bernadette Johnson”
It is easy to understand the ramifications if this months-long blackout had occurred. Imagine major cities like Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington (population nearly 8 million people) and Houston (about the same, and also home to important national refineries) without food, fuel, medicine, and water for two or three months. A person in Dallas might try to evacuate 150+ miles to another state that has power, but if millions of people are trying to all do it at the same time, things could get dangerous. And then the looting and destruction explodes after so many people leave.
There were two factors that worked together to bring Texas to the brink of a months-long grid collapse:
- The cold weather caused a surge in demand for electricity.
- The cold weather caused many power plants to fail.
Domestic terrorists who want to cause a grid collapse would try to duplicate the scenario by waiting for a time when the power grid is experiencing high load, either because of extreme hot weather or cold weather in the area. Then they would try to sabotage multiple power plants or the transmission lines that connect to them.
How can we as a society prevent this catastrophe?
There are three different kinds of action that America could take to prevent a grid failure and societal collapse that would result from a months-long blackout.
The first kind of action would be to harden the grid. Right now, many power plants, most transmission lines, and just about all substations are vulnerable to sabotage. Much of this equipment is sitting out in the open, sometimes in remote rural areas, so it is easy to attack. Substations need to be protected with buildings and security systems. Transmission lines need extensive use of cameras and security systems. Yes, this will cost money and power bills will rise a bit, but it would go a long way toward preventing the easy terrorist attacks and vandalism that are currently occurring.
The second kind of action would be for law enforcement agencies to meticulously follow the people and groups who are fomenting the sabotage. Detect when attacks are planned and arrest people during the planning stages. This approach has worked in a number of cases, for example in the case of the plot to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer in 2020. Before she could be kidnapped, the FBI arrested 13 people during the planning stages.
The third kind of action would be to add excess capacity to the power grid and beef up supplies for repair. In other words, have extra power plants, extra transmission lines, and extra spare parts to handle the losses in cases of sabotage. If there is excess capacity, then the loss of some resources to sabotage can be easily backfilled using the excess capacity.
With these three things in place, it will be much more difficult to attack the power grid successfully, and everyone in the United States will be safer.
- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zcrsgdl_hP0 – Texas’s power disaster is a warning sign for the US
- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ebE665o144c – Big questions remain in wake of North Carolina power grid attack