The Electrical Grid May Well Be The Next War's Battlefield

We talk a lot about Peak Cheap Oil as the Achilles' heel of the exponential monetary model, but the real threat to the quality of our daily lives would be a sustained loss of electrical power. Anything over a week without power for any modern nation would be a serious problem.

When the power goes out, everything just stops. For residential users, even a few hours begins to intrude heavily as melting freezers, dying cell phones, and the awkward realization that we don't remember how to play board games nudge us out of our comfort zone.

However, those are just small inconveniences.

For industrial and other heavy users, the impact of even a relatively short outage can be expensive or even ghastly. Hospitals and people on life-assisting machinery are especially vulnerable. Without power, aluminum smelters face the prospect of the molten ore solidifying in the channels from which it must be laboriously removed before operations can be restarted.

Many types of nuclear power plants have to switch to back-up diesel generators to keep the cooling pumps running. And if those stop for any reason (like they run out of fuel), well, Fukushima gave us a sense of how bad things can get.

And of course banking stops, ATMs are useless, and gas stations cannot pump gas. Just ask the people of New Jersey in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

A blackout of a few hours results in an inconvenience for everyone and something to talk about.

But one more than a day or two long? Things begin to get a bit tense; especially in cities, and doubly so if it happens in the hot mid-summer months.

Anything over a week and we start facing real, life-threatening issues. National Geographic ran a special presentation, American Blackout, in October 2013 -- it presented a very good progression covering exactly what a timeline of serious grid disruption would look and feel like. I recommend the program for those interested.

Grid Threats

We're exploring this risk because there are a number of developments that could knock out the power grid for a week or more. They include a coronal mass ejection (CME), a nuclear electromagnetic pulse (EMP) device, a cascading grid failure, and malicious hacking or electronic attacks.

It’s the cyber-electronic front that's especially concerning these days, as we depend so vitally on so many systems that operate completely dependent on computer controls.

Many critical manufacturing and power generation systems are especially vulnerable to such attacks, as the Stuxnet virus showed in Iran where it is believed to have ruined thousands of delicate uranium enrichment centrifuges by overriding their commands and causing them to literally spin themselves to pieces.

As one Peak Prosperity member recently wrote:

My great fear is not supersonic missiles, it's a combined-arms cyber attack plus (as necessary) kinetic assault on the power grid, with the "calling card" being left pointing to some convenient domestic extremist group scapegoat.

The FERC (Federal Energy Regulatory Commission) released a report that suggested the US power grid could be knocked out for "weeks if not months" by taking out only 9 substations using a coordinated kinetic attack.

Given that one substation was actually assaulted by persons unknown last year:

In last April's attack at PG&E Corp.'s Metcalf substation, gunmen shot 17 large transformers over 19 minutes before fleeing in advance of police. The state grid operator was able to avoid any blackouts.

The Metcalf substation sits near a freeway outside San Jose, Calif. Some experts worry that substations farther from cities could face longer attacks because of their distance from police. Many sites aren't staffed and are protected by little more than chain-link fences and cameras.

So this power station assault actually happened. This whole thing isn't just someone's crazy dream.


You can be certain that such concerns are very high on the list of things that the NSA worries about, and which it feels justify the use of whatever electronic eavesdropping may be necessary to guard against.

A widespread loss of the electrical grid for even one week would be devastating for a number of reasons. First the fuel refining, manufacturing, distribution and delivery systems would cease to function. After emergency generators are used to move and distribute what processed fuel is in the system, are only remaining fuel will be that brought into the country from other regions of the world.

Within a very short time, perhaps just days or hours of what is perceived to be a sustained loss of electrical power, the fuel system will be placed under emergency triage rationing -- with hospitals, nuclear generation plants, the military, police and other emergency services consuming 100% of what’s available. Sorry, none for you.

With every additional day that the electricity is out the damage to the afflicted nation mounts.  Food, fuel, and water, become scarce and sanitation problems rapidly  accumulate.

Here's the thing: cyber penetrations and outright kinetic attacks on US power grid elements have already happened. Given the extreme disruption that would result from any successful future attacks, you should have some personal preparations in place.

Our Woeful Grid

The US power grid, as a whole, is anything but modern and robust. Huge swaths of it were built decades ago. It remains largely a centralized generation and distribution system, one in which the failure of a remarkably few 'nodes' would be catastrophic.

It's millions of miles of lines, utility poles, towers, substations and generating stations. Here's a good, short description:

Today [2003], the US electric power grid serves about 125 million residential customers, 17.6 million commercial customers, and 775,000 industrial customers. These various categories of customers account, respectively, for about 37%, 36%, and 27% of electricity consumption annually.

Electricity is produced at large power plants typically located in remote areas and delivered into high-voltage transmission lines that transport it across long distances to regional and neighborhood substations, where the voltage is stepped down to a current that can be used in homes and offices and fed into a local distribution grid.

Between 1949 and 1973, electricity use in the United States grew at an average annual rate of 8.3%, and the system was able to meet that demand with only sporadic difficulty. Even with rising prices after 1973, electricity use grew at an average annual rate of 2.5% in the years from 1973 to 2006. The growth rate projected for the next 20 years is comparatively flat.

The electric grid encompasses both transmission and distribution (T&D) power grids. The transmission system spans more than 160,000 miles (257,000) of high-voltage transmission lines and connects over 750 GW of electricity-generating capacity with local and regional demand centers across the nation. In addition, the electricity distribution system, which consists of smaller, lower-voltage distribution lines that deliver power from substations and transformers to customers, encompasses 6 million miles (9.6 million) of wire and cable spread across roughly 500,000 circuits and linked to the national transmission system by about 60,000 substations.


The substations circled in green in the image above are the most vulnerable points in the system.

The alternative to this mass of interconnected wires would be a decentralized, smart grid involving a very large number of small generating 'stations' where thousands of failures would be required to cause a sustained loss of power for millions.

But currently?

The loss of just nine critical substations could mean a catastrophic loss of power for up to 18 months. What the country would look like after that, and whether such an insult could be recovered from is an open question.

U.S. Risks National Blackout From Small-Scale Attack

The U.S. could suffer a coast-to-coast blackout if saboteurs knocked out just nine of the country's 55,000 electric-transmission substations on a scorching summer day, according to a previously unreported federal analysis.

The study by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission concluded that coordinated attacks in each of the nation's three separate electric systems could cause the entire power network to collapse, people familiar with the research said.

A small number of the country's substations play an outsize role in keeping power flowing across large regions. The FERC analysis indicates that knocking out nine of those key substations could plunge the country into darkness for weeks, if not months.

A memo prepared at FERC in late June for Mr. Wellinghoff before he briefed senior officials made several urgent points. "Destroy nine interconnection substations and a transformer manufacturer and the entire United States grid would be down for at least 18 months, probably longer," said the memo, which was reviewed by the Journal. That lengthy outage is possible for several reasons, including that only a handful of U.S. factoriesbuild transformers.


The Us grid consists of three big regions, and is designed in such a way that the failure of just a few critical components would drag the whole thing down.

Again, that insult could be a deliberate attack, an EMP device, a CME, or even a squirrel on the wrong transformer on a hot day that leads to a cascading series of failures.

These vulnerabilities could be addressed, but the main point of this report is to note that over the years since they’ve been identified they mostly have not been addressed.

Does all of this seem too unlikely to worry about? Well, you might want to consider that we only recently learned that a massive CME narrowly missed the earth in 2012, the exact sort of threat we covered in great detail in a past podcast with a NASA scientist:

Carrington-class CME Narrowly Misses Earth

May 2, 2014

The close shave happened almost two years ago. On July 23, 2012, a plasma cloud or "CME" rocketed away from the sun as fast as 3000 km/s, more than four times faster than a typical eruption. The storm tore through Earth orbit, but fortunately Earth wasn't there. Instead it hit the STEREO-A spacecraft. Researchers have been analyzing the data ever since, and they have concluded that the storm was one of the strongest in recorded history. "It might have been stronger than the Carrington Event itself," says Baker.

The Carrington Event of Sept. 1859 was a series of powerful CMEs that hit Earth head-on, sparking Northern Lights as far south as Tahiti. Intense geomagnetic storms caused global telegraph lines to spark, setting fire to some telegraph offices and disabling the 'Victorian Internet." A similar storm today could have a catastrophic effect on modern power grids and telecommunication networks.


How much did this storm miss us by? About one week. If the earth had been just 7/365 (1.9%) further along in its path, an entire hemisphere would have gotten shellacked. And, oh by the way, do any of you recall hearing of any warnings from NASA or other government bodies in 2012 that such a blast was headed our way and how closely it missed us by?

Me neither. So perhaps we shouldn't count on getting an official warning in the future either.

Conclusion (Part 1)

The main conclusion here is that you should be at least moderately prepared for a sustained electricity outage, at least to the same degree that you carry fire insurance on your property. Both are remote -- but catastrophic -- events where a little advance preparation can go a long way.

In Part 2: Reducing Your Risk To A Grid-Down Event we reveal the vulnerabilities mostly likely to cause prolonged outages of the national power grid: cyber attacks. The current system in the US has a disconcerting number of failure points that can -- and are, the data shows -- being targeted by malicious agents. 

More important, we lay out the specific steps concerned individuals should take at the home level to have backup support and protection should the grid go down. The cost of such preparation is very low compared to the huge magnitude of this low-probability, but highly disruptive, risk.

Click here to read Part 2 of this report (free executive summary, enrollment required for full access)

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

1 Like

Here is a picture of a transformer. They are not off-the-shelf items. How would a country without electricity make a whole batch of them?
I guess that you could always get the Chinese to build them for you, if they are still accepting greenbacks. They might accept a large chunk of land, I suppose.

Cheers for exploring this.  The average U.S. citizen depends on power more than ever.  We all do.  Exploring situations like this…reasonable questions about potential scenarios is one of the reasons why I keep coming back.
A lot of this stuff is linked.  If there was a grid down situation, food supplies would likely become scarce.  All the more reason to become more involved with food production at home.

Excellent article.
I live in lower Manhattan and I can attest to you that having power off for 5 days as in Hurricane Sandy fame, this was devastating. The only thing that saved us was it only effected the downtime area. Above 23rd st. everything worked. I depended on cabs to take me to and fro work, but as I wrote on Jim Kunstler's blog, it was like the tale of two cities.

One was light and one was steeped in darkness. I would have to buy dinner during lunch and lug it home and up 25 flights with my guy. Our only diversion was NYPublic radio on batteries, otherwise we were very cut off. This experience has made it abundantly clear to us that as much as we love being on a high floor, we will have to move in the next couple of years. As we get older–it's an untenable situation and very dangerous.

Yes, when we decided to go global and concentrate money in private hands, we have lost any interest in keeping our infrastructure intact, strong and up-to-date. We thought we invested in this country and that's the end of it. Well there's a little something called entropy and things need to be kept up and re-built. It will be a tragedy when the truth can no longer be glossed over.

In the meantime we seem to want to pick fights with Russian and poss. China who is quietly buying up real estate as a hard asset against the fiat dollar-based TBs.

I expect things to get very hard, indeed.

1 Like

First step: put board games on your wish list for christmas.
And candles, of course :slight_smile:


I have often wondered how natural gas supplies are tied to the avaiability of the grid and if they have a separate emergency power supply for ensuring their delivery. A brief discussion with an employee of  a powewr company ( a friend) suggested that gas supplies might very well remain uninterrupted in the event of power loss, but I was not compltely convinced of the reliability of the assertion. If this is true , a natural gas driven emergency generator would  make a good investment for the scenario Chris has described. Can anyone comment on this?

This article tells me to stock up on Panels. Word is that new import restrictions on China might impact the price of panels in the near future.  

1 Like

Unless you have a battery storage system to store your day time sun energy for night use and you live in an area that offers sunshine reliably, buying a lot of panels alone doesn't solve the grid loss problem.

1 Like

There are thousands of board games in the world and most at big box stores are just terrible.Some of my favorites (ones I think a more general audience would enjoy) 
crokinole â€“ sort of a shuffle board, or billiards game.  I recently had relatives over during a wedding and it was being played for 3-4 hours a day for three days.  Its good for most people.  I have it hanging on my wall as 'art'.
liar's dice – a "poker" like dice game.
Ticket to ride – quite a good board game many people can enjoy
Pandemic – This is a game where everyone is on the same team against the game.  Can get old with control freaks that want to tell others what to do. – and it gets you revved up for a world scale disaster 
Magic Labyrinth â€“ This is a very good game to play with smaller kids; both the adults and kids can play (most kids games are terrible for adults to play.)  With young kids I play a variant where "walls" are market with leftover chads from the game (just like in elections in Florida!)
Board games are a hobby I have.

1 Like

I’m trying right now to get funding for the manufacturing of the Electrical power unit. Here is my site:

Sterling, Hans, and all,
I'm a big fan of board games as well.

I recently played Black Gold, a game based on prospecting for and producing oil in Texas in the 1920's.  It takes a little time to figure out the rules the first time around, but it's good fun.

I also really like Pandemic.  The fact that everyone plays as team against the disease is a great twist on lengthy, zero-sum games like Risk.

If anyone hasn't played Settlers of Catan or Settlers of Catan Junior (for kids 6-12) they're both classics as well.  My six year old nephew learned Settlers Jr. very quickly and he loves it.





1 Like

Something I have always been concerned about is the possibility of a grid down situation during the winter time.  20 years ago it would not have been so bad, a lot of people in New England still used wood stoves to heat their homes.  Tech is great, and the advantages of a pellet stove are amazing, but if the power was ever out during the winter, people better have generators ready to go. 
There were a few ice storms up here in Vermont from December to March that took out power for a while.  Farms had to rely on generators to get power to their barns to milk the cows.  They discovered many of those generators are not built for long term (several continuous days) use.

For those in colder climates, it might be a good idea to not abandon the old wood stoves.

I have often wondered how natural gas supplies are tied to the avaiability of the grid and if they have a separate emergency power supply for ensuring their delivery. A brief discussion with an employee of  a powewr company ( a friend) suggested that gas supplies might very well remain uninterrupted in the event of power loss, but I was not compltely convinced of the reliability of the assertion. If this is true , a natural gas driven emergency generator would  make a good investment for the scenario Chris has described. Can anyone comment on this?
[/quote] It depends on where you live and the end delivery meter to your home. There are a few grid tied parts in some areas, but the great majority of the actual delivery is pressurized from the source and "should" continue for the short term uninterrupted. 

[quote=mazanda]I have often wondered how natural gas supplies are tied to the availability of the grid…
This is a report you might want to read:
Severe Weather Event of February 2011, and It's Cascading Impacts on NM Utility Service
Here are some excerpts from the summary:
This report focuses on the severe weather event that occurred in the southwestern part of the US during the first week of February 2011 and its impact on New Mexico electric and natural gas operations.
The loss of electrical generation capacity in Texas required system operators to declare emergency conditions and to institute rolling black - outs. Among the customers affected were natural gas processing plants, which further diminished the amount of natural gas production.
Gas pressures in the pipeline systems in northern New Mexico dropped to levels where large areas had to be cut off. The outage lasted for several days.

We had a big 'quake in '89 in Santa Cruz, CA.  We discovered that no water flows from the tap when the grid is down.  Water flow in Santa Cruz County was completely dependent on electrical pumping.
And I could not get gas from a gas pump.  My car had to be abandoned by the side of the road due to lack of fuel to drive it home.  Bicycles were very important for those 3 days.

One neighbor had a generator but couldn't obtain fuel to keep it running past the second day.

I could not get into my storage locker (electrical key pad access) to get out my camping gear and propane stove and spare propane bottles.  No cooking, no boiling water.

And I was unable to make coffee in the morning 3 days in a row.  Talk about hard on the nerves.  (I bought a hand crank coffee bean grinder after that experience).

Grocery stores had food and bottled water, but customers gathered in front could not purchase them.  The cash registers were down. No ATM or credit card activity was possible.  Later they found an old mechanical adding machine and a cash box and begin to offer limited purchases (5 items, cash only).

Food and beverage containers had been spilled onto the floor by the quake and the wet/dry vacuums and trash compactors weren't working.  They couldn't clean up the spilled items enough that it was safe to let customers in to walk the isles.  We had to wait outside and give our written food request (5 items only) to employees who would bring them to the front.  And some ran out of cash.

And the meat was going bad without refrigeration.  But they couldn't sell it or give it away due to health department rules–even to people who were running low on food.

Quite a mess.  This grid down article really brought back memories.


I have 100 glow sticks at all times in the house , they are better then candles they don't burn down the house!

1 Like

That statement right there conveys one of the hardest things people will have to learn: arbitrary rules by government bodies will need to be tossed when the SHTF.  So many people are reluctant, unable, or conditioned not to think for themselves and will not make changes necessary to survive.  It's important now to learn and think about what rules are truly important for your safety & well being and which are simply taxing schemes. Mentally thinking though "what if" scenarios is an important prep that's cheap!


Yeah, I'm almost surprised someone didn't pull a gun on the store that wouldn't let people have defrosting meat.

One problem with typical natural gas furnaces is that they have a blower to distribute the heat, and the blower requires electricity. So even if gas is available, if there’s no electricity, you’re cold anyway. My heat is provided by a floor furnace. It does not require electricity to work. It does require a crawl space. Mine is fueled by propane, so as long as there is propane in the tank, it will run. It would also work using natural gas where available. My chief winter pleasure is straddling the floor furnace and letting the warm air billow up my robe. :slight_smile:


Regarding an attack on the electrical grid, be it an EMP, a cyber-attack, or something as simple as dynamiting the towers and substations, AND THIS IS A VERY SERIOUS QUESTION :
What happens to BitCoin when the grid is attacked, and goes down ? What if it is down for 30 – or 60 – or 90 – or even 180 days ?

Of what use will BitCoin be with no grid ?



1 Like