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

Crippling the US without firing a shot
Wednesday, July 16, 2014, 11:38 PM

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)

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Arthur Robey's picture
Arthur Robey
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Transformer Rebuild.

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.

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Very Responsible

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.

BeingThere's picture
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The vulnerability of the grid

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.

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Always look on the bright side of life

First step: put board games on your wish list for christmas.

And candles, of course :-)

mazanda's picture
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How about natural gas

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?

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Buy Solar Panels Now

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.  

mazanda's picture
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Solar panels

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.

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here are some board game ideas

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 -- 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 -- 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.

Bluewolf's picture
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Home Electrical power unit

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

HughK's picture
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Board games

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.



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Northeast Winters

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.

Tycer's picture
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mazanda wrote: I have often

mazanda wrote:

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?

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. 

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Cascading electrical failures and natural gas

mazanda wrote:

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.
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Grid down: No water

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.

pat the rat's picture
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glow sticks

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

rhare's picture
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We are conditioned not to adapt....

sand_puppy wrote:

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.

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!

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Yeah, I'm almost surprised

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

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Floor furnaces

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. :-)

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Friday's post : The Electrical Grid May Well Be The Next War's

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 ?


VeganD's picture
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come to think of it

There could be more to worry about. It is inevitable that fires will occur. I doubt the capabilities of the city fire departments can overcome a grid down scenario. Sort of like San Francisco after the big earthquake many years ago, it was fires that took down much of the city.  I was in the NY area for Sandy and we were fortunate that there were not more fires but one neighborhood in Queens was burnt to the ground. Of course the winds and water were a factor.  I think I better be prepared to live in my car if things really go south. One more reason to keep the tank filled. 

Board games for the first week sounds like a fine idea nonetheless. 

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Arbitrary Rules

Ignoring these will be a measure of adaptability, for most folks.
Adaptability will be a measure of survivability, for all folks affected.

Sand_Puppy's store brings up an issue of foundational importance: Can you improvise if your plan falls through?



Cherryman's picture
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Die off

Chris thanks for your post on the potential collapse scenario of the US electricity grid. I was aware of the very real possibility and I guess it just demonstrates an increasing number of threats we face going forward in a technologically dependent world. Nothing is simply anymore. 

I am however a little concerned that you didn't extrapolate the after effects of a prolonged grid failure even though you went into detail on a number of ways it could happen.

Are you trying to keep things on a positive note by prompting us to prepare for this situation or are you afraid to push this event out to what surely must be a rapid die off of population. What percentage of the population would you expect to die off in the first month or six month period. What would be the major contributing factors? Lack of drinking water, starvation, disease, violence? What would the  government  resort to in this situation.

I think I am even too scared to explore further.

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Transformer manufacturing


I work as a principal transmission engineer for a major utility in the north east.  I specifically work on a multi-billion dollar a year construction portfolio including transmission asset lifecycle replacement.  I can tell you for a certain, world manufacturing capacity is at a hard limit to produce maybe a dozen units yearly for us.   Lead times are near a year, each unit custom ordered to fit the station.   Standing units for replacement in industry are also at very low numbers.  I would argue, if you lost more than 75% of the units in an event, you would be hard pressed to recover in anything short of years.  China is not a rampable manufacturing option, quality is challenging at current production capacities with encumbent entities.  These are sophisticated pieces of equipment.

This remains the most sensitive concern to me in regards to large impact, moderate probability, world events.  And I believe few people are prepared for the world that would exist post grid loss 6months-1year.

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Aloha! While many may look at the cost to business and citizens to go without power for any lengthy duration don't forget that in places like Mexico rolling blackouts are the norm. Checking into an Acapulco hotel we were told to shower after 2pm and use power until 10am. But Mexico is Third World ... we're not!

What is Third World in America is all the political bribes and kickbacks and double-dealing and sellouts in Congress. In that instance politicians are the same the world over, more so with career politicians.

Lets look at just the labor cost to do anything "electrical" in public works. The following wage rates are for Los Angeles county in the state of California. The rates vary depending on county and state.

What we have is $65.62 per hour for one LA county journeyman lineman cable splicer. Working a full year that one journeyman costs the taxpayers almost $134,000. Nevermind the pension and healthcare for those retired. There are different rates depending on hazardous work and underground like tunnels. One of the highest rates I saw was over $70 per hour. Not included in the rates is extra for travel and subsistence pay. Naturally the grid outside major US cities will require travel. How many lineman would be required to completely redo the grid in every city and state in America? So that's just the labor cost alone. What about material? The wire. Will it be high tech superconductor wire or basic copper?

Superconducting Conductors

Superconductivity is a phenomenon where some materials exhibit no electrical resistance below certain cryogenic temperatures. For this reason, superconducting wire can carry more than one hundred times the current of an equivalent size of copper wire. Power devices using superconducting technologies benefit from up to 8% efficiency improvement, because they have zero resistance to direct current electricity.

These attributes can translate into significant reductions of cost, size and weight for motors, generators and power cables. Superconducting technologies will play a crucial role in the electric power industry: from power generation (e.g. offshore superconducting wind turbine generators) to transmission and distribution (e.g. high power superconducting cables, superconducting fault current limiters (SFCL), superconducting magnetic energy storage (SMES) and superconducting transformers), to end use (e.g. superconducting industrial motors, generators and condensers and high-field magnets). 

Okay ... labor and material? How much will a Smart Grid cost America? 

I used to put together public works bids for $1M+ electrical projects, but I am thinking this would be many $1T+ to install. To do that cities, states and the federal government would have to rely heavily on "debt". In a time when major US cities are facing bankruptcy and the US Treasury is facing baby boomer doom what is the likelihood that Smart Grids are at the top of the list?

My guess is we will be Mexico soon ... In many ways we already are!

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The EMP commission, One Second After

There was a commission formed to study the issue of EMP attack on the United States.  Here is its executive report.

Other details are available at the wesbite.

A fiction book titled One Second After attempts to chronicle the series of events that befalls a small town in North Carolina after an EMP strike on the US.

To spoil the ending, there are three waves of problems that hit:

First week: everyone in a hospital/critical care facility, or an "assisted living" facility dies (presumably unless they are rescued by their families).

Two weeks: sanitation issues cause cholera and typhoid fever.

One-two months: drug-dependant patients (cardiac, diabetics) die.

Food problems of course are endemic, and survival rates are area-dependent, as per the wiki entry:

The "average" die-off for the country was 90% leaving 30 million surviving out of original 300 million US population. The food-rich Midwest had the highest survival rate with a 50% die-off. New York City and Florida had a 95% die-off from infighting among their large populations, low levels of cultivated land, high elderly population, a lack of air conditioning, rampant transmission of disease, and natural disasters such as hurricanes.

The scenario postulated by the book was a total national power failure caused by the detonation of 3 nuclear missiles launched from a container ship off the coast that blew up immediately after launch, making the source of the attack impossible to trace.

Problems with the book: according to the EMP testing I looked at, not every car would die, and not every electronic component would be zapped.  It would be effectively random.  In the book, every car (except the ones dating from before 1960) simply stopped working.

That said, widespread random failures of control systems (say 1 in 10) are quite effective enough to take out the power grid for a year.

Oliveoilguy's picture
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Good point Mazanda

Correct Mazanda that you need an inverter and battery backup to gain any autonomy. We have an Outback Radian GS8048 grid tied with battery backup and I'm adding some panels to the system. I bought the 8 kw inverter with the idea of expanding the array as I got a few more dollars to invest. Also have to add a second charge controller now. This is probably a good time to invest in Solar at whatever level you can afford.

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EMPs and which electronics get fried

In the comments section over at zerohedge one of the posters, "seek," sounds like he works in this field professionally.  He sounded very knowledgeable and summarized which electronics will fry.

This was posted after Chris' article above.

EMPs (and Carrington-level events) don't affect small electronics and barely affect some vehicles (most, even with modern electronics, are largely immune.) Integrated circuits, etc will be fine as there's not nearly enough length of the wires to be any kind of meaningful antenna to the ELF pulse generated.

Anything electrical with a few thousand feet of wire attached, aka the grid, or things plugged into it, are pretty well f*cked, however.

An EMP (or Carrington event) develops a known voltage gradient in space, and if you know the length of the conductor, you can make a pretty good stab at the size of the spike. Most ICs have ESD tolerance diodes on their pins that can handle several thousand volts, well below the gradient that would be created at the chip level or even at the device level for portable electronics. ... short conductors = less risk to EMP is pretty well established, and pretty much anything from handheld devices to airplanes has been blasted by simulators at Oak Ridge and White Sands to understand what will happen. Heck, the automakers do EMP testing at white sands regularly.

Here's a bunch of references in particular you'll want to read the stuff by Metatech if you care about the power grid aspects of EMP/NEMP/HEMP. [References at the bottom of the wiki page on Nuclear EMP pulse.]

Summarizing:  ...every professional I've talked with has basically said anything small (be it an integrated circuit or an iPad or whatever) is a non-issue -- it's big things with antennas (intentional or via long electrical wires) that will have problems.

Extrapolating, it sounds like OFF GRID solar systems would survive a Nuclear EMP (NEMP), but GRID-TIED systems would not.

And I loved the novel One Second After, too.  And Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

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I'm not so sure Sandpuppy

Even so, Applied is doing its bit to increase yields and drive down costs. In a modern CPU there can be more than 60 miles (100km) of copper wiring, and through leakage and heat resistance it increases the total power consumption and heat dissipation of the chip by around 30%.

A single computer chip can have 60 linear miles of microscopic, embedded Copper wiring.  

And this, from (

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EMPs: Voltage gradient in space

Hi Jim H,

I am not an engineer and really don't have any qualifications or experience whatsoever in this field.  (So take my thoughts on this for what they are worth.)

If the NEMP (nuclear EMP) creates a voltage gradient in space, then the size of the current flow produced will depend on the the number of isovoltage lines the conductor crosses, something closely related to the distance in space the conductor spans.  So, even if a conductor is very long, but it is confined in a few centimeters of space, there shouldn't be much voltage gradient or current created.

I suppose this is analogous to a fireman approaching a downed high voltage line lying on the ground during a rain storm.  The line creates a voltage gradient in the wet ground that can produce current between his left and right feet.  So, the firemen shuffles in little steps.  This way his feet do not span too large a voltage gradient.

Now I'll shut up and let our engineers tell me if this is right.....

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3rd world coping without power

What I found living in Mongolia surprised me a little bit.... power outages are frequent (though typically not longer than half a day or so) and I would have figured even the average city dweller would be well 'prepped' for such things. Turned out that wasn't really the case. The average apartment families might have a flashlight, some candles, and perhaps a radio, but seldom anything like a bunch of extra batteries, a convenient alternate method of cooking, solar or battery backup, a small generator, or a sizeable stash of storable food. I found I was better 'prepared' in that sense than most of my neighbors (my LED headlamps were/are very popular with my extended family and neighbors). On the other hand, what I also found was that while they are not often as prepared in the material sense, they coped much better and bitched less than the average American when the power did go down down. They were just better accustomed to periods of doing without and they had more mental resilience. And in the few occasions where power outages or hot water shutdowns lasted a little longer, more often than not they find a way to improvise. The folks living in the smaller communities and herders in the country tend to be a lot more resilient (most use wood/coal stoves for cooking and tend to store a fair amount of dry and raw foods) but any serious homestead prepper would still outstrip most of them easily in terms of material preps. So even for those country folks, their preparedness advantage tends to be more in their mindset instead of the stuff they have.

Oh and that business with stores not being "allowed" to sell their freezer goods that are only starting to thaw.... the very thought of that happening in Mongolia would be hilarious. The store owners would do some quick discounts to get it out the door and shoppers would soon be bingeing on ice cream and grilled meat and boiled meat soups (most everyone either has or knows someone with old woodstoves and/or grills), and I bet enterprising street vendors would snatch some up and be grilling up a bunch of kabobs/shashlik on the street corners and city squares. Even should the government try to get in the way, I suspect most people would ignore them. People over there learn they have to trust their own judgement when it comes to determining food safety anyway.

- Nick

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voltage gradient in space

You are right sand puppy.  its all about voltage gradient.  

1. A voltage gradient of a thousand volts per meter means 1 volt per millimeter.Chips by themselves are small, but are connected to bigger things however.

2. chips wired into circuits already have to withstand pulses of thousands of volts and have designed in hardware such as transient suppressors for protection.  I have measured the naturally occuring pulses is in unprotected circuits and am amazed at how much effort has gone into protection of chips and devices already.

3. The tripped circuit breakers in Hawaii we have read about that were caused by US military above ground atomic bombs were associated with very long power lines, not tiny chips in a small board that would pick up much smaller voltage gradients.

I am worried about forming conduits for lightning pulses.  I unplug my amateur radio equipment and antennas before thunderstorms to protect equipment.  I would expect that my equipment, IF left connected to an antenna during an above ground atomic blast would be susceptible.  Power lines have similar issues, so this seems to be a real concern from a power line perspective, but not for a laptop sitting in a bag. 

In trying to understand modern technology, most discussions tend to get  off the rails when dealing with known effects based on conditions that are many orders of magnitude away from the practical working example.  Someone is not scaling things up (or scaling things down) properly in my opinion.  In rough sense this is analogous to CM's teaching of geometric increase, which is not understood by those of us who are accustomed to think only in short linear scales. 

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Critical priorities in a longer-term grid down situation

We tend to think of urgent critical infrastructure needs when we talk about prioritizing the use of fuel and limited available energy in a prolonged crisis. But I do not see enough attention given to the high priority of ensuring that food production, processing, and distribution can continue if a crisis is widespread and likely to last for a while. We can't afford to miss a planting season or a harvest. Farms are critical infrastructure. Shifting methods of food production and even the whereabouts of food production so that more food is grown close to where people live would be vital. Without fuel to operate big farm machinery, human labor will have to accomplish much more and be deployed in a timely fashion. A measure of training would have to happen quickly. Then there's the problem of food processing. Instead of small canneries in local communities, we now have regional canneries far from fields. Lots of vulnerabilities here. This is a doc I worked up some years ago on the subject of food system vulnerabilities, just to get my head around the issue: My research ultimately landed me on a patch of land my husband and I are developing now as a permaculture homestead.

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Need less

Obviously, one can prepare by stockpiling huge amounts of everything from food to fuel to toilet paper. The other option, of course, is to need less. For example, I gave up underwear 16 years ago. One less thing to need when the grid crashes.

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Fantastic explanation of the differences between nuclear and solar emp, their different risks and even in depth references for those curious. I found this to have cleared up a substantial number of misconceptions I had.

And for those worried about grid failure who keep referring to tower and line damage, that is not a worry. Large ice storms and severe weather have historically caused significant outages, but correctable outages. A widescale loss of power transformers is the only teotwaki type event as they are just not replaceable in sufficient quantities and time scales.

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Something else to keep in mind- Power Surges

My in-laws just had an experience that reminded me of the other danger inherent with an unreliable power grid.... power surges. Some time ago I purchased surge protectors for the outlets in their country house, after having to replace a part on their fridge after a power surge a couple years back. Long story short, another power surge (we presume) took place last week. They said that one of the surge protectors is dead and smells of burnt electronics, but their fridge/freezer and other appliances are thankfully still functional.

Seems that power surges are just as likely to be a threat as lack of power if it comes to a hacking attack on the electrical grid or heaven help us a CME, and having surge protectors may offer at least some level of protection. Would be bad enough dealing with a weeks-long power outage without having to repair or replace your appliances and electronics afterwards too cheeky

- Nick

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