14 June 2011

What can cause widespread power failures, and how long might they last?

It's a fact: modern American society is requires electricity to function. We're wired in every way, from toasters and refrigerators to computers and television. We need air conditioning in the summer, and heating in the winter. We use the Internet every day to work, play, learn, and more. Even our wireless appliances need to periodically plug in to get their electrical "fix."

Americans have come to depend upon the availability of relatively cheap and plentiful electricity and all the conveniences it enables. The thing is, we take it for granted. Worse yet, most people are woefully unprepared when it's "lights out" for days, or even weeks at a time. The more self-reliant you are, the easier it will be for you to weather the storm (literally and figuratively).

Widespread power failure is common

Consider this list of recent power failures:

# Affected
Aug 2003
55 million
Northeast U.S. & Southeast Canada
up to 3 days
Sep 2004
5 million
up to a week
Oct 2005
3.2 million
South/Southwest Florida
3 weeks
Jul 2006
Saint Louis, Missouri
9 days
Dec 2007
Eastern Newfoundland & Labrador
up to a week
Sep 2008
7.5 million
Cuba, Midwestern U.S., & Canada
2 weeks+
Jan 2009

up to 3 weeks
Mar 2010
Connecticut, New York, New Jersey

up to 6 days

This list is only a handful of the huge list of power outages on Wikipedia. As you can see, widespread power outages are not rare in the United States. In fact, it wasn't hard for me to find at least one major event for each year in the recent past.

Consider the durations too — the length of natural disaster outages is related to how much, and how widespread, the damage is. Of course, utility crews are immediately on the job, and often workers from the other states pitch in to help restore things as quickly as possible. Still, that often means no electricity for days, sometimes weeks at a time. Are you prepared?

The threat of Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) attack

A much scarier possibility is that the power might go out for a very long time, perhaps even for good. Our aging, relatively unsophisticated power grid is vulnerable to cyber attacks, electromagnetic pulses (EMPs), and geomagnetic storms.

The threat of cyber attacks on the power grid are real. Cyberspies, presumably from Russia and China, have penetrated the electrical grid before. Hackers' attacks could damage portions of the power systems, or even lead to widespread grid failure similar to that in 2003.

Others in the Government even warn against the possibility of rogue nations or terrorists launching an Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) attack against North America.

High-altitude EMP (HEMP) damage to electronics was first observed in 1962 as a part of U.S. military nuclear weapons testing. Since then, the federal government has research EMP attacks and their possible effects, most recently including a 2008 report by the EMP Commission and a 2005 report on EMP threats by Major Colin R. Miller, of the U.S. Air Force's Center for Strategy and Technology Air War College. According to Major Miller [bolding added]:

"The effect of a HEMP attack on the continental U.S. would be devastating, causing several trillions of dollars of damage (by conservative estimates) in cascading failures of interdependent infrastructures. The primary avenue for destruction would be through electrical power and telecommunications, on which all other infrastructures, including energy, transportation, banking and finance, water, and emergency services, depend. The cumulative effect of infrastructure failures would effectively send the country back in time. The majority of the US would be without electrical power. Telephones, televisions, and radios would be inoperative, and fuel/energy would be scarce. Most cars would not work, and public transportation —plane, rail, and bus, would be immobilized. Banking and financial services would become unavailable, and the amount in one’s wallet or purse would define their liquid worth. At the same time, emergency services would have trouble functioning and responding to the disaster."

Major Miller points out that the threat of a HEMP attack is moderate, since there are a limited number of countries capable of launching such an attack. He also describes smaller devices that are more readily built, and indicates that there is a high probability that they will be used against the U.S. in the near future. Smaller devices will affect a smaller area, but that could still disrupt large portions of the power grid, as observed in the 2003 blackout mentioned above.

EMPs can be naturally occurring too

In case that wasn't enough cause for concern, effects similar to an EMP can be caused by geomagnetic storms. According to a NASA report on severe space weather, as well as a similar report by the National Academy of Sciences, ground currents caused by these storms could actually melt the copper windings of power transformers, while power lines would act like antennas, picking up the currents and spreading the problem over a wide area. A severe enough geomagnetic storm could result in "extensive social and economic disruptions" [again, bolding added]:

"Power outages would be accompanied by radio blackouts and satellite malfunctions; telecommunications, GPS navigation, banking and finance, and transportation would all be affected. Some problems would correct themselves with the fading of the storm: radio and GPS transmissions could come back online fairly quickly. Other problems would be lasting: a burnt-out multi-ton transformer, for instance, can take weeks or months to repair."

As pointed out in several of the documents linked above, officials generally recommend improving the hardware and infrastructure to guard against these threats to our power grid. Nevertheless, the necessary modifications will take considerable time and money (billions, according to USA Today). In our current economic environment, it may be difficult for these changes to get budgeted, let alone implemented.

So, what to do? This is where enhancing your self-reliance comes into play. Practical tips on improving your preparedness will be a recurring theme on this blog. If you have questions, or would like to suggest specific topics, please let me know in the comments section below.

PS: Wondering what life after an EMP attack would be like? Check out One Second After by William R. Forstchen. It's a novel, but it's depiction of life after an EMP is based on the government reports mentioned above. Scary stuff!

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