In April 2013 an unknown group of people disabled 17 transformers at a PG&E substation in California by shooting holes in them from a safe distance away. This almost caused a regional multi-state blackout, and only the low rate of power consumption at the time enabled the utilities to reroute power and keep the grid up.
An investigation has revealed this was not a casual random act of vandalism, but a carefully planned and executed attack. The perpetrators have not been identified, and some experts speculate this was a ‘test run’ prior to conducting a larger and more devastating attack on our national power grid.
A classified report prepared in 2007, and recently made public, warned that it would be easy for a group to knock out the power grid in a way to “deny large regions of the country access to bulk power systems for weeks or even months” and which they speculated would lead to “turmoil, widespread public fear, and an image of helplessness”.
Congress passed a bill in 2010 designed to compel utility companies to harden their infrastructure, but it died in the senate. The utility companies lobbied against it.
This excellent article tells you more about these issues. Sure, we’ve been saying for a long time that our power infrastructure is enormously vulnerable to many different forms of attack, and, perhaps much more importantly, that recovering from a large-sized outage would not take the few days we normally experience. Neither would it take a few weeks, and not even a few months. Due to the lead times and limited manufacturing capabilities of the companies that make transformers (none of which are in the US any more) it could take years to recover (a minimum of three, possibly much longer). See in particular our 2012 article, ‘Why Our Electricity Grid is So Vulnerable’ (and note also vulnerabilities that relate to our natural gas distribution too).
Our earlier article didn’t even mention simply shooting holes in the ‘radiators’ of these large transformers (that’s what these people did last year), which has to be the simplest and easiest way of disabling them.
As the article observes, this is a very difficult threat to guard against. Worse still, in the almost one year since the attack, we’re unaware of any steps being taken to protect against this threat – even a simple curtain to hide the transformers from view would be a great start, so terrorists couldn’t see where to aim their shots.
Our point of course is simple. Most of the country mindlessly assumes that every time they flick a light switch, power is guaranteed to flow. Some people will accept that an occasional super-storm might rob themselves and other people in a small limited area of power for a few days, and even fewer will prepare for such short-term losses.
But what happens if much/most/all of the nation loses its power for three, four, and more years? Who is prepared for that?