Estimated reading time: 24 minutes
Many of us have experienced a power outage at one time or another. Most of the time the duration of the outage is measured in hours, maybe a day, and in rare instances – a week or more.
The outages also tend to be localized and repairs happen quickly or power is “borrowed” from a nearby utility or network and rerouted to the affected area. The experience is usually a frustrating inconvenience and most hospitals and critical systems have backup power to get through the outage.
But what if…?
What If The National Grid Fails?
It’s never happened in the United States, but some countries have had widespread power outages affecting most of their territory. Russia’s cyber attack on Ukraine’s grid in 2015 knocked about 60 substations offline, leaving 230,000 people in the dark. It was an ominous threat, but once again, the outage only lasted 1 to 6 hours.
It seems like most power outages, regardless of the extent, have a short duration and are only an inconvenience. But there’s a problem.
It may be an over-statement to refer to the U.S. power grid as crumbling, but in many parts of the country that’s exactly the case. The North American power grid is old.
The original design was engineered to only last 50 years with the assumption that future generations would upgrade and improve the system. That has rarely happened unless a system or station has a significant failure, and even then the fix falls in the category of repairs, not replacement.
As a result, there are parts of the North American grid that are about 100 years old. In a study done by the American Society of Engineers the power grid was graded D+ for reliability. It’s troubling to think that a system so critical to our survival is in the range of a failing grade. Worse, some estimates put a critical repair to the North American grid at $5 trillion dollars!
The Failure of Complex Systems
The North American Power grid may be one of the most complex systems on Earth. And it’s important to note that the power grid is just not about the U.S.
The grid stretches across the U.S. and up into Canada powering and ultimately affecting all of North America.
On a basic level, the grid is composed of 3 interconnections serving many states and provinces with the exception of a single interconnection in Texas. The fragility of any interconnection was demonstrated in the winter of 2021 when weather extremes induced by climate change almost brought down the entire Texas interconnection.
But while 3 basic grid interconnections may seem simple it gets worse.
Local power service providers are broken down into subregions within the intersections. These subregions are serviced by local utilities that have varying degrees of integrity in terms of the age and condition of their equipment and power stations. But it gets more complex.
The power grid that exists today was first built after World War II from designs dating back to Thomas Edison, using technology that primarily dates back to the ’60s and ’70s. Its 7,000 power plants are connected by power lines with a combined total of more than 5 million miles, all managed by 3,300 utilities serving 150 million customers.
According to industry group Edison Electric Institute. The whole system is valued at $876 billion. No one person owns or controls it. It’s 3,300 different companies, both public and private sector, that own or operate little pieces of the electric grid. The result is that no single entity government or otherwise has the ability or authority to manage it.
How Critical is the Grid?
According to a report from the congressionally funded EMP Commission, power grid failure for one year would result in the death of nine out of every 10 Americans. The first to die would be people dependent on medical assistance with the majority dying from starvation.
If the grid failure was unique to North America, it would also make the U.S. a prime and easy target for any rogue nation looking to take advantage.
We Take it for Granted
It’s not just about losing lights at night, packing some food from the refrigerator and freezer into a cooler or wearing warm clothes and lots of blankets in the winter.
Systems and services surrounding us are dependent on electricity and without power there are no grocery stores or pharmacies, no gas stations or hardware stores, no local doctors or dentists, no traffic lights, banks, basic communication, water, and everything else we assume will always be available.
Hospitals and doctors will be overrun; police and fire departments overwhelmed, and the continuing darkness of every night will bring lingering uncertainty and fears of what’s to come in the morning.
According to statistics gathered by the Department of Energy, major blackouts are on the upswing. Over the past two decades, blackouts impacting at least 50,000 customers in the U.S. have increased 124 percent, according to DOE data.
While customers in Japan lose power for an average 4 minutes per year, customers in the American upper Midwest lose power for an average 92 minutes per year, and customers in the upper Northwest lose power for an average 214 minutes per year. Those estimates exclude extreme events like severe storms and fires and those have been increasing over the past two decades.
The durations are still being measured in minutes and hours, but over time the trend can easily lead to days and weeks. Making matters worse is that the vulnerability of our grid is growing due to new and emerging threats.
The 7 Greatest Threats to the Grid
These aren’t ranked in order. Any of them could occur and all have in fact, happened in the past. Some would have worldwide impacts while others occur as highly targeted and intentional or unintentional events affecting a continent, country, or region.
China invented the cyberattack and Russia, North Korea, and Iran have also engaged in varying degrees of cyberattacks over the past decade. Some of these cyberattacks have been launched against various utilities around the world including the United States.
Some of these attacks were criminally motivated using ransomware to extort money. Others were in the category of military operations. Here are just a few of the most recent cyberattacks against utilities.
Colonial Pipeline – May 6, 2021
Colonial Pipeline is the largest fuel pipeline in the U.S. and the ransomware attack resulted in a $4.4 million ransom payment to a ransomware gang.
The FBI later helped to recover a significant portion of the ransom, but it was another sign of how vulnerable a utility can be to cyberattacks. The outage resulted in gasoline shortages, shutting down services, promoting panic-buying among motorists and escalated gas costs.
The attack happened because of an employee’s compromised password. It seems that the company may have missed out on multi-factor authentication, a basic cybersecurity tool, to protect itself.
OPEL and Electrobras – February 2021
The Brazilian-utility companies COPEL and Electrobras was attacked by seemingly the same ransomware gang that attacked Colonial Pipelines. The ‘DarkSide’extracted 1,000 gigs of data from COPEL’s systems, while unidentified ransomware struck Electrobras. Both electricity providers had to disconnect from the National Interconnected System which caused outages to many in the country.
Delta-Montrose Electric Association (DMEA) – January 2022
The Colorado energy company had to shut down 90% of its internal controls in January 2022 due to malicious cyberware that wiped 25 years of historical data. The energy company then needed to inform its customers about the multiple energy bills they might receive.
Amsterdam-Rotterdam-Antwerp (ARA)- February 2022
The ARA cyberattack occurred just a few months after a minor but similar attack on two German firms that led to the disruption of petrol supplies in northern parts of Germany. This time it had bigger implications and created a momentary continental energy crisis.
And it Won’t Stop
Every day our power grid is tested by foreign hackers attempting to infiltrate and find ways of taking control and cutting off power. The cutting edge of cyber-warfare continues to be China. Unfortunately, our defenses against cyberattacks continue to be weak. It is believed in fact at the highest levels of our intelligence community that China could shut down our power grid at any time.
2. Physical Attack
A physical attack involves the use of explosives or weapons to physically attack and destroy electric power generation equipment. What’s ominous is that so many substations and transformers are located in remote locations with little or no security other than a chain link fence. No personnel are near many of these locations and even something as basic as a security camera is often missing.
Proof of this vulnerability occurred on April 16th, 2013. Shortly before 1:30 a.m. one or more people methodically cut communication cables near a Pacific Gas & Electric substation in San Jose, sprayed more than 100 rifle bullets and knocked out 17 of the station’s 23 transformers before fleeing and avoiding capture.
The utility was able to prevent a power failure by diverting electricity from other areas, but the damage took 27 days to repair. The Federal Bureau of Investigation has been investigated the attack, but to this day says it has no suspects.
Transformers are the weak link in the grid. They cost millions of dollars and take months if not years to produce. As a result, utilities don’t have spares and damage to a sufficient number of transformers in key locations would take down the entire grid.
3. EMP (Electromagnetic Pulse)
EMP’s originate from outer space or as a result of a nuclear detonation. Cosmic EMP’s are rare but the nuclear threat is significant. A single nuclear detonation at high altitude over North America could not only shut down the entire grid but cause permanent damage to any unprotected electronics including… everything electronic.
That means computers, cell phones, TV’s, radio, vehicles, even appliances. To date, little or nothing on the public record has been done to protect the grid from an EMP.
4. Solar Flares
Solar flares erupt from the surface of the sun on a regular basis. There have been occasions when these eruptions have been so large that they result in a solar storm. It’s actually a common occurrence and often results in bright displays of the Aurora Borealis and also have an effect on radio transmissions.
Unfortunately, an extremely large solar flare could not only take down the grid but have the same destructive affect on electronics as an EMP. In actual fact they are closely related.
The worst solar storm on record occurred in 1859. At the time the only electronics affected were telegraph stations. It’s believed that if a similar storm happened today it would destroy the grids of those countries facing the sun and destroy unprotected electronics. It’s a little known fact that a near miss of a solar flare in 2012 could have had the same impact as the 1859 event.
5. Infrastructure Failure
It doesn’t take the drama of an attack or catastrophe to take down the grid. The age of the North American grid combined with the intermittent and often random repairs further compromise and complicate an antiquated system that could simply collapse in on itself.
All it takes is a massive failure at one utility to cause power sharing from other utilities to attempt to supply additional power. As the demands become greater a cascade or domino effect first predicted during the Y2K scare could cause the entire grid to crash, largely due to its continuously failing infrastructure.
6. Climate Change
There was no consideration of the effects of climate extremes when the grid was designed and has continued to expand. The standard assumption was that summers would be hot within a traditional range and the same would be true for winter.
- The idea of heat indexes of a hundred or more happening on a regular basis was not part of the design equation.
- A Polar Vortex was something that happened in the Arctic, and its occurrence at southern latitudes was considered a fluke rather than a common occurrence.
- Storms were always a problem for the grid, but the frequency and intensity of storms and hurricanes were also relegated to conventional norms rather than the extremes we’re now seeing.
- Flooding, landslides, and wildfires were also miscalculated before the realities of climate change made them both frequent and widespread.
The result is continuing and growing stress on an aging power system leading to brownouts, rolling blackouts and a continuing pattern of rapid repair rather than intelligent replacement and upgrades.
7. Geological Disasters (Earthquake, Volcanic Eruptions, Tsunamis)
On March 11th, 2011 an earthquake off the coast of Japan generated a tsunami that struck Japan’s east coast. The destruction was devastating and the failure of the Fukushima nuclear power plant not only revealed the vulnerability of power generation stations to disastrous events but continues to have impacts in Japan to this day.
Even without a tsunami compounding the impact of an earthquake, the damage from an earthquake alone can be devastating and far reaching. Weather typically affects power lines and substations, but an earthquake affects all components in the grid. Worse, the debris from landslides and collapsed buildings complicates any efforts to repair the grid while efforts are directed towards clearing the debris.
So far, disasters have had impacts that could be repaired in days if not weeks, although Fukushima may never fully recover. It’s the truly catastrophic disasters from super volcanic eruptions, mega-tsunamis, and category 9 earthquakes that could take down the grid for years if not longer.
Preparing for Total Grid Failure
Welcome to the 19th century. That will essentially be the lifestyle for everyone following a long-duration, national grid failure. Homesteading will be the new normal, and self-reliance the only solution in a society with few manufactured resources, no easily accessible drinking water, few food sources, rare medical care, and few options for communication.
Here are some priorities and preps, but the most critical consideration is sustainability. Stockpile all you want, but any stockpile will someday run out. A good and properly packaged supply of seeds and the knowledge of how to harvest seeds from future crops may give you a better chance in the long-term than a pantry full of canned foods. Here are the priorities.
You can’t live 3 days without water. Without the grid, water will become scarce, especially if you depend on a well pump. Even municipal water towers will soon run dry as the pumps that refill them sit idle without power. Here are some things to do and research to find, purify and store water:
- Water drums or the knowledge of how to improvise them from garbage cans or other containers. Rain water may be your most dependable source of found water and the ability to capture and contain it from your roof or tarps can not only give you drinking water but options for watering vegetables in gardens or pots, water for bathing, cooking and cleaning.
- Water purification filters or the knowledge of how to improvise them from cloth, sand, and charcoal. Natural water sources are notoriously polluted in some areas, and there is always the threat of bacteria and other pathogens in any natural water source.
- Water containers that will allow you to transport water, whether it’s walking across the street or just getting it from your water storage to your sink.
- Various hoses of varying sizes and simple valves. Hoses are the transportation system for water and if you need to funnel, direct, or channel water from one location to another you can do it best with a hose.
- A swimming pool of any size makes storing water easy especially for watering gardens or doing laundry or dishes.
- A galvanized metal wash tub is the best way to do laundry by hand or do the dishes.
- Knowledge of how to find, filter, purify and store water from a variety of sources. You can have all the equipment in the world but if you don’t where to look or what to do when you find it you’ll be a distinct disadvantage.
We mentioned it once. 90% of the U.S. population is projected to die during the first year of a national grid failure mostly due to starvation. Books have been written about food survival but we’ll try to highlight the basics here.
- Begin with a stockpile of enough food to last at least 3 months. This is your emergency food with the assumption that you will be able to supplement your diet with foods you forage, grow, hunt, or fish. Stockpile for longer if you’re so inclined but remember that all stockpiles run out. Do this for each person in your household.
- Seeds, seeds and more seeds. Much of your food will come from what you produce yourself. Turn every square foot of available soil into a garden. If you have a small yard, learn about succession planting, vertical gardening and companion planting. If you don’t have a yard, acquire and store pots and containers for gardening on patios, indoors or even on the roof. Learn about hydroponics. Have something growing that you can eat by every window and on every windowsill. Use your grey water to water your vegetables.
- Plant fruit trees. Plant them close to your house. It’s called defensive gardening. When you have a mature crop of fruits and vegetables in a time when people are starving you have to think about limiting opportunities for midnight raids on your yard and garden.
- Raise simple livestock if you can. Chickens, rabbits or a fish pond if you have a pond, lake or large swimming pool.
- Learn to wild forage. You don’t have to live in the wilderness to do this. Even cities offer wild foraging opportunities from dandelions to oak trees.
- Learn about food preservation techniques. It’s possible you’ll have more than you can eat. You’ll need to know how to preserve foods and do it without refrigeration. That’s a good reason to think about a good supply of canning jars and canning equipment including a pressure cooker for pressure food processing.
- Think about what you’ll need to cook your food in multiple cooking setups. Maybe your gas range still works, but it’s more likely you’ll be cooking over an open fire. Forget about gas grills. LP gas will be a thing of the past. Think about cooking grates, cast iron cookware, long handled utensils, solar ovens and any other items you’ll need to cook like a pioneer.
- Hunting and fishing is always an option but when everyone is hunting and fishing it may be slim pickins’.
In a time of great uncertainty, one thing is for certain: every day it gets dark at night. There are plenty of pioneer solutions and some 21st century solutions as well:
- Candles are the oldest version of off-grid light. Stock a lot of them. Buy them cheap. Think about candle lanterns to increase the light and make them a little safer. In a pinch you can make them from tin cans.
- Kerosene or lamps that use other oils. Don’t forget to get some extra wicks.
- Duel fuel gas lanterns give off a lot of light, but like kerosene or other oil lamps, you may run out of fuel at some point. Make sure the area is vented. They give off carbon monoxide.
- Solar lights from the Dollar Store or Walmart. Leave them outside or by a window during the day and you’ll have light all night. Better yet, they don’t give off any odors or gases.
- A solar power bank with a built in flashlight. You can use them to recharge a cell phone or other electronics and the flashlight will always have power if recharged.
- A solar battery recharger can give you battery power for a range of battery powered electronics.
- LED lights draw very little power and are the best when using batteries.
- Think solar. The sun will hopefully still be shining and solar power is free and easy if you have the solar panels to capture it. You’ll also need batteries either lead/acid batteries or some of the more advanced batteries like the Tesla battery for collecting and storing solar generated power. They can power a range of things including lights.
In times of disaster people are desperate to keep in touch. The internet may actually still be working, and cell phones may have intermittent connections but you can’t count on anything when the powers out. Here are some options to consider:
- Walkie talkies can work for short range communication.
- CB radios are still around and can work off a car battery (recharged with solar panels) or other battery power.
- Your cell phone may work so don’t give up if at first you don’t succeed.
- HAM radio is the go-to survival communication method. It’s an investment and you need a license but you’ll definitely be in touch. There are also handheld options.
- Old land lines may be one of the few functioning forms of electronics. Don’t throw away that old, wired phone and maybe buy a spare (they’re cheap on Amazon) and store it away.
- The wires and hookups you need to connect a computer to an old land line. If the old land lines are working you may be able to access the Internet although connection and download speeds will be very slow. Then again, some things may still work after the grid is down.
- A TV antenna in case you want to see if there are any TV transmissions. Antennas using something called “mud flap” technology developed by the military are a good bet.
- A solar powered/hand-cranked radio. It’s quite possible that radio transmissions will eventually return and it’s the easiest way to find out what’s going on.
- Remember to think about how you may need to power some of these communication devices and have some off-grid options like solar power banks or hand crank generators.
Most of us have varying degrees of winter weather. With climate change the severity of winter weather may get worse. Without power most traditional heating options won’t work.
You need to consider some pioneer methods for heating. One of their approaches was to use multiple off-grid heat sources in the hopes that the combination would compensate for the poor performance of any one heating option.
- A wood burning stove is a standard recommendation but that assumes you have a good supply of firewood available. And here again, when everyone is burning wood for heat the supply may be thin.
- Pellet stoves are another option but you have to buy the pellets and have them in storage. On average, one 40 pound bag of pellets can keep a pellet stove going for 1 to 2 days in winter. That won’t be sustainable over a long period of time. Make sure you get a gravity feed, non-electric pellet stove.
- Solar tiles that capture sunlight through a window during the day and release the heat at night can help but just by a few degrees.
- Propane and natural gas stoves are another option. There’s a possibility that natural gas will still work in spite of a power outage because the pressure of the gas delivers it through the gas lines. How long that may continue is impossible to determine. As far as liquid propane you’ll have to have a lot in storage because any propane for sale will be gone soon.
- Insulation especially around doors and windows is another step towards keeping the heat in and the cold out.
- Plenty of blankets, quilts and winter clothing makes sense. So does sleeping in groups so it’s time to get the kids back into your bed.
Air conditioners are power hogs and when the grid is down the days of air conditioning are gone. There are numerous solutions to keeping cool and some go past the pioneers to ancient times and cultures. Here again, multiple approaches in combination help to keep you and your home cool.
- Light blocking drapes, shades, blinds or any other way to block sunlight from entering the home in the afternoon is a good first step.
- Light clothing made from cotton or silk make sense.
- Ancient techniques that encourage air circulation from the ground up are worth trying. The idea is to draw cooler air at ground level in through vents and allow vents towards the ceiling to draw the hot air out.
- Battery powered or solar powered fans make sense. Any breeze on a hot day helps.
- A swimming pool or just a cold shower or a dip in a lake can help. A swimming pool also makes for an excellent water storage option.
- Electrolyte powders that you add to water will give you an extra step towards effective hydration.
- Live in the basement if you have one. The ground acts as a natural insulator and the basement is always the coolest location in the house in summer.
- Stay indoors when the heat index is high. People who live in tropical latitudes basically hunker down indoors in the afternoon. Save outdoor activities for early morning or evening hours.
There’s quite a bit written about survival medicine. At times you may be totally on your own when it comes to dealing with any medical condition. Here are some thought starters:
- An expedition level first aid kit. They cost a lot but it’s a pretty good bet they’ll have everything you might need for any medical emergency.
- Specialized first aids kits with the equipment to treat eye injuries, simple sutures, burns or any condition unique to your family.
- A survival medicine chest with OTC medicines and medications for a range of ailments and don’t forget children’s dosages.
- A medical knowledge bank of selected books for treating a range of conditions and injuries.
- Take the time to learn some first aid skills either by doing your own research or even taking classes at a community college or through your local fire department.
An unfortunate reality. Desperate times can bring out the worst in people so you may need to prepare your home for the worst. The steps you take to defend your home and family depend a lot on where you live (city/suburb/rural/wilderness), and your level of concern. And it’s not just about firearms:
And that’s Just a Short List
A life without electricity will continue to bring new challenges. Hopefully, some degree of power will return and the grid will begin to function again. Until then, it’s worth thinking about other preparations someone would want to make if faced with a new and sudden 19th century lifestyle.
- A generator powered by natural gas may still work even when the power it out. Generators that run on gasoline will be at the mercy of the local gasoline supply but natural gas runs through pipes on its own pressure so it’s worth looking into.
- Home schooling supplies, equipment and knowledge. It’s going to be a while before kids return to school and as life returns to some degree of normalcy, some people will want to continue to school their children while waiting for a school system to re-emerge.
- Pioneer skills that go beyond cooking to basic construction techniques, timber-frame construction, upcycling found materials, basic and advanced repairs, furniture making, quilting and sewing and the list goes on.
- Bushcraft skills that will allow you to improvise solutions when the wilderness comes to the city and suburbs. This includes improvising outbuildings, crafting everyday items from natural and found materials, building pioneer fences, and anything else that you’ll have to now make because you can’t buy it.
- Collect, store and learn about hand powered tools. Without electricity you’ll be doing a lot of things the old-fashioned way. You could also take a battery powered tool approach assuming you have the solar capability to recharge the batteries, but powered tools only last for years. Hand tools last for centuries.
- Barter skills and the ability to craft and create items for barter. Without electric power commerce will radically change. If you think there’s a coin shortage now there will be a total currency shortage if the grid is down and forget about debit and credit cards. A barter economy will quickly become the new currency for the purchase and trade of many everyday items.
How Long Could This Last?
According to a report from the Congressional EMP Commission, a nationwide blackout of the electric power grid and grid-dependent critical infrastructures – i.e., communications, transportation, sanitation, food, and water supply – could last a year or longer.
That assumes that a rogue nation does not take advantage of the crippling effects of a grid failure and make things worse. Then again, it may have been that same rogue nation that caused the collapse in the first place.