The Electric Grid: Civilization’s Achilles Heel?

Solar flares have proven destructive effects on transmission grids, but there are many other “black swan events” that threaten modern civilization. Experts disagree about which protective steps should be taken today.

In October 2011, a group of two dozen energy graybeards—veterans of energy policy discussions in the U.S. over the past 40 years or so—assembled in Oak Ridge, Tenn., to think about what, to some, might be unthinkable. For two days, the group looked at the kinds of unanticipated events that have brought down civilizations. They called these disturbing events “the Achilles Heels of Civilization.”

Traditionally, we have thought of these events in Biblical terms, as the white, red, black, and pale horses of the apocalypse: famine, pestilence, war, and death. A more modern metaphor comes from the Lebanese-American scholar Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his 2007 book Black Swans. In that book, he defines a black swan event: “First, it is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Second, it carries an extreme impact. Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable.”

Identify the Many Threats

The Oak Ridge group had assembled at the behest of the U.S. government’s National Intelligence Council (see sidebar), the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and the University of Tennessee in nearby Knoxville. In an interview, Alvin J. Sanders of the University of Tennessee, one of the principals in the Achilles Heels group, told POWER, “We were hunting Black Swans.” Civilization-threatening events, he said, “are difficult to identify, but we know there are only a few, maybe a dozen. Otherwise, civilizations would fall far more rapidly than we know they do.”

In an unpublished paper he provided, Sanders writes, “Every past civilization has been brought down by some event or combination of events. Great powers typically endure only two or three centuries. It is only realistic to assume that the United States is no exception. It is even possible that forces have already been set in motion which could devolve into a scenario that would at least terminate our status as a great power and perhaps lead to a far worse fate.”

Some of these rara avis outliers are familiar, even obvious. Natural disasters lead the list: widespread droughts, earthquakes, tsunamis, infections that kill millions, nuclear war. Others may come to mind less easily. Sanders cites a slow but highly sulfurous volcanic eruption in Iceland in 1783–1784 that “caused widespread crop failures and mortality spikes in Europe although it lasted only eight months, and two much shorter eruptions in 2010 [that] brought air travel to a halt in northern Europe.”

When the Oak Ridge energy gurus looked at modern American life, they saw an unexpected weak spot in our civilization, an Achilles heel that is so ordinary we largely take it for granted. Dr. Ben McConnell, a retired Oak Ridge lab scientist, now a research scientist at the University of Tennessee, where he studies transformers and switchgear, was a participant in the Achilles Heel project. He told a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) technical conference last May that the U.S. electric transmission and distribution grid offers a clear path to destruction of our way of life. When the Oak Ridge boffins looked at the U.S., McConnell said, they found that grid collapse “came out to be the most serious problem that would have to be considered in the shortest time frame.”

Outside of the electricity industry, few fully understand the centrality of the grid to life in America today. The most graphic realizations occur when the grid goes down. It’s not just a matter of light and comfort in our homes. Without electricity, citizens may have no access to potable water, sewage treatment, safe food, fuel supplies, traffic control, or health care.

A large swath of the U.S. got a taste of what happens when the grid goes down at the end of June, when a heat wave led to a “super derecho” that blacked out millions of electric customers over a 10-state swath from Illinois to the Atlantic and killed at least 20 people. The outage began June 29 and lasted past the U.S. Independence Day holiday for hundreds of thousands. By July 5, FirstEnergy was estimating that 250,000 customers (probably some 500,000 people) in just its West Virginia service territory were still without electricity (Figure 1).

1. Storm damage repairs. Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) linemen begin to repair damage to a high-voltage transmission tower caused by a recent storm. Courtesy: TVA

As meteorologist Kristina Pydynowski explains, a derecho is “a widespread and long-lived wind storm that accompanies rapidly moving showers or thunderstorms. The most severe derechos are given the adjective ‘super.’ ” Winds measured 91 mph in eastern Illinois on Friday afternoon, June 29, and 81 mph on the southern New Jersey coast early Saturday morning as the derecho screamed across the country.

Unlike typical summer thunderstorms that take down distribution lines and local transformers, the super derecho clobbered high-voltage lines and major substations. The windstorm took down 50 major transmission lines and more than 70 substations in Ohio and West Virginia. In the Washington, D.C., area, the derecho shorted out the substation serving the water treatment facilities of the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, depriving much of the area of drinking water for more than a day. Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell proclaimed the event the worst non-hurricane outage in the Old Dominion’s history.

Not only is the electrical grid central to modern life, but the grid also has multiple vulnerabilities that make keeping it safe a very difficult task. Weather outages are common, although some, such as an ice storm, can do enormous damage. A January 1998 ice storm destroyed much of Hydro-Québec’s massive 765-kV transmission system, blacking out more than 3 million Canadians, causing 30 fatalities, and leaving many customers in the dark for weeks. Tropical storms, such as 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, can also cause long-term and widespread destruction.

Human error can also take down the grid in a hurry, as was the case with the massive August 2003 blackout that turned off power for 55 million people in the Northeast, Midwest, and Canada. According to the official inquiry, the prime mover in that event was a series of errors by operators and managers at Ohio-based FirstEnergy (FE). The DOE report on that event concluded that the utility and the reliability region staff “failed to assess and understand the inadequacies of FE’s system, particularly with respect to voltage instability and the vulnerability of the Cleveland-Akron area, and FE did not operate its system with appropriate voltage criteria and remedial measures.”

The 2003 blackout also highlighted another chilling aspect of grid failure: the propensity of the system to suffer from a cascading failure. Because of the grid’s interconnectedness, grid failures can spread quickly, concatenating across the system. This same effect occurred during the 1965 blackout that slammed most of the eastern U.S., an event that began with a simple hardware failure in Canada.

Human Interference

In addition to human error, the electric grid is also quite vulnerable to intentional human intervention, from a mad person with a charge of dynamite at a crucial transmission tower to a surreptitious cyber-attack such as the U.S. and Israel created with the Stuxnet virus, to a deliberate state-ordered explosion of a nuclear weapon to create an electrical and magnetic pulse that brings down the grid. Following the late-June Mid-Atlantic super derecho, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich tweeted that the event was a “mild taste of what an EMP (electro-magnetic pulse) attack would do.”

Cyber attacks have gained the most attention recently, partly as a result of publicity arising from the Stuxnet attack on Iran’s nuclear program. As the grid becomes more complex, sophisticated, and computer-assisted—“smart” if you will—it becomes more vulnerable to code hacking. Recent POWER articles (see the archives at discuss the growing areas of cyber vulnerabilities (“Guidance on Cybersecurity for the Electricity Sector,” June 2012) and threats to utility supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems (see “Ensuring the Cybersecurity of Plant Industrial Control Systems,” June 2012).

But there also is a positive side to the increasing interconnectivity and intelligence in the grid. Identifying specific outages, down to the individual meter, becomes easier, as does measuring success in restoring connections. Discovery News, the online magazine that is a companion to television’s Discovery Channel, reported in July, “In the outage this weekend in the Mid-Atlantic states, smart meters provided power companies data about which houses are out without owners having to call in. Many of these wireless smart meters have been installed in just the past few months.” The story continued by quoting Matt Wakefield, senior program manager of smart grid systems for the Electric Power Research Institute: “They won’t prevent an outage, but they might allow you to restore things more quickly.”

The North American electrical grid also faces threats from space (though not from aliens). The problem is the sun (Figure 2). As a new period of solar flare activity begins a predicted 11-year cycle, the grid could face increasing disruption caused by a deluge of geomagnetic particles and pulses in the next couple of years. A 1989 solar storm caused a major Ontario blackout and damaged large transformers as far south as New Jersey. Far larger solar storms have hit Earth in the past, before development of the electric power grid, including the legendary Carrington event of 1859. That solar storm severely damaged England’s telegraph system. Had the Carrington storm struck 150 years later, it could have led to enormous electric outages for scores of millions of people lasting many months, according to the experts (see “The Great Solar Storm of 2012?” in the February 2011 issue).

2. Solar flares. Over a four-hour period on Nov. 16, 2012, two prominence eruptions occurred. The action was captured in the 304 Angstrom wavelength of extreme ultraviolet light. Similar solar eruptions have caused transmission system disruptions. Source: NASA

Threat Disputed

A recent FERC technical conference revealed a rift between federal regulators and the North American Electric Reliability Corp. (NERC), which reports to FERC on reliability issues, over the threat of geomagnetic disturbances from increased solar flares. Whereas most assessments have found that geomagnetic damage is potentially catastrophic, NERC in a report early this year downplayed the issue. NERC said it “recognizes that other studies have indicated a severe [geomagnetic disturbance] event would result in the failure of a large number of [extra high voltage] transformers” but added that the work of its own task force “does not support this result.” The NERC study said that the transformer problem is more likely in older transformers and clearly implied that a voltage collapse would take the grid down before transformers would be damaged by the induced currents.

The NERC report, because it challenges the mainstream, consensus view of the threat of solar storms, caused considerable head-scratching at FERC. “We read the latest NERC report,” a FERC staff person reportedly said, “and our reaction was, ‘What the heck is going on here.’ It was very surprising.” FERC’s consternation led to the April 30, 2012, technical conference. A webcast of that conference is archived at

McConnell, who has been studying the issue for decades, said in an interview that NERC’s analysis is flawed. “NERC needs to do more homework,” he said. “They don’t understand the problems facing the transformers. The transformer manufacturers are sweating blood over this and backup systems put the running costs of the system over the roof.”

Peter Pry, a former CIA analyst and congressional staffer who worked on a congressionally mandated Electromagnetic Pulse Commission, told the FERC meeting that he believes NERC is low-balling the potential impact of solar storms on the grid because of the financial consequences for the electricity industry. In an interview before the FERC meeting, Pry told POWER, “This is not honest disagreement. It’s not a legitimate disagreement among scientists. It is an industry attempt to cover up.”

McConnell stunned the FERC commissioners at the technical conference when he described the civilization-threatening reach of a massive grid failure. His suggestion for the best ways to cope with a grid collapse was equally stunning. “One of the best ways to protect the grid,” he said, “is to go into islanding mode,” the deliberate disconnection of sections of the grid to prevent cascading. The idea is heretical, as it requires abandoning economic dispatch for at least some period of grid operation.

FERC Commissioner Cheryl LaFleur was astonished at McConnell’s suggestion. As a former acting CEO of National Grid USA, LaFleur is the commission’s transmission and distribution guru. “The question is whether inductive power released by a geomagnetic event will prevail over the reactive power that will cause the system to break apart,” she said. “I’m struck by Dr. McConnell’s comment” that the best way to survive would be the “go back to more local geographic operation. That’s the exact opposite of the direction the electric industry has gone in the last 20 years. A lot of what we do at this commission is to interest people to think bigger and think across regions and do more transmission.”

McConnell nodded sagely. “It might not be economic and we might all pay 100% more per kilowatt-hour during two or three days,” he said. “But the heck with it. That’s the way it ought to go to save the system. Because if we go down, if even a third of the grid is out, a 10th of the transformers in the base load structure went down, we would be in a world of hurt.”

Kennedy Maize is a POWER contributing editor and executive editor of MANAGING POWER.