A Few Attacks Could Knock Out U.S. Grid

A few well-coordinated attacks could knock out the U.S. electrical grid, according to a news report.

Nine, to be precise.

Strikes against just nine key substations during a period of peak usage would be enough to leave the country dark for weeks or possibly months, according to an article by Rebecca Smith of The Wall Street Journal. That’s based on a previously unreported study by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).

Out of a network of some 55,000 substations, the electrical grid relies on 30 key high-voltage substations to move power around the country, according to the report. Using software to simulate what would happen if critical substations faltered in each of the Eastern, Western and Texas regions, the commission “found that different sets of nine big substations produced similar results,” it stated.

The idea of attacking the country’s electrical infrastructure isn’t so far-fetched.

Last year in Silicon Valley, a gunman or gunmen reportedly fired 150 rounds from an assault rifle for over 20 minutes at a Pacific Gas and Electric Co. substation south of San Jose, Calif., knocking out 17 transformers, according to a report by CNN. The saboteur or saboteurs of the April 16, 2013, attack, who also reportedly cut a fiber-optic telephone cable, remain at large.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation deemed the shooting an act of vandalism, not terrorism.

Nevertheless, the incident has prompted calls from lawmakers and officials — including former FERC chairman Jon Wellinghoff — to better protect the nation’s grid. Until Congress authorizes an agency to require large-scale infrastructure changes, Wellinghoff is urging utilities to adopt improvements such as replacing fencing with solid or concrete barriers, and adding more lighting and recording devices to the perimeter, the network reported.

The industry is expected to propose new standards for protecting substations and property by June in response to an order from the commission, according to the Wall Street Journal.

About the Author

Brendan McGarry
Brendan McGarry is the managing editor of Military.com. He can be reached at brendan.mcgarry@military.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Brendan_McGarry.
  • blight_

    And you don’t even need to target a whole country to trigger the next Executive Order 9066.

    Just take out California’s power, especially during wildfire season. The disruption would be considerable.

    • Anonymous

      Who needs an executive order - look what they did to New Orleans. Private military contractors confiscating people’s weapons.

    • Hunter76

      Why would disruption during wildfire season be especially bad? Fires aren’t fought with electricity. First responders have generators at their fixed locations.

      • blight_

        It’s California. We panic at everything.

        Luckily it didn’t actually cause an outage, due to the larger power grid being unaffected by small scale attacks.

        At the end of the day, the power infrastructure is pretty robust, and it takes truly cataclysmic events to cause problems. Summer is always good for this kind of thing (which ironically, is also wildfire season). Have not had rolling blackouts in California during the cooler seasons…yet.

  • hibeam

    We will get power grid security the same way we got air travel security. After a disaster occurs not before. That’s how we roll in America. We already have given the country away to Mexico because we refuse to put a border in place. We are now North Mexico.

    • ronaldo

      Si senor !

    • http://twitter.com/AKilbo @AKilbo

      More like South Canada.

      Zing! I think?

  • DougieR

    There’s been some really weird stuff going on in recent weeks. From economic data (China), to Ukraine, to power grid vulnerability articles (this is now the 9th I’ve read), to the Malaysia airlines flight that’s taking a week to find, etc. It feels like things are being manipulated, and more so than usual. Anyone else getting that feeling?

    I come here when I need to stop reading Zerohedge. Come on Defensetech you’re not helping!!!

  • SFCPappy

    I was going to state some good facts. But the fact of the matter is that no one inside the Beltway could care less.

    • Musson

      The lights in the Capital building were knocked out yesterday because of the Wind.

  • Lance

    I got a weapon that CAN do it…a EMP which Iran China and North Korea can make in days. Russia has them too.

    • Mystick

      Small scale EMP weapons do not require a nuclear trigger. The effects can even be directed.

    • tiger

      Could you drop the scifi crap & deal in real threats?

  • SJE

    Even without terrorism, the grid has serious problems: aging infrastructure, aging experts, and no incentive to make it more robust.

    • notmyname

      Perhaps some more lawsuits against power lines from the Sierra Club can speed things up.

    • orly?

      Some people have been saying “invest in infrastructure” for awhile now.

      Sad most keep forgetting these things.

      • hibeam

        The jobs were not shovel ready. The money is still all gone. Go figure.

        • tiger

          You would spend it all on A-10’s…..

      • JamcaicanMeAfraid

        The only infrastructure put on the table has been roads, bridges and high (not that high actually) speed trains to no where. The administration can not broach this subject, to do so would involve having to discuss gas, oil, coal that are used to produce electricity. That would anger the climate change, global warming (what ever name they decide to use this day) proponents who have some heavy money that the administration needs for their candidates.

    • Guest

      The only upgrades pending will be to smartgrid so they can reward or punish you with access to power. As noted above there are several strings being pulled right now, rushing things along…

      • SJE

        The smart grid is a good idea as it gives explicit signals to providers, consumers, and the transmitters. It should have been tried in one or two cities, but it was caught up in politics.

        • SJE

          Washington DC can’t even get reliable power because of fights with PEPCO. Burying the lines is expensive, but reliability and security are also very valuable.

  • jeff

    Misleading title there. It implies that it wpuld be difficult to knock put yhe grid.

    • Brendan McGarry

      That was unintentional. We’ve updated it. Thx for the heads up.

  • jeff

    Oops. My fat fingers can’t type on this phone.

  • Stephen Russell

    Good, no precise locales given but now to beef up substations & change policies & OK armed units nationwide.
    Screen guests, vendors & employees to plants alone.
    Oversee repairs made & when due

    More can be done & cheaply but effectivley

  • https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100002022238468 Raymond Smith

    The dangers are real all who have ever worked in the energy area know this. Our power grid was not built with the idea of having to be protected from deliberate sabotage.

    • EW3

      All the more reason to stop giving asylum to people from the hell holes of the world.
      Immigration reform is necessary but not in the way the beltway bozos have in mind.

    • Mitsey

      Sad but true. There are those that would like nothing better than to see American’s doing without the comforts we are accustomed to having.

  • Hunter76

    We have already had widespread outages due to small random failures. They were studied and the problem is well known, the grid needs to become smarter. This is a topic for experts, not hystericals.

    • Mitsey

      Well stated. It is so dreadfully apparent that if a faction or group wanted to take down the electrical grid, it is not all that difficult. My grandfather served in the Army for thirty years and he stated numerous times how America would probably be attacked…it was through our lack of security at airports. Unfortunately, he was right. It is virtually impossible to protect everything we consider vital to our way of life. As individuals we can prepare for disasters. The experts in security have a huge task in accomplishing better ways to protect our great nation.

      • orly?

        “Experts” in security.

        Not many of them around unfortunately.

        Even so, no one would believe their “unnecessary” restrictions.

  • hibeam

    The same people who make life miserable for anyone on the globe who is getting on an airplane are also busy looking into how to take down the electric grids in the civilized world. I know where they all live in North Waziristan in case anyone is interested in simply pounding them all into a red whiskery dust and living normal lives again. Its sad what a bunch of wimps we have become.

    • tiger

      All? Sigh…. No lessons learned in 12 years I see.

  • david

    But Obama and his liberal stooges care more about continuing the lies about global warming than fixed the grid. Idiots.

    • RWB123

      Yeah. Big problem though - those idiots do not own, control or manage the US power grid. So exactly why and how are those ‘idiots’ supposed to fix the grid?

  • dob bole

    Throw some armor plate around the things and call it day.

    • Mitsey

      Can anyone give me guidance on how to find records of my deceased father’s tenure in the Marines? He was in the Korean War - Chosin March. (he served 01/29/47 - 01/28/50 AND 01/22/51 - 01/14/52).

  • SFCPappy

    Remember when ONE squirrel took out the northeast power grid. Just get the terrorists to recruit a bunch of suicide squirrels. …

  • femtobeam

    They do not need to take down the grid. They can just reroute the power to another state, like Enron did to California, remember? It’s a software hack, like Stuxnet.

  • hibeam

    How about Obama’s network of flaming oil delivery trains? Could those be attacked?

  • anthony bauwens

    We have Homeland Security ,agencies we dont even know of but we can handleit if they tried getting in our harms way in own country.

    • orly?

      Seems a few Americans would rather kill DHS agents rather than believe in them.

  • Mitsey

    Decesed and former President Reagan should have approved cloning - just think - if he had been cloned and was still president - we would still be a nation with a fearless leader - AND a nation that others would fear and/or respect.

    • oblat3

      Bush was as close to a drooling regan clone as you could get while still maintaining the ban on stem cell research

    • SJE

      How about an army of Reagans, working on our power grid.

    • don r

      Huh? We want a President with alzheimers to lead us? Real smart idea!

  • Rob

    Other countries just as easy to take out but we have generators, HomeDepots with more and even an automobile creates electricity.

    Improve the system if possible. Secure it better if not…

  • Rest

    based on WSJ? Forget it. Not worth the time.