The Grid and Sandy

Frequently, when there is a discussion of grid resilience, reliability and the smart grid, Superstorm Sandy is used as the metaphor for what’s wrong with the grid.

Here is an introductory paragraph from an article on the smart grid from the magazine IntelligentUtility:

“Resilient distribution systems is what’s on my mind these days, … pointing to extreme weather events like Superstorm Sandy a few years ago and the growing national priority to bring back the grid faster when these events occur.”

Severe weather, such as Superstorm Sandy, can affect millions, but the following threats can affect all of the United States.

  • Cyber attack
  • EMP
  • Carrington event

These three threats receive less media attention, and less attention from the government, but are the threats that could literally lead to the destruction of the United States.

Cyber attack

As utilities increasingly use digital controllers and systems linked to the grid, adversaries are better able to commandeer or interrupt critical systems.

The 1965 blackout in the Northeastern United States was caused by the failure of a single relay.

The failure of a single relay affected 30 million people in eight states and the province of Ontario, Canada. Entering my driveway shortly after five in the evening, the lights in the house went dim, then very bright, and then completely out. They remained out for the next twelve hours. Battery powered radios were the only means for determining what had happened.

Today, thousands of relays and systems are digital, and controlled using the Internet or similar digital networks. Control rooms for transmission lines and power plants uniformly use digital controls and systems.

If a single relay could cause the Northeast blackout, what would it take using cyber warfare to shutdown all three grids in the United States?


Electric Magnetic Pulse (EMP) can be caused by a nuclear explosion high above the United States. It has been called the most significant military threat to the United States.

It would end civilization as we know it.

The Congressional EMP report concluded that, “Up to 90% of the U.S. population could possibly perish from starvation, disease and societal breakdown.”

Russia, which had designed such a weapon to be placed into orbit during the cold war, China, North Korea and, potentially Iran, have all the technology needed to execute an EMP attack against the United States.

Potential Effect of EMP from Congressional Report
Potential Effect of EMP from Congressional Report


As reported in the Wall Street Journal:

“The neglected 2004 and 2008 reports by the congressional EMP Commission warn that terrorists or state actors that possess relatively unsophisticated missiles armed with nuclear weapons may well calculate that, instead of destroying a city or a military base, they may gain the greatest political-military utility from one or a few such weapons by using them—or threatening their use—in an EMP attack.”

The cost, according to the 2008 Congressional EMP Commission, to protect the grid from an EMP attack would be approximately $2 billion.

The total cost would be much greater if all computer systems, such as at the stock exchange, banks, hospitals, etc., as well as communication systems were also protected.

Protection would also likely be needed wherever there were electronic components, such as in automobiles.

The effect of an EMP attack would be much broader than merely crippling the grid.

Carrington event

The largest known geomagnetic sunspot storm occurred in 1859, and is referred to as the Carrington event.

The Carrington event is significant because the only lines carrying electricity in 1859 were telegraph lines. The 1859 storm was also three times more powerful than the most severe geomagnetic storm of the past thirty years.

Today, high voltage power lines stretch across the United States and Europe.

The recent 1989 geomagnetic storm was only one-third the size of the Carrington event, yet it caused a grid in Canada to fail. Ground induced currents (GICs) overloaded the grid, causing severe voltage regulation problems and intense internal heating in extra-high-voltage (EHV) transformers.

There are 300 EHV transformers across the Northern United States and Southern Canada where GICs could cause them to fail.

These 300 EHV transformers need to be protected to prevent against a future Carrington event, otherwise a future super-sunspot storm could cut off electricity to everyone in the Northern part of the United States and Southern Canada, from Seattle to Boston, placing over 200 million people at risk of starvation and civil disorder. It would undoubtedly affect everyone in the United States and Canada as distraught and starving people fled to the Southern states.

A super-sunspot storm would make Superstorm Sandy look like a walk in the park.

Spending $2 billion to provide some protection against an EMP attack would also protect against a Carrington event.

Some additional funds would be needed to protect the grid from a terrorist attack, such as the attack against the substation in Metcalf, California in 2013.

What are our priorities?

After Superstorm Sandy, there was a public outcry to put all electric utilities underground.

The cost of putting all distribution lines underground could be as much as $2.4 trillion, or a 1,000 times more than what it would cost to protect the grid against an EMP attack or a Carrington event. See Should Overhead Lines be Underground?

Spending $2.4 trillion to put distribution lines underground would provide only modest protection against severe weather events, as flooding could still cause outages. And, unless transmission lines were also put underground at an even greater cost, transmission lines could still be felled during a storm, cutting off electricity to large areas.

While we can hope that an EMP attack will never occur, or that a Carrington event might never happen again, spending $2 billion would be a sound investment when weighed against the potential consequences … which would be the destruction of the United States.

Shouldn’t the government be focused on these three nation-killer issues, rather than on global warming and climate change where a huge expenditure of money will only, according to EPA administrator Gina McCarthy, reduce temperatures by one-one-hundredth of a degree C? A reduction that is meaningless.

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