Electricity is the trusted flow of power that keeps modern society moving. Beyond lighting our homes and businesses, electricity powers our heating and cooling, the pumps that treat our water supplies, the refrigeration that stores and preserves our food, and the media and telecommunications that keep the economy and society rolling forward. This makes threats to the power grid a real and present danger.

Electricity is so fundamental to our day-to-day life we usually take for granted how prevalent its presence is. Hospitals depend upon electricity for life saving and preserving medical care. Although oil and gas feature prominently in our news and geopolitics, we could not pump gas into our vehicles at the local gas stations without electricity.

threats to the power grid

A Global Threat 

Despite the prevalence and dependence of electricity in modern human society, around the world, power grids are facing new threats to this energy source that powers everyday life. The nature of these threats varies, but the risks are the same. Complex societies cannot survive long without electricity. When the power fails, civilization itself can quickly begin to crumble.

Russia has targeted the power grid in Ukraine since last summer. As of the beginning of February 2023, thanks to Russian strikes on the country’s power grid, Ukraine was meeting around 75% of regular customer demand, but that achievement is increasingly strained.

A total grid failure in Ukraine would not only change the state of the war but could change the state of all of Europe. The collapse of the power grid in Ukraine under the ceaseless pounding of Russian strikes would produce a massive surge in refugees, paralyze the Ukrainian military, and unleash enormous risks throughout the country that depends upon electricity to manage and control its nuclear power plants.

Ukraine power grid

Thomas Popik, President for the Foundation for Resilient Societies,  in a recent report in Foreign Affairs,summarized the state of affairs in the event of a complete collapse of Ukraine’s power grid:

A complete electric grid collapse would likely kill a significant proportion of Ukraine’s population. Batteries for communication networks would run down. Government services would cease. Many of Ukraine’s citizens would attempt to evacuate, but when the electrically powered pumps at gas stations stopped functioning, motorists would not be able to refuel. Roads would soon become clogged with stalled vehicles. Some people would strike out on foot, but others would be left behind with dwindling supplies of food and water. Within weeks, famine would probably sweep the country. Without clean water from treatment plants, epidemics could flare.

We have already seen a surge in world food prices and even a food crisis as exports of Ukrainian harvest drastically slowed with the onset of the war. These supplies would completely stop once the power stopped, driving the rest of the world into much more profound levels of crisis.

Last week, South Africa’s president Cyril Ramaphosa declared a “state of disaster” over the country’s crippling power shortages. Delayed construction in coal-fired power plants, corruption in coal contracts, and criminal sabotage have led to widespread rolling blackouts impacting every facet of South African society. These blackouts have become so severe they are expected to reduce economic growth to 0.3% this year. Poverty, unemployment, and electricity are deemed the three most significant problems facing the country. The problem has been 15 years in the making, but the past year has seen the situation worsen. South Africans faced electricity cuts for 288 days last year, at some points extending for up to 15 hours a day.

Threats to America’s Power Grid

But the US is not exempt from this threat. Recent trends show the US power grid is particularly vulnerable. Critics have long warned of the fragility and failing standards of the US power grid. It is a system whose age and vulnerability have long past needs for upgrading but to little avail. In the early years of the war on terror, many feared terrorists would strike at the American power grid. Since 2010, Russian cyberattacks against the power grid have become a new leading threat. But today, the most significant risk posed to the US power grid is not dysfunction brought on by decades of wear and tear or from foreign enemies. Domestic threats are the new enemy number one facing the nation’s frail power grid.

threats to US power grid

The past few years have seen a surge in attacks on the power grid from vandals, criminals, and extremists. These episodes surged in 2021 and 2022.

In North Carolina, one attack in 2022 knocked out power for 45,000 people. On Christmas day, 14,000 people lost power in Washington following an attack on a power station.

The Office of Cybersecurity, Energy Security, and Emergency Response provides an annual accounting of total electric emergency incidents and disturbances currently made available to the public. The reasons for these incidents range from weather, supply issues, sabotage, and suspicious activity. While the impact of these events varies, we compiled the following data/graphic to note the number of annual incidents recorded that resulted only from sabotage, attacks, cyber events, and suspicious activity. Weather, mechanical, and supply-related issues are not included here. The number of direct physical attacks on the power grid alone rose 77% in 2022.

growing trend of threats to US power grid
The number of annual incidents recorded that resulted only from sabotage, attacks, cyber events, and suspicious activity. Weather, mechanical, and supply-related issues are not included here.

Increasingly, domestic terrorists and extremists are drawn to these types of attacks on the nation’s power grid. In February 2022, three white supremacists pleaded guilty to a plot to shut down part of the nation’s power system to sow unrest and cause a “race war.” In 2021, four neo-Nazis in North Carolina were charged with a similar conspiracy.

Following another attack on North Carolina substations in January 2023, lawmakers began calling for more significant measures to combat the threat, including 24-hour security. In the last third of 2022, the US saw attacks or potential attacks on substations in Florida, North Carolina, Oregon, South Carolina, and Washington. Federal officials and security analysts warned of “credible, specific plans” by violent domestic groups to attack the country’s power grid. According to a report in Time Magazine, these violent conspiracies focused on targeting and destroying energy infrastructure have risen among the top discussions and themes on extremist social medial platforms.

America’s power grid spans more than 7,300 power plants, 55,000 transmission substations, and 160,000 miles of high-voltage power lines. Electric grids are large and complex machines. Large transformers often represent the most significant vulnerability. By design, they must exist in open spaces for the free circulation of air for cooling.

Some of the most notorious attacks on the power grid in recent months have focused on substations. A report from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in 2014 found that the US could experience a blackout across the country for weeks or even months if saboteurs simultaneously targeted just nine of the 55,000 substations. Such a strike could threaten collapse to the entire grid.

It is not difficult to imagine the terrible impact an attack on the power grid would take on our polarized society. Countless end of the world and dystopian novels and television shows utilize such scenarios for their plots. Domestic extremists appear to be tapping into that threat.

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JB Shreve is the author of "How the World Ends: Understanding the Growing Chaos." He has been the host of the End of History podcast since 2012. He has degrees in International Relations and Middle East Studies. His other books include the Intelligence Brief Series. Regular posts and updates from JB Shreve are available at www.theendofhistory.net