What Happens if the American Power Grid Goes Down?

What Happens if the American Power Grid Goes Down?

If the American Power Grid went down, it would impact practically every sector of society. It’s not just your lights going out with no way to charge your phone. Industries like healthcare, banking, and transportation would grind to a sudden halt.

If the American Power Grid went down, the country could expect to experience economic losses, national security risks, threats to the healthcare system, as well as personal devastation. The chaos in these areas could range from minor inconveniences to grave losses of life. 

In the rest of this article, we will take a look at what some of the experts speculate would happen if the American Power Grid went down. We will also see some of the reasons why something so drastic is being considered possible by many people worldwide. 

Potential Outcomes if the American Power Grid Goes Down

Potential Outcomes if the American Power Grid Goes Down
Woman using candles during an electricity blackout sitting on a couch in the living room at home.

Weather from unprecedented cold fronts to heatwaves affects our United States Power grids. Experts have speculated on a wide range of potential outcomes if the U.S. Power Grid suffered a cyber-attack or an EMP (Electro-Magnetic Pulse) and went down. From economic losses to threats to the healthcare system, practically every part of modern life would be touched by even a short-lived power grid failure.  Some speculate nation-wide blackouts for periods lasting months to years.

Economic Losses

Economic Losses
Power grid blackout in a city with huge economic losses.

There would be serious economic consequences if the American Power Grid went down. Even if only a portion of the country lost power, the amount of money lost would be staggering. 

In 2015, the University of Cambridge put out a risk report exploring what might happen if part of the United States Power Grid went down. For their analysis, they proposed that fifteen US states lost power. This area of the country was estimated to contain approximately 93 million people.

When the study examined the potential economic loss, it found that this number could be anywhere between $243 billion to 1 trillion.

In addition to the losses due to power grid structural damage, loss of operations, and loss of energy sales, the insurance industry would also be held to pay out substantial sums. The same report estimated that insurance companies would be paying claims that amounted to 21.4 billion to 71.1 billion dollars. 

National Security Risk

In addition to economic losses, a failed power grid would put America’s national security at risk. According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, even a short-lived attack on the power grid could cause substantial interruptions to security systems and important lines of communication. 

The chaos that most likely would erupt in our country weakens it from a National Security standpoint as well. Refineries and chemical plants are a few sites that have the greatest potential to cause damage if the power grid goes down. 

Also, sewer systems, traffic lights, and public transportation would suddenly stop working. This lack of basic services could lead to all kinds of disorder in the streets, giving the government an excess of problems to solve. This kind of domestic disruption can leave the country more at risk from outside threats and attacks. 

Trying to solve the problems occurring at these sites without properly communicating and operating machinery could cause serious threats to the surrounding environment and plants themselves. 

Threats to the Healthcare System

Threats to the Healthcare System
Lights are off in part of a city at night without electricity in a blackout.

Another painful reality of a failed power grid is its impact on healthcare. For patients in a hospital relying on machines to stay alive, their lives are immediately at risk if the grid goes down. 

While generators hopefully protect hospitals, Venezuela found out the hard way in 2019 that they don’t always get the job done. The generators were able to power emergency machines on some floors, but the elevators weren’t working, meaning patients had extreme difficulty getting to the life-saving machines with power. 

Healthcare facilities rely on electricity for operations, including lighting, security systems, fire alarm, egress systems, HVAC, air conditioning, heating, and environmental controls. Patients also require food, water, and transportation, which require an electrical supply. There are many electronic devices, including heart monitors to health records, and a wide array of medical equipment that would be affected.

Personal Devastation

Combo Propane Gas Hybrid and Solar Generators.
Amazon.com Emergency Hybrid Dual Fuel Generators

In addition to the impacts, the power outage would have on society as a whole, it would also impact each individual person or family suddenly living without power. Lights would be out everywhere, as would elevators, refrigerators, freezers, or any other electronically powered parts of your building or home. 

Depending on the reason for the power outage, it is possible you would lose access to running water. This reality might impact your ability to access municipal drinking water, wash your hands, or flush the toilet. Any heating or cooling systems that you usually rely on will not be functioning at this time either. 

You won’t be able to charge your phone, connect to your wifi or perhaps even use your phone at all. Cell phone companies will be impacted by the power outage as well, meaning that mobile data for making calls or sending messages could potentially be unavailable. 

This situation can become even more dangerous for elderly people or anyone else who may depend on an elevator to move in and out of their home or a phone to call relatives in case of an emergency. Some parts of the population might find themselves trapped in their homes without sufficient access to food or water. 

Some of our other articles like “Can AI Help?” and “What is Green Technology?”

Power Grid Failures and Their Causes

Power Grid Failure Cause PercentagesOverall %%
Weather / Climate Change70
Wind, Storms, and Extremes Weather58
Cold Weather and Ice Storms19
Hurricanes and Tropical Storms18
Tornadoes3
Extreme Heat and Wildfires2
Solar Storm100
Coronal Mass Ejection (CME) Carrington Event Level Per Decade12
Warfare / TerrorismNA
EMP / Nuclear Attack (Hemp)NA
EMP / Cyber AttackNA

These are not questions of when it will happen; it is only a question of when it will happen.

Some of Recent Histories Power Outages

Generac Power Outage Central Power Outage Tracker and Poweroutage.us

Weather Caused Power Grid Outages

PBS – Could The Next Blackout Be More Deadly Than Katrina?

In addition to normal day-to-day wear and tear on the world’s power grids with maintenance issues and lack of funding. We know that large-scale failures, such as the blackouts that struck Texas in 2021, were due to freezing weather from three severe winter storms and age-related issues.

Sixty-nine percent of Texans lost power at some point during Feb. 14-20, 2021, due to the Winter Storm Uri power outage. About forty-nine percent of the Texas population had problems with their water service also due to this storm.

On January 8, 2021, extreme cold weather caused power demand to surge across western Europe, and its electricity network came close to a massive blackout. Europe’s grid split into two and led to the equivalent of 200,000 households losing power across Europe. 

According to the U.S. President’s Council of Economic Advisers, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability, and the White House Office of Science and Technology, severe weather is the leading cause of power outages in the U.S. The age of the U.S. Electrical Grid, which was built over the last one hundred years, is old in many areas and is more susceptible to power outages caused by severe weather.

The Age of Cyber Warfare

The Age of Cyber Warfare
A soldier working on a computer in the cyber warfare section of the military.

Life can feel easier now with the increasing reliance on technology and Artificial Intelligence in many aspects of daily life. From online shopping to scanning QR codes, the shift towards technology throughout our day has made life more convenient while also opening us up to new vulnerabilities.

Hearing news reports of data breaches and compromised accounts and passwords in large, trusted companies is common today. These breaches occur due to cyberattacks, and it’s not just credit card companies and large retailers that are vulnerable. The more we depend on technology, the more we open ourselves up to cyber-attacks.

Power companies and other large industries have become increasingly targeted by cyber attackers. Eddie Habibi of PAS Global calls cyber warfare the modern “weapon of choice” when it comes to making strategic attacks. The attacks can be made remotely without ever sending in troops but can cause serious damage and destruction in the targeted location. 

Protecting The Power Grid

Part of the issue in protecting the power grid is the fact that these electrical systems were not originally designed with cyber safety in mind. The landscape of cyber security is constantly evolving, meaning that the power grid needs constant protection from highly trained professionals to remain safe and secure.

While the idea of cyber warfare can feel robotic, the truth is there are creative and imaginative hackers behind each and every attack. The people in charge of protecting the systems need to be just as active and creative when it comes to creating systems to protect from these attacks. 

When the hackers are able to act faster and more creatively than the teams assigned to protecting the grids, that’s when it’s possible for a cyber-attack to succeed. There have been several instances where this has happened worldwide in the last few years. 

A “Perfect” Solar Storm

A “Perfect” Solar Storm
Planet Earth against the backdrop of a giant sun, with a solar geomagnetic storm. The elements of this image are furnished by NASA.

In 2013 Lloyd’s, the world’s leading insurance marketplace, put out a “Solar Storm Risk To The North American Electric Grid Report.” The report states that a “Carrington Event” level Geo Magnetic Solar Storm is inevitable on planet Earth again.

The Carrington Event was the most intense geomagnetic storm in recorded history, probably due to a Coronal Mass Ejection (CME) from the sun. If it happened today, it could severely damage satellites, disable telephone, radio, and TV, and cause electrical blackouts over whole continents. 

Does the question arise how to establish communication without electricity immediately following an EMP incident of this magnitude? It could take weeks or months to fix the damage. Think like you were back in 1859, and not only does your smartphone, home’s power, or local gas station not work but pretty much nothing works.

Power Grid Failures Around the World

Other parts of the world have suffered from successful cyberattacks that have shut down parts of the power grid. A nuclear facility in Natanz, Iran, was attacked, and it severely damaged its brand new, highly specialized equipment. 

Ukraine also saw two consecutive attacks on parts of its grid. The first occurred in 2015 in Ivano-Frankivsk, and this attack caused 225,000 people to lose access to power. 2017 saw more severe cyberattacks in Ukraine, with more parts of the country being impacted. 

While the American Power Grid hasn’t gone down yet, the U.S. has also experienced small-scale cyber warfare that has touched utility companies, politicians, and other parts of modern society. While the effects of these attacks haven’t been as dramatic as a full-scale, nationwide power outage, it certainly shows how the US is vulnerable to this type of warfare. 

For more in-depth coverage of how these cyberattacks have taken place around the world and what they mean, check out this report by CNBC on Youtube:

What to Do if the U.S. Power Grid Goes Down

Just like any disaster, manmade or natural, for power outages, you should have some things in place in your life for emergencies. Making a plan and preparing is essential and recommended by the U.S. Government website Ready.gov

On the Ready.Gov website Family Emergency Planning Build a Kit page, it states the following if you lose power:

“If you lost power, how would you eat? The refrigerator wouldn’t keep your food cold. The microwave couldn’t warm things up. You might not get clean water out of your faucets. How would you find out if it was safe to play outside? Not from your TV or computer!”

Ready.gov Family Emergency Planning Build a Kit Page

To be prepared means having food, water, and other supplies to last for at least 72 hours.  We recommend two weeks minimum, and it is always better to have a month or two of food and water stored.

Basic (3 Day) Emergency Supplies Pack

Basic (3 Day) Emergency Supplies Pack
Cold adult woman covered with clothes freezing sitting on the sofa at night at home in a power outage.

An emergency disaster supplies kit is a Minimum Basic 3 Day Emergency Supplies Pack of items you will need if your power goes out in a natural or manmade disaster to help you Shelter in Place.

Basic (3 Day) Emergency Supplies Pack List:

  1. Water is number one. You will need a minimum of one gallon per person per day for at least three days for drinking and sanitation.
  2. Non-perishable food supply for a minimum of a three-days per person: ready-to-eat canned meats, fruits, vegetables, and a can opener.
  3. Matches in a waterproof container, fire starter, and monitored emergency candles in safe holders away from anything that could catch fire.
  4. First aid kit, prescription medications, and non-prescription medications such as pain relievers.
  5. Hand-crank or battery-powered radio, flashlight, and extra batteries.
  6. M95 masks (minimum) per person to help filter contaminated air.
  7. Plastic sheeting and duct tape (to shelter in place).
  8. Toilet paper, moist towelettes, garbage bags, and plastic ties (for personal sanitation).
  9. Keep your vehicle’s gas tank full.
  10. Local maps.
  11. Whistle (to signal for help).

We Recommend Two Weeks of Food and Water

The Red Cross has a “Be Red Cross Ready Power Outage Checklist” that recommends preparing for a 2-week supply of food, water, and essential supplies for your home for long-term power outages.

  • Water—one gallon per person, per day (3-day supply for evacuation, 2-week supply for home) 
  • Food—non-perishable, easy-to-prepare items (3-day supply for evacuation, 2-week supply for home) 

Some additional items to consider adding to your emergency supplies pack:

  • Soap and hand sanitizer.
  • Complete change of climate-appropriate clothing.
  • Sleeping bag, emergency, or warm blanket for each person.
  • Printed prescriptions, prescription eyeglasses, and contact lenses and solutions.
  • Feminine supplies and personal hygiene items.
  • Baby diapers, wipes, formula, and bottles.
  • Pet food and extra water for your pet.
  • Cash or traveler’s checks.
  • Important documents printed like identification, passwords, bank account numbers and records, and insurance policies in a waterproof, portable container.
  • Fire extinguisher
  • Paper plates, paper cups, paper towels, and plastic utensils.
  • Paper and pencil.
  • Printed books, games, puzzles, or other activities for your family.

The EMP Threat: Examining the Consequences

North American Power Grids
Map rendering of North American Power Grids by NERC

Hearing Before The Subcommittee On Cybersecurity, Infrastructure Protection, And Security Technologies Of The Committee On Homeland Security House Of Representatives One Hundred Twelfth Congress Second Session September 12, 2012, Serial No. 112-115 

“Computer simulations carried out in March 2010 by Oak Ridge
National Laboratories demonstrated that an electromagnetic pulse from a
nuclear device detonated at high attitude or a powerful solar storm
could destroy or permanently damage major sections of our National
power grid. According to this Oak Ridge Study, the collapse of our
power system could impact 130 million Americans, require 4 to 10 years
to fully recover and impose economic costs of $1 to $2 trillion.”

“The National electric grid has almost no backup capability in the
event of a power collapse from electromagnetic pulses. According to
FERC testimony presented this morning, existing bulk power reliability
standards don’t even address EMP vulnerabilities. In addition, with
most of the Nation’s power system under private ownership, who view an
EMP event as unlikely, there has been little preparation for a long-
term power collapse. Although the impact of an EMP event has been
examined, studied, and debated, little progress seems to have been made
in mitigating the EMP threat. Although the United States has conducted
numerous exercises to test our readiness against natural events such as
hurricanes, we have never conducted an exercise to help us prepare for
the severe consequences of a National power outage from an EMP event.”

The EMP Threat: Examining the Consequences

Final Thoughts

Final Thoughts
A power outage in a dark city and a snowstorm.

A natural EMP or successful attack on the American Power Grid is something that teams around the country dedicate their careers and lives to working to prevent. Knowing the devastation of what a widespread power outage could cause, it is a high priority to keep the country safe from such a devastating event. 

If the U.S. Power Grid went down, we would feel the effects on the economy, the healthcare system, the structures of modern life, as well as in our own homes. A Carrington-level event would cause trillions of dollars worth of damage worldwide

References:

John Mortensen

I am a project manager, tech writer, and science enthusiast who loves to study the latest technology, such as AI, comedy, quantum computers, smartphones, headphones, and software.

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