A Mad Max Nation with No Electrical Grid

What exactly has been done to physically harden our grid’s chain-link fences from the likes of ISIS?

power-gridIt’s been one year since a white-hot study by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission was leaked to the Wall Street Journal. The government study concluded that coordinated attacks on only nine electrical transmission substations in the United States could bring down the entire trinity of grids (called interconnections) that supply electricity to America. Terrorists would have to physically destroy only four in the East, three the West and two in Texas, plus one large transformer production plant, and “the entire United States grid would be down for at least 18 months, probably longer,” said the memo.

Imagine what that would mean for a nation entirely dependent upon electricity for its very survival. Almost all large transformers are constructed overseas, including China, and the typical lag time from order to delivery and installation is two years. Forget no iPhones. Try no working sewer systems, no heating, no cars (because no gasoline pumps), no transportation, no garbage collection, no hospitals, no medicine kept in cold storage, no working government, and no civilization. It wouldn’t even be a Medieval society, because Europe in the Middle Ages had functioning governments, currencies and a trading system. The USA would be more like the world of Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome—for the lucky survivors.

The Obama Administration wasn’t happy with the Wall Street Journal leaking the story. Cheryl LaFleur, acting chairwoman of the FERC, opined that The Journal's publication of "sensitive material about the grid crosses the line from transparency to irresponsibility, and gives those who would do us harm a roadmap to achieve malicious designs." But her attack only underscores the point.

In an April 2013 probing action, unknown terrorists attacked the Pacific Gas & Electric’s transmission substation in Metcalf, California. One terrorist crawled into an underground vault to cut the telephone lines for help. Then a squad of gunmen fired “more than 100 shots and knocked out 17 transformers.” The shooters took their time, blasting away for almost a whole hour, before police finally showed up and the terrorists melted away. The attack caused millions of dollars in damage and required 27 days before the small transformers were replaced and back online.

But is it really too much to imagine ISIS, which has repeatedly threatened the homeland, carefully studying the three connected American grids and their vulnerabilities? Why would ISIS not, let us surmise, make plans to dispatch nine small teams, inserted from the porous Mexican border, to the key transmission substations, which would then plant bombs under cover of darkness set to detonate at a specific time? Such an event would not be “another 9/11.” Such an event would be a soft kill on the United States of America.

The leaked study is not some far-out speculation. Academics have weighed in. “This study used a relatively simplified model, but other models come to the same conclusion,” said A.P. “Sakis” Meliopoulos, professor of electrical and computer engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. He thought it might take “a slightly larger number” of substation attacks to cause a U.S.-wide blackout.

According to yet another damning study, “Most substations sit out in the open protected only by a simple chain-link fence. All but a few high voltage lines are also in the open.”

What has been done to physically harden our grid’s chain-link fences from the likes of ISIS in the one year since the story about the nine choke-points of national destruction? Wait for it: nothing.