Our electrical grid is in danger – threatened by cyber attacks, solar storms, earthquakes, and more. If the grid is damaged or disabled, society will suffer greatly. Helena is working to shield it.
Without electricity, our way of life is untenable. We rely on an uninterrupted supply of power to bring food to our supermarkets, water into our homes, and prosperity to our citizens. Even minor blackouts cause severe disruption.
And the odds are not in our favor. Over the next decade, research suggests we face a one in ten chance of losing much of our grid to a solar storm – a burst of radiation from the sun that would affect the Earth’s atmosphere and compromise our power grid. In fact, Lloyd’s of London concluded that such a storm is so likely, and its effects so devastating, that it refuses to offer insurance against one.
The entire grid can be shut down by destroying just nine critical transformer substations, like the one crippled in minutes by a team of armed attackers near San Jose, California in 2013.
It is only a matter of time until one of these events – manmade or natural – triggers a catastrophic blackout on the mainland United States. Experts estimate it would result in the loss of trillions of dollars in economic value and millions of American lives – many times greater than the losses from Hurricanes Harvey, Sandy, and Katrina combined. And with no outside force to rescue us, a country-wide blackout could last more than a year and would be next to impossible to recover from.
Thankfully, this tragedy can be prevented – and Helena’s Shield Project is fighting to do so.
Since 2017, we have worked with public and private sector actors to support fundraising, educational, and operational efforts to secure the United States’ electrical grid against the threat of prolonged blackout.
Helena’s educational efforts have successfully resulted in the drafting, introduction, and passage in the California State Senate of two bills designed to protect the electrical grid – SJR 20 and SB 1076. Following this State success, the project supported two successful Presidential Executive Orders.
But while the victories have been welcome, the job is not done. Until we fully harden the electrical grid, our power remains one storm, solar flare, or keystroke away from going out.
In 2013, as part of the National Infrastructure Protection Plan, sixteen sectors were identified as comprising the country’s critical infrastructure. They were Agriculture and Food, Chemical, Commercial Facilities, Communications, Critical Manufacturing, Dams, Defense Industrial Base, Emergency Services, Energy, Financial Services, Government Facilities, Information Technology, Nuclear Reactors, Materials, and Waste, Public Health and Healthcare, Transportation Systems, and Water and Water Treatment Systems.
These were chosen based on the criterion that if any one of them were to be significantly disrupted, the societal consequences would be both severe and pandemic.
But what if they were all to collapse? If the failure of just one would lead to almost irreparable societal harm, what would the failure of all sixteen lead to? It is a scenario that, while seemingly outlandish, is unsettlingly possible, because each one of those systems is critically and immutably reliant on one thing: electricity.
Telecommunications satellites and law enforcement; sewage and refrigerators; gas pumps, banks, production factories; hospitals. Without power, they all fail. No running water or complex food production. No internet or credit cards. No advanced medical care or ambulances. Cars and trucks would be useless in days. Cell phones would be fragile paperweights; computers would be typewriters with two-hour lifespans and no printing capabilities. In 2011, the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant melted down because there was no power to cool the reactors after tsunamis disabled the area’s electrical grid. Almost overnight, our society would be transported back to the 1800’s.
The reason this scenario is even possible is that our country’s electrical infrastructure is exceedingly vulnerable. Our electrical grid is constantly threatened by cyberattacks and hurricanes, solar storms and terrorist strikes, electromagnetic pulses, and earthquakes, any one of which can cause a long-term (potentially months, even years) blackout. And the odds are not in our favor. Besides the everpresent threat of a cyberattack, hurricane, or earthquake, each decade, we face a one in ten chance of losing much of our grid to a solar storm – a burst of radiation from the sun that would overload and cripple our electrical grid’s EHV transformers. (In fact, Lloyd’s of London concluded that such a storm is so likely, and its effects so devastating, that it refuses to offer insurance against one).
The damage of such a blackout is practically incalculable. Economically, it would easily cause trillions of dollars in damage. Lloyd’s of London estimated that a blackout isolated just in the Northeast, lasting a matter of days or weeks, would cost at least $1T. But that pales in comparison to public health. Some experts have put the potential loss of life in the millions.
Hardening the grid is neither difficult nor prohibitively expensive. From installing modifications like faraday cages, capacitor banks, surge arresters, and EMP-hardened battery chargers and generator controls, to monitoring where parts are being manufactured or simply expanding the amount of spare parts kept on-site, there are plenty of ways to physically harden the country’s infrastructure. The cost is debated, but it is generally placed somewhere between $2 and $12 billion. Not a small sum, to be sure, but a fraction of the societal cost of a poorly timed solar flare or cyberattack.
In July of 2017, Helena Executive Director and COO Sam Feinburg read an article in “The World If” section of The Economist titled “If an electromagnetic pulse took down America’s electricity grid.”
It described the nightmarish scenario in which an EMP device were detonated above Nebraska, resulting in exactly the kind of horrifying effects detailed above. What was particularly terrifying—and perplexing—to Sam was how susceptible the country was. If this threat was real – and so easily solvable – why hadn’t we done anything about it?
In August, Helena led a meeting between a small group of our members to try to answer this question. The issue of grid security was raised, and members reacted with the same incredulity Sam had; bewildered that a threat this severe could exist in developed economies without drawing government attention and remedial regulation.
So Helena decided to investigate whether a potential grid shutdown:
1) Would cause an critical level of harm and disruption
2) Had a non-trivial probability of occurrence and
3) Was within our financial and technological capabilities to prevent.
From that analysis, the Shield project began. The first step of Shield was its research phase. Helena and a select group of our members interviewed experts from NASA, NOAA, USGS, the CIA, Stanford University, the Congressional EMP Commission, the RAND Corporation, and the United States Congress to investigate threats to the US electrical grid.
Three areas of consensus emerged from these meetings:
1) A prolonged loss of electric power due to a partial or total failure of the United States’ electrical grid would result in an extremely high magnitude of harm to American society.
2) The probability of such a prolonged loss of power is non-trivial.
3) This potential catastrophe is avoidable; it is well within our financial and technological means to prevent through simple grid hardening.
We then conducted an analysis of the current state of affairs around grid hardening in the United States. We researched and spoke with a cross-section of public, private, and nonprofit entities with varying opinions, positions, and activities related to grid security and hardening.
Our aims were to investigate:
— What other efforts to solve the problem currently existed, and whether Helena could add anything non-duplicative to those efforts, either as a partner or an independent actor.
— Why those existing efforts had not succeeded in fixing the problem; what mistakes had been made, and how Helena could avoid making them.
— The avenues to potential success in hardening the grid and the relative merits and demerits of each.
During our research, four reports stood out as being of particular significance in the field. They came from the Congressional EMP Commission, Lloyds of London, the National Academies of Sciences, and the RAND Corporation.
It became clear that the ongoing vulnerability of the electrical grid was neither inevitable nor new. Hardening technology had existed for years, it was not prohibitively expensive, and a handful organizations and special interest groups had already been trying to make progress in the space but had been largely unsuccessful.
This begged the question of why. The electrical grid’s vulnerability was a potentially existential issue for the country. It was also eminently solvable. Why had so little been done? Helena examined the various efforts existing organizations had made over the years to secure the grid, and attempted to identify why prior efforts had come up short.
One clear failing was in the messaging and communications used to describe the issue. For some reason, despite its importance, the grid security problem was often unknown or not taken seriously. Its advocates – often highly passionate and technically competent – had struggled to escape a perception that their concerns were overblown or unserious.
What was also evident from these examinations was that the most effective approach to grid security would most likely be legislative. Between the utilities, power companies, and state and federal governments, electrical grid security is a knot of bureaucratic responsibility, and resolving those entanglements requires legislation.
So Helena began preliminary educational outreach work. We met with state and national legislators and agencies. We held extensive meetings with public regulators, private corporations, nonprofit entities, other stakeholders, and Helena Members including California State Senator Robert Hertzberg. Senator Hertzberg, it turned out, cared deeply about the issue and was passionate about addressing it.
Together with Senator Hertzberg, Helena immediately began work on drafting two bills, which Senator Hertzberg then introduced to the California State Senate: the first was SJR 20; the second SB 1076.
The first bill, SJR-20, was simple. It expressed the acknowledgement of the California State Senate that the electrical grid is under threat – from geomagnetic storms, EMPs, and more – and “urges the President and the Congress of the United States to work together to implement grid hardening measures and to help ensure our nation’s critical electrical infrastructure is protected from threats from electromagnetic pulses and physical attacks on the infrastructure.”
It was passed unanimously.
This simple resolution represented landmark progress for the grid resilience issue – the Senate of the largest State in the Union publicly declaring the legitimacy and importance of the problem gave weight and validation to those fighting for the cause.
With the Senate unanimously acknowledging the dangers facing the grid, Senator Hertzberg introduced the second bill, SB-1076. This bill took aim at the California’s Office of Emergency Services (roughly analogous to the Federal Government’s FEMA). The OES plans state responses to disaster scenarios including terrorist attacks, earthquakes, and wildfires.
Curiously, at the time, a large-scale blackout or brownout across the electrical grid was not among the scenarios it planned for. (Though this was not unusual; the federal government has no such plan, nor do most states in the union.) SB-1076 directly remedied that, requiring “the State Emergency Plan to include preparedness recommendations to harden the critical infrastructure of electrical utilities against an electromagnetic pulse attack, geomagnetic storm event, or other potential cause of a long-term outage.”
On May 29th, it, too, was passed unanimously. It was then passed unanimously in amended form by the California State Assembly 79-0, and was then passed again by the Senate 39-0.
In a matter of months, Helena had managed to pass two pieces of legislation, even after similar bills had failed in Maine, Virginia, Florida, and Texas. This legislation represented progress in California, while also setting an example for other states—and organizations—to follow. Perhaps most importantly, they showed that the issue—after remaining dormant for so long—was gaining momentum.
With both bills passed in California and the issue gaining more traction, Helena turned its sights nationally. Working with Helena Member R. James Woolsey, former Director of the CIA, Helena became one of the two nonprofit partners of the 2018 United States Air Force Electromagnetic Cybersecurity Summit.
The summit coincided with the kickoff of a DHS initiative to improve cybersecurity defenses across US critical infrastructure. In the wake of revelations that Russian hackers infiltrated U.S. electrical utilities the previous year, government officials’ statements expressed increasing concern over the vulnerability of US critical infrastructure to cyberattack.
This Summit also came on the heels of the United States Department of Defense declassifying two reports relating to solar geomagnetic disturbances. The reports describe an immediate and pressing threat to critical infrastructure posed by the sun, and the insufficiency of the USA’s Federal resiliency standards.
From this Summit came the watershed Executive Order on EMPs signed by President Donald Trump on March 26th, 2019.
Signed less than two years after the launch of the Shield Project, the order uses the executive power of the US Presidency to marshal a whole-of-government response to the full spectrum of threats posed by natural and manmade EMPs.
It mandates action by the Departments of Defense, State, Energy, Homeland Security, Commerce, and the Interior to prevent, prepare for, and mitigate the effects of electromagnetic threats to the US grid. This action spans private and public sector R&D, diplomatic deterrence, infrastructure hardening, and more, including mandating the Department of Defense to submit a report every three months on the status of the EMP threat, the National Guard to evaluate the country’s readiness in dealing with a multi-state electromagnetic pulse event by September, and the Administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency to develop plans and procedures for dealing with such an event by June.
Hertzberg responded to the Executive Order with the following statement:
“If we wait until after a cyberattack or solar storm has plunged part of our nation into chaos and destruction, it will be too late to act. Last year, I worked with Helena– a new type of organization dedicated to taking on urgent societal problems – to pass SJR 20, which called on the federal government to meet this urgent need to implement electrical grid hardening measures nationwide and SB 1076, which paved the way to do so in California. I am relieved, and excited, at the news of the new Executive Order to strengthen Washington’s efforts on this critical issue.”
This executive order was quickly followed by the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020, signed by President Trump on December 20, 2019, which implemented and signed into law the provisions in the Executive Order that called on the government to harden critical electrical infrastructure against both natural and manmade EMPs.
Since then, the momentum has only grown, as has the visibility of the issue. While early inroads had been made mostly with an eye on EMPs (though hardening against EMPs also hardens against other threats), progress—and awareness—began to accelerate with respect to other threats as well.
On May 1st, 2020, President Trump signed the Executive Order Securing the United States Bulk-Power System. The Executive Order makes stringent guidelines for what equipment can be used and installed, prohibiting “Federal agencies and U.S. persons from acquiring, transferring, or installing BPS equipment in which any foreign country or foreign national has any interest and the transaction poses an unacceptable risk to national security or the security and safety of American citizens. Evolving threats facing our critical infrastructure have only served to highlight the supply chain risks faced by all sectors, including energy, and the need to ensure the availability of secure components from American companies and other trusted sources.”
In early 2020, a budget cut to the United States Geological Survey Geomagnetic monitoring program was put before Congress. The USGS currently operates 14 magnetic observatories spread across the country that monitor the geomagnetic field on a global scale. Chief among their many uses, is that this distribution of observatories is able to monitor and predict space-weather, which means the USGS can give an early warning for potential solar flare impacts.
Although the proposed budget cuts were not substantial, they would have required the shutting down of two of the fourteen observatories. That may not sound devastating, but the locations of the observatories had been specifically chosen, and losing just two would make the other twelve practically useless. The potential harm cannot be overstated; a lead time of just minutes can be the difference between a blackout of six months and six hours.
The budget cut was rejected. USGS funding was successfully maintained, and all fourteen stations are still operating.
In less than four years, Shield has taken an issue that had seen little progress in decades and brought to the the cover of the Wall Street Journal, before Congress, and onto the President’s desk.
But more needs to be done. Implementing intelligent federal resiliency standards, a greater density of micro-grids, and individual state action to harden infrastructure would offer enough protection to turn an existential catastrophe into a minor disaster. In a sweeping blackout, the difference between 30% electrical coverage and 0% could prove the difference between civilization and none.
We have sat on this knowledge for years without acting. Our government first learned of the threat from electromagnetic pulses in the 1960s. In 1989, a small solar storm left millions of people without power in Quebec. In the Ukraine, cyberattacks have cut the power to hundreds of thousands of homes twice since 2015. Hurricane Maria, which hit Puerto Rico in 2017 and left hundreds of thousands of US citizens without power for months, showed how difficult it can be to restore electricity after a massive outage, even to a small and contained area.
It often takes tragedy to catalyze change. If we wait until after a cyberattack, solar storm, or earthquake has plunged part of our nation into chaos and destruction, it will be too late to act. We cannot afford such complacency now. That is why Helena remains deeply committed to securing the grid.
As a people, we rely on a handful of infrastructural systems for our society to function, systems that are integral to our way of life. Our agricultural system, for example, or our transportation and communications systems. Together, they comprise our country’s “critical infrastructure,” which The Patriot Act in 2001 defined as “systems and assets, whether physical or virtual, so vital to the United States that the incapacity or destruction of such systems and assets would have a debilitating impact on security, national economic security, national public health or safety, or any combination of those matters.” The official list of the different systems that make up our critical infrastructure was most recently compiled in 2013 as part of the National Infrastructure Protection Plan. Sixteen sectors were identified:
1. Agriculture and Food
3. Commercial Facilities
5. Critical Manufacturing
7. Defense Industrial Base
8. Emergency Services
10. Financial Services
11. Government Facilities
12. Information Technology
13. Nuclear Reactors, Materials, and Waste
14. Public Health and Healthcare
15. Transportation Systems
16. Water and Water Treatment Systems
These were chosen based on the criterion that if any one of them were to be significantly disrupted, the societal consequences would be both severe and pandemic.
But what if they were all to collapse? If the failure of just one would lead to almost irreparable societal harm, what would the failure of all sixteen lead to? It is a scenario that is unsettlingly possible, because each one of those systems is critically and immutably reliant on one thing: electricity. Telecommunications satellites and law enforcement; sewage and refrigerators; gas pumps, banks, production factories; hospitals. Without power, they all fail – in 2011, the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant melted down because there was no power to cool the reactors after tsunamis disabled the area’s electrical grid. No running water or complex food production. No internet or credit cards. No advanced medical care or ambulances. Cars and trucks would be useless in days. Cell phones would be fragile paperweights; computers would be typewriters with two-hour lifespans and no printing capabilities. Almost overnight, our society would be transported back to the early 1800’s.
Electricity is arguably our civilization’s most important asset, and an extensive, reliable, and resilient electrical grid is vital to our country’s continued prosperity. However, although the extent and reliability of the national grid have been steadily increasing, its resiliency has not. The grid is, at present, highly vulnerable to a host of potential threats from a variety of sources, from cyberwarfare to solar flares, from ballistic EMP devices to inclement weather.
The Failure of Grid Transformers: What Happens and Why It Matters
A main vulnerability of the national electrical grid stems from its reliance on Extra-High Voltage (EHV) transformers to get electricity from producers (power stations) to consumers.
In its lifecycle, electrical current usually must pass through EHV transformers at two specific points: the first is at the point of production, where Generator Step-Up Transformers increase the voltage of electricity so that it can be transmitted long distances; and the second is at the point of distribution, where Substation Step-Down Transformers decrease the voltage of electricity so that it can be distributed and used by consumers.
The transformers at both of these nodes are critical, since without them the power produced would be either intransmissible or undistributable—either way rendering it inconsumable. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) estimates that 90% of the country’s consumed power passes through an EHV transformer at one or both of these nodes.
If a transformer fails, the national grid is designed to compensate for it—its electrical load is rerouted to adjacent transformers until the failed transformer can be reactivated. This interconnectedness, however, has a potential drawback: when a transformer shuts down and its power is reallocated, the same amount of current is then flowing through fewer transformers, amplifying the strain on those transformers and increasing the likelihood that they, too, overload and fail. This can have a domino effect, called a cascading power failure.
Consequently, just a few malfunctioning transformers can have repercussions that extend exponentially over large geographical areas. The Northeast Blackout of 2003, for example, which affected over fifty million people in the northeast United States and Canada, was the result of a cascading power failure that started with the disruption of three power lines in Ohio – allegedly due contact with tree branches.
According to a study by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, taking down just 9 of the most critical transformer substations could lead to a cascade of shutdowns that would disable the entire electrical grid of the United States.
The average age of installed transformers is almost forty years old, and replacing them – particularly in the event of a blackout where large numbers were damaged – would be immensely difficult, if not impossible. They weigh anywhere from 100 to 400 tons (20,000 to 80,000 pounds), have production costs in the millions of dollars (the large quantities of copper and electrical steel alone account for more than half of this), and, because many of them are unique in their design, must be custom-built substation by substation.
And the manufacturing of transformers is rarely done domestically; although the United States’s domestic production capacity is increasing, it still must import the vast majority of its EHV transformers from Germany and South Korea. Due to all of these factors, installing a new or replacement EHV transformer can require a lead time of more than twenty months.
The national grid employs over 2000 EHV transformers, and they are connected to 6000 power plants, 390,000 miles of transmission lines, and 200,000 miles of high-voltage lines in an expansive, intricate web. All told, the asset value in the North American electrical grid is more than $1T.
As technology has developed, the national electrical grid has become increasingly interconnected and automated. (And with the ongoing development of the Smart Grid—an initiative to overlay the existing grid with computing and communications systems in order to automate grid monitoring, routing, and allocating—this trend will only increase.) While this is beneficial in many ways, an increase in automation means an increase in cyberwarfare susceptibility.
Cyberattacks present the threat of both short- and long-term grid failure. To cause failure in the short-term, a cyberattack can deactivate a portion of the grid remotely without physical damage; in this scenario, power can generally be restored relatively quickly, but the financial damages are still significant. Ukraine was hit by a cyberattack in 2017—called the NotPetya attack—that affected government, financial, and energy institutions and resulted in damages in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
In a more domestic example, Lloyd’s of London and the University of Cambridge’s Centre for Risk Studies issued a report called “Business Blackout” in 2015 that imagined a scenario in which a coordinated cyberattack shut down enough substations to cause a 15-state cascading blackout in the Northeast United States. The duration of the blackout was short—days for some areas, a few weeks at the most—but the estimated losses were greater than $1T.
Since a cyberattack often results in a remote agent gaining digital control of a physical system, permanent, long-term damage to the grid can be inflicted nearly as easily. In the Aurora Generator Test in 2007, the Idaho National Laboratory used two lines of code to de-synchronize a power generator’s circuit breaker operations. Less than three minutes later, the generator exploded due to the stress caused by the unsynchronized breakers.
The US-Israeli Stuxnet worm, deployed to hinder Iran’s nuclear development and discovered in 2010, destroyed almost 1000 uranium-enriching centrifuges while at the same time disguising its existence by giving false readings on the Iranian technicians’ control panels. In Ukraine two years before the NotPetya attack, hackers remotely took control of three power distribution centers, shutting down almost sixty substations and the power to 230,000 people.
The fact that the hackers deactivated but did not destroy the substations influenced some analysts to conclude that the intention of the attack was to send a message rather than to inflict harm, since once the hackers had control of the power centers, it would have been relatively simple for them to overload and permanently cripple the substations instead of simply switching them off.
Cyberattacks are particularly troubling because they represent asymmetric threats that are difficult both to predict before they occur, and to trace after. The attack on Ukraine in 2015, for example, has still not been definitively attributed (though it is widely believed that it was of Russian origin, due to tensions over Crimea). Actors can work alone or in coordinated teams, from locations concentrated or disparate, under the banner of a nation, an organization, a cause, or no banner at all.
Natural Weather Events and Their Effect on the Grid
Natural disasters pose as much of a threat to the United States’s electrical infrastructure as they do to its physical one. After Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico in September of 2017, the damage to the territory’s electrical system was so extensive that the territory requested $17B in aid solely for grid repairs. By June of 2018, more than eight months later, the territory was still two months away from full power restoration, and even the areas that did have power remained vulnerable to intermittent rolling blackouts. In that time, according to a study conducted by researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, more than 4,645 people died due to a lack of food, water, and medical care. (The official death count for the storm is just 64.)
Even normal weather conditions can have far-reaching consequences. The Northeast Blackout of 2003—the second biggest blackout in history, affecting over fifty million people in the northeast United States and Canada—was the result of a cascading power failure that had its genesis when a few power lines in Ohio, overburdened with both snow and electrical load, sagged into tree branches and short-circuited. The Wall Street Journal estimated that between 2011 and 2014, there were more than seven hundred instances of “weather-related” damage to electrical infrastructure.
Coronal Mass Ejections (CME)
The sun, with great regularity, launches bursts of magnetized plasma from its surface. These bursts are called coronal mass ejections (CMEs), or solar storms. Because they are shot indiscriminately, they occasionally strike Earth. Most of these collisions are relatively benign—their only noticeable effects are the beautiful borealis or australis aurorae near Earth’s magnetic poles—but massive CMEs are occasionally released as well. If a massive CME were to hit our atmosphere, the effect would be almost identical to the detonation of a massive high-altitude nuclear electro-magnetic pulse: current would flood the country’s transmission lines and destroy much of its electrical infrastructure.
There is historical precedent for this. In 1859, a solar superstorm—later called the Carrington Event—struck Earth. It overloaded the North American and European telegraph systems and saturated the air with enough current that messages could be sent without connection to a power source. In 1989, the entire Canadian Province of Quebec lost power due to a much smaller (but still significant) solar storm. In 2012, a CME at least as large as the Carrington Event missed Earth by astronomical inches.
Once the sun releases a CME in Earth’s direction, there is nothing that can be done to block or divert it, so, we are constantly playing a society-wide game of chance that the next massive CME doesn’t happen to fly in our direction. Lloyds of London, an insurer, issued a report
Refusing to insure against solar superstorm impact because the insurer determined the likelihood of that eventuality too high, and the risk too great. (It estimated the initial damages to infrastructure to be roughly $2T, and that was without accounting for the second order effects of disruption to business, communication, and other basic societal functions.) Physicist Pete Riley of Predictive Sciences Inc., in a paper published in Space Weather in 2014, estimated that there is an approximately twelve percent chance of a Carrington-level solar storm striking in the next ten years. And the simplest statistic—and the most widely-disseminated one—is that a solar superstorm should hit Earth roughly every 150 years. (The Carrington Event, unnervingly, was 159 years ago.) The threat, inarguably, is existential.
In 2013, a small team of terrorists crouched in the hills around the Metcalf substation just outside San Jose, California and fired their AK-47 assault rifles through the chain-link fence at the transformers inside. They crippled seventeen transformers in nineteen minutes and were never apprehended. In 2016, a fifty-seven year-old man fired four bullets into the radiator of a transformer at the Buckskin substation in Utah; the transformer soon overheated and failed. Although the damage inflicted from both of these attacks was eventually reparable, the success and relative ease of the attacks themselves demonstrated how vulnerable so many of the grid’s individual infrastructural pieces are to simple, crude acts of terrorism.
As was mentioned earlier, the grid was designed to withstand isolated transformer failures (neither of the two incidents above resulted in any noticeable difference to consumers). However, the extent of the grid’s vulnerability becomes evident when the number of incapacitated transformers grows. This is because there exists some tipping point—a critical number of inoperable transformers—where the rerouted electrical load would suddenly become too much for the remaining, functional ones to bear. That critical number is up for debate (and obviously depends on which transformers go down, since not all substations are equally load-bearing), but, according to an internal study by the FERC, the number could be as low as the number of transformers in just nine substations. (That is to say, there exists a certain combination of nine substations that, if sabotaged, could cause a complete grid collapse.) Thus even a small, fledgling terrorist organization is theoretically capable of executing a devastatingly asymmetric attack: it would need coordinate just nine attacks similar to the one on Metcalf to potentially collapse the entire national grid.
What EMPs Are and How They Work
An EMP is a surge of electromagnetic energy that can overload electronic equipment, disrupting or even destroying the equipment depending on the intensity and frequency of the surge. EMP weapons have been in various stages of development and testing since the 1960’s, and high-altitude nuclear EMP weapons (HEMPs) probably represent the most comprehensively-destructive threat to the national electrical grid.
Weaponized EMPs can be nuclear or non-nuclear. Nuclear EMP (NEMP) produces gamma ray energy and has three components: E1, E2, and E3. E1 is fast-acting and intense (it is over in 1000 nanoseconds), with a relatively small pulse radius (small enough, in fact, that the effect of E1 from a surface blast is generally lost since the physical blast from the nuclear warhead probably incinerated almost everything E1 would affect); E2 is a little slower and acts like lightning (and is therefore largely protected against); E3 is the slowest but potentially farthest-reaching, and it can induce power surges that travel along transmission lines and overload transformers.
Non-nuclear EMP weapons (NNEMP), or radio-frequency weapons, do not produce gamma ray energy and have much smaller pulse radii and energy capacities, but they are a much more ubiquitous threat. They are easier to acquire, easier to transport, and easier to launch, and can therefore come from a much wider variety of sources than NEMP, and to small, precise targets, they can be just as devastating.
The most efficient way to attack the national electrical grid would be with a high-altitude EMP (an HEMP); a nuclear warhead detonated a few hundred kilometers above the Earth’s surface, in low Earth orbit. At that height, the gamma radiation released from the detonation would become trapped in the Earth’s magnetic field and would create an oscillating electrical current that would sweep out in an expansive circle many times greater than the blast radius. A blast 400km above Kansas, for example, would emit a pulse that would cover the entire continental United States. That height is commonly reached by rockets; the International Space Station, for example, floats in low Earth orbit.
EMP is unique among all the threats to the grid in its destructive capacity. This is because the E1 component from an HEMP – as distinct from the purely E3 component released by a coronal mass ejection from the sun – would damage small electrical items rather than large, infrastructure-scale electric wiring. This means an HEMP would disable most electronic devices – from smartphones and laptops to cars and radios, unleashing colossal societal damage.
The EMP Commission, first established in 2000 and then re-established in 2016, has repeatedly emphasized both how existential the EMP threat is, and how catastrophic its impact would be. (In the last five years alone, North Korea has launched two separate satellites into low Earth orbit on almost the exact trajectory to maximize the pulse radius of an HEMP blast.) In a famous statistic from its 2008 Report, it estimated that up to 90% of the US population would die as a result of the societal collapse that would occur from a year-long national blackout.
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