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Threats to America's Power Grid in the Twenty-First Century

Updated on June 25, 2019
Mark Caruthers profile image

BA University of Arkansas (Fayetteville) Geography & History

Attack on the Metcalf Substation

On August 28, 2014, the Metcalf substation was attacked a second time, despite Pacific Gas and Electric's attempt at beefing up security following an armed attack in 2013. The intruders cut the station's chain link fence in the early morning hours and stole equipment for security upgrades valued at over $10,000 dollars. Why would such a valuable piece of America's power grid be left so vulnerable? The Metcalf Substation is a critical piece of Silicon Valley's power grid, it supplies power to America's premier technology hub. A federal study indicates that disabling as few as nine critical power substations could cause cascading blackouts across the country. Our leaders in Washington need to read their own studies, and do something about protecting our power grid before it's too late. Because when it happens for real, it will be too late for any finger pointing. Our leaders have stated numerous times that America is at war against terrorism, so why not use troops to protect our electrical grid? We seem to not have learned our lesson fifteen years after 19 terrorist change the course of American history by turning commercial passenger jets in to missiles. Our leaders have stated numerous times that America is at war against terrorism. So why not use troops to protect our electrical grid? What really is frightening is that the FBI believes the attacks at the Metcalf substation are unrelated. The final chapter of this story is yet to be told.

A Twenty-First Century View of America at night

A view of America's power grid at night.
A view of America's power grid at night. | Source

Attack on Silicon Valley

It was just before 1:00 am on April 16, 2013, when six armed men attacked the Pacific Gas and Electric Corporation's (PG&E), Metcalf Transmission Substation in remote Santa Clara County. Everyone's eyes were focused across the nation on Boston, where the bombing at the Boston Marathon had happened just 13 hours earlier. Was the attack possibly related to the bombing at the Boston Marathon? Since the perpetrators disappeared into the night just before the first police arrived the reason behind the attack has yet to be answered, and nobody wants to take credit for the crime. So unlike terrorist who like to use the media to broadcast their intentions. Some speculate that it was a dress-rehearsal for a much bigger terrorist attack, if replicated across the country, could knock out the nation's power grid and blackout much of the country. The only reason it didn't shut down Silicon Valley, the target of the attack, was because the attack took place during a time of low demand on the grid. The employees at the substation were able to re-route the power to prevent a blackout. If the attack would of happened during a period of peak demand representatives of PG&E state that they would have been unable to prevent a blackout. That would mean Silicon Valley giants like Google and Facebook would have to go on reserve power, or risk going offline affecting hundreds of millions of people around the globe. Yet many people don't even know about the Metcalf Power Transmission Substation attack, or remember it because of the Boston Marathon bombing. But could that have been the intention of the individuals involved in the attack?

Boston Marathon Bombing 2013

Location of bombs along the Boston Marathon finish line.
Location of bombs along the Boston Marathon finish line. | Source

The Attack on the Metcalf Transmission Substation was well organized.

The attack on the Metcalf Transmission Substation on April 16, 2013, was the most compelling incident of domestic terrorism involving the United State electrical grid that has ever occurred. It was a military-style raid that knocked out 17 giant transformers at the Metcalf Transmission Substation, located in a remote corner of Santa Clara County. Authorities are fairly certain the assailants were not drunk hunters or bored teenagers out for late-night mischief. These guys took a great effort to make sure they would not be detected. The intruders were clearly knowledgeable about the layout of the substation and its communications systems. Just before 1am, someone dropped into an underground vault at the power station and cut the fiber-optic cables, they were able to evade the motion sensors and security cameras, and briefly disable the 911 emergency system and phone lines. It would have taken more than one person to lift the vault cover. The attackers also brought night-vision scopes for their weapons, used heavy wire cutters to snip fiber-optic cables in a below-ground bunker, and knew the specific manholes to open to reach the right cables.

The Attackers Escape With-Out A Trace

Law enforcement sources and others briefed on the investigation say the gunmen fired 120 rounds from a high-powered rifle, and that nearly every shot hit the transformers 40 yards away in a period of 20 minutes. The gunmen targeted the cooling fins on the giant transformers, they began to leak tens of thousands of gallons of oil which caused them to overheat and shut down. The attackers managed to disable the transformers without blowing them up and attracting attention, the entire attack lasted 52 minutes. The attackers set off a motion detector by the fence before leaving, but the facility sits beside U.S. 101 a convenient escape route. The first call to authorities came from a driver speeding by on U.S. 101, who reported seeing fireworks coming from the substation. More than 100 fingerprint-free shell casings were found at the scene, no one had been arrested for the crime and investigators don't have any real leads three years after the attack. Time-lapse photographs and surveillance cameras only revealed staccato muzzle flashes from a semi-automatic weapon and sparks as shots hit rows of transformers. The attackers would retreat back into the darkness before the first police car arrived leaving no finger prints. As well organized as the attackers appeared to be there is no doubt they were monitoring police communications, so they must have been alerted to the fact the police were on the way.

Silicon Valley Attack

Silicon Valley Home to America's Tech Giants

Future Attacks?

The Silicon Valley power station attack creates great concern to utility executives, because such a sophisticated attack gives evidence to the fact that there are individuals inside our country who have the capability to plan, and carry out an attack on our nation's power grid. It appears the gunmen set up targeting positions prior to arriving at the station, so they must of had somebody go out before the attack and determine exactly where to set up and shoot. This possibly wasn't a dress rehearsal, this was a real narrowly-averted attempt at destroying a critical piece of our electrical grid, that would have blackened Silicon Valley, and much of the San Francisco Bay area possibly for years with devastating effect. Utilities Companies have been trying for years to conceal the vulnerability of their infrastructure. Public safety has been jeopardized not just because the terrorist who conducted this attack are still at large, but because the power grid is so vulnerable, and nothing is being done to protect it.

There are only a limited number of high-voltage transformers substation nodes within the country. A coordinated physical attack on those transformers could do a great deal of damage, causing massive blackouts across the country. It took twenty-seven days for the Metcalf Substation to get back up and operating. That substation isn't currently being protected in any way other than a chain-link fence. A spokesman for Homeland Security said, "it was up to the utilities to protect the power grid." "Homeland Security's role in an emergency such as this is to connect federal agencies to local police, and facilitate information sharing," declared their spokesman. In other wards nobody wants to take responsibility for protecting American's power grid. Israel and other countries around the world who've dealt with terrorism for decades set up barriers to protect their power grids, maybe we should follow their lead before another attack such as the Metcalf Substation takes place. As long as anyone with a rifle can take a shot at our power stations we all remain vulnerable. Possibly some day soon these criminals will succeed in bringing darkness to our cities. With the Middle East already in a "state of war" do we want to take a chance, and leave our country defenseless?

Metcalf Power Substation

Lack of Extra High Voltage Transformers Worldwide

Most of the world's (EHV) Extra High Voltage Transformers are manufactured outside the United States, and they would take some time to replace. A study by the National Academy of Sciences indicates that replacement of just 300 EHV transformers would take almost a decade to replace. America's roughly 2,000 EHV transformers are expensive to build often costing millions of dollars each, and each one is custom made, and weighs up to 500,000 pounds. Another concern is that more thank 100 military bases are connected to these vulnerable civilian power girds. If America should lose its power grid, it would set up back to the pre-industrial times, a time before the automobile and refrigeration. It has been estimated that more than 200 million Americans could die from lack of food, water, sanitation and medical treatment without the electricity needed to power these valuable service. Most Americans don't realize just how fragile the modern world is in which we live. As a result of this concern, along with other agencies the U.S. Department of Homeland Security over the past decade has created the Rapid Recovery Transformer initiative to increase the resilience of the nations electric transmission grid by drastically reducing the recovery time associated with transformer outages.

Natural Forces can also affect our modern world.


Natural Forces That Effect Our Power Grid

During a geomagnetic storm on March 13, 1989, Canada's power grid collapsed within ninety seconds leaving millions of Canadians without power up to nine hours. This is an example how space weather can effect the power grid of any nation on this planet, not only just us who live in America. Space weather comes primarily from the sun, which constantly send particles of energy toward the Earth via the so-called solar wind. The sun frequently emits burst of matter and energy called flares, which are triggered by the sun's natural magnetic turbulence. Occasionally, however the sun can also emit a massive billion-ton plume of superheated plasma (ionized gas), known as a coronal mass ejection (CME). If this massive bubble of super-heated plasma and radiation is aimed at earth, it can become a serious threat to satellite operations and even to power grids on the surface of this planet, which provides the electricity that fuels our modern civilization. The earth came very close to suffering such an event on the 22cnd of July 2012, when a huge solar storm just missed the earth's orbital position by just seven days. If the eruption had occurred only one week earlier, the earth would have been in the line of fire as they would say in battle, and modern civilization would have been knocked back into the 18th Century in a matter of seconds. Most often the natural forces of the Sun have a less dramatic effect on the citizens who roam this planet such as the static you may experience when you try to tune in you favorite station the on radio.

Solar Storm

The Earth's Magnetic Field shielding us for the solar wind.
The Earth's Magnetic Field shielding us for the solar wind. | Source

Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) is created when particles of energy from the sun interact with the Earth's magnetic field.

The Carrington Event of 1859

When researchers talk about extreme solar storms the best example would be the Carrington Event of the 1st of September 1859, named after English astronomer Richard Carrington who actually watched the massive solar flare approaching earth with his telescope that day. On that morning, Carrington watched a massive solar flare erupt from the sun's surface, a billion ton cloud of magnetized plasma was approaching the earth at more than four million miles-per-hour. The solar flare was so intense that telegraph stations caught fire, their networks experienced major outages, and magnetic observations recorded disturbances in the Earth's magnetic field that were literally off the scale. Auroras would appear as far south as Cuba, their glow was so intense that people could read a newspaper at night. If a Carrington type event would happen to take place today a full recovery would take an estimated four to ten years. The results from such a strong solar storm could leave ninety percent of Americans dead within the first year. By virtue of their rarity extreme space weather events like the one experienced in 1859, are difficult to study, their rates of occurrence are difficult to estimate, and the prediction of a specific event in the future is virtually impossible to determine. A solar storm like the Carrington Event could happen tomorrow or a thousand years from now, all we can know is that it will happen again, and every day is another day closer to an event that could darken our nights for decades.

Nuclear Nightmare

Map of the locations of all the nuclear power plants in the United States.
Map of the locations of all the nuclear power plants in the United States. | Source
Map of the Eastern Seaboard of the United States if nuclear meltdown should occur, the map gives an idea where the radioactive plumes might drift.
Map of the Eastern Seaboard of the United States if nuclear meltdown should occur, the map gives an idea where the radioactive plumes might drift. | Source

Nuclear Meltdown

A nuclear meltdown is an informal term used for a severe nuclear reactor accident that results in damage to the reactor's core, mainly the fuel rods which are use to control the reactor from overheating. A meltdown is considered to be very dangerous because of the potential for radioactive materials to breach all containment and escape into the environment, resulting in radioactive poisoning people and animals. The most frightening scenario is what could happen to nuclear power plants reactors if parts of the United States were to experience a long term blackout. Years before the nuclear emergency at the Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant in Japan, regulators in the United States know that a power failure lasting for days at an American nuclear power plant whatever the cause could lead to a radioactive leak. Regulators have required that the 104 nuclear reactors in the United States to develop plans for dealing with blackouts lasting only up to eight hours, on the assumption that power could be quickly restored. A complete loss of electrical power, poses a major problem for a nuclear power plant operators because the reactor core must be kept cool, and the back-up cooling systems, mostly the pumps to replenish the core with fresh water, require massive amounts of power to work correctly. Currently today, four hundred and forty nuclear power plants are operating across 30 countries around the world. If a Carrington type solar storm should strike this planet today, the Earth could become one giant exclusion zone.

Chernobyl Corium Lava

Chernobyl corium (highly irradiated uranium fuel) lava flow formed during a nuclear meltdown on the 26th of April 1986. This type of lava flow is formed during the most severe class of nuclear reactor accident. Chernobyl's reactors have yet to be cleaned of their damaged radioactive material over 30 years after the accident. The radiation released from the Chernobyl nuclear accident was equal to 300 Hiroshima type nuclear detonations and remain deadly over 100,000 years. The radiation around Chernobyl's damaged core is still so intense that even robots can't venture into the damage containment vessel long enough to clean it up.

© 2014 Mark Caruthers


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    • lions44 profile image

      CJ Kelly 

      4 years ago from Auburn, WA

      I had forgotten about those attacks. They are never spoken about when domestic security issues are raised. I wonder why. Frightening possibility. This was a great reminder.


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