Electric Power Blackout: The Power of One

By Ken Chrosniak

There now exists a clear and present danger to you, your family and your community: the loss of sustained electric power, a threat recently confirmed in an announcement by past Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. As of now, absolutely no government entity (except for the Department of Defense (DoD)) has initiated plans for survival from a catastrophic breakdown of our electric grid over multiple regions of America. While the U.S. government (specifically Department of Homeland Security (DHS)) has the ability to provide you with critical information on the condition of your country for your survival and well-being; to date, they have not chosen to do so.

Although grace and beauty exist all around us, these days we are incessantly bombarded with news– mostly negative. I hesitate to add more angst to your life in these unprecedented and anxious times, but near the end of this somewhat caustic and cautionary “conversation” I’ll give you a glimmer of hope on what positive action you can take. My perspective is from a private citizen and former soldier, formed from the “soft” foundation of a history/English major and not a scientist. This is a very complicated problem comprised of many moving parts that affect you directly, and may threaten our very survival as a sovereign nation. To try and get your arms around the problem, it’s important to get a good picture of the condition of your country.

All of us are totally dependent on electricity, as we literally cannot survive without it. Our extremely tenuous electric grid, comprised of hundreds of vulnerable power extra high-voltage (EHV) transformers and more than 200,000 miles of aged transmission lines, is the “circulatory system” that runs our country and touches every aspect of your life such as water pressure for daily use, sanitation, and fighting fires; your cell phone; the Internet (which makes it possible, for example, for a doctor to order insulin for your child); the supply chain to enable delivering that insulin to you; pumping systems to cool the nuclear power plant core rods and spent fuel pools; Wall Street and ATMs; all medical services; all forms of transportation; oil refinery production; refrigeration; military installations and defense industrial bases; your social security/pension check; and virtually all types of emergency communications used by firefighters, police, and EMS, to name just a few.

Joseph McClelland, director of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) Office of Infrastructure Security, expressed focused concern that private power utilities are not truly prepared to handle a catastrophic loss of electric power event, and stated that the effects of such an event would be profound on the entire national grid system. Most crucial are the 350 plus large EHV transformers, all of which are extremely vulnerable to threats; there are little to no replacements on hand for these devices, and, worst of all, they are not made in the U.S.! Each takes significant design configuration, takes nearly two years to make, and requires significant transportation support to put in place. In the worst-case scenario (remember to always plan for worst case), we will not be able to order or have the capability to deliver or emplace them for multiple years.


It’s difficult to effect change in a person or group through fear alone, and my intent is not to. But weren’t we vividly reminded most recently of our archaic and delicate electric grid as a result of Hurricane Sandy in New York and New Jersey, and, before that, the Derecho storm that hit the Baltimore-DC-Philadelphia corridor? Fortunately we had fire and EMS service for these desperate times in the regional area to help. Last year, while driving west from New York City on a Friday afternoon just two days before Sandy hit, I passed a convoy of utility trucks (cherry pickers) headed east. They were being repositioned as a result of preexisting plans for assistance. However, in the event of a simultaneous “multi-regional catastrophic” event, support will not be available from neighboring regions as they will experience similar problems plus road/traffic congestion and limited to no communication capability (especially the tenuous 911 system). The real downer here is that, most likely, there won’t be a power source to work with if they do arrive.

Also, remember that Earth experiences differing levels of solar flares (coronal mass ejection). While they do cause harm (mostly to GPS and communications), many factors preclude them from hitting us head on, but it’s mostly a matter of pure luck. Although solar events occur often, the most sensational ones occurred in 1859, 1923, 1989, and 2001. A massive solar event occurring now would totally destroy modern electronics and leave us “in the dark” for months, if not years. NASA Goddard Space Center and many national solar experts have predicted increased solar activity between now and 2014, with a significant peak activity during 2013.

Have you also been told that there are man-made threats existing to the electric power grid, in addition to solar flares and devastating Sandy-type storms? No, probably not. One is an electromagnetic pulse (EMP), which, generated from a high-altitude nuclear burst, could destroy outdated and vulnerable high-voltage transformers (of which power utilities have critically low spares) and the tenuous transmission system. Let me add to these threats the insidious risk of a coordinated cyber and physical attack on our power-generation plants and critical infrastructures. That’s right, most likely all these threats are unknown to you since your local, state and federal leaders have not prepared you for the effects of these catastrophic high-impact/low-frequency events. Taken individually, each threat could result in long-term failure of the electric grid. To give you some perspective, a 2001 congressionally mandated EMP commission of eminent scientists (after an eight-year study) concluded in 2008 that more than two-thirds of our population would perish within one year of a nation-wide “grid-down” event.

A recently declassified 2007 National Academies report on power grid vulnerabilities stated that cyberattacks, unlike natural disasters, probably could not cause lengthy blackouts. That was not true then, and it’s certainly not true now. DHS is fully aware that a cyber attack on the power system could affect large regions of the country for weeks or even months. The result would be significant societal unrest (you can use your imagination here) and helplessness. Has DHS alerted you to that fact?

Your first responder community is not aware of this also, and assistance will not be guaranteed or will be severely compromised as the national fire service and fire academies have not addressed this problem-set, nor have they developed or exercised plans to protect you. DHS has not done so, either. They have not developed plans or exercise scenarios, or provided guidance to firefighters concerning any long-term power outage strategy for emergency service or police. Although it’s well-known that DHS, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and state emergency management offices have excellent “All Hazard” plans “on the shelf” and conduct exercises for local and limited regional disasters, there are no existing plans or exercises for a prolonged blackout lasting months or years (involving multiple regions in the continental United States). Such a scenario would surely result in a tremendous loss of life over time. The closest plan might be the worst-case scenario outlined in the recently published National Preparedness Report (March 30, 2012, page 5), where FEMA encourages each local community (of 5-7 million or so) to be ready to handle as many as 260,000 medical casualties beyond the means of “government” help. Immediately, DHS should develop plans to facilitate command and control (situational awareness) and encourage localized awareness and empowerment.

Some areas of concern to first responders:

  • How much of a surge capability do you have in your organization?
  • Will you continue to report for duty while your family survival concerns are heightened? As a volunteer first responder, I will ensure my family is secure first and foremost.


For fire protection alone, agencies of the DHS should ensure that fire apparatus manufacturers produce hardened fire engines, ladder trucks, heavy rescue vehicles and ambulances that can withstand an EMP (hopefully, including a robust E1 HEMP) that will control systems/microprocessors.

DHS must produce plans for recovery and maintaining situational awareness and encourage local, state, and regional preparation of plans to assist recovery efforts, and regularly exercise those plans. DHS should also:

  • ensure development of training material/courses for first responders (fire, police, and EMS) on operational procedures during and after the loss of power;
  • develop an EMP attack consequence assessment tool to perform planning analysis and training (in order to set aside and protect critical equipment);
  • ensure essential 911 communications are hardened and redundant (the 911 system was compromised during the recent Derecho event on the east coast, and Hurricane Sandy); and
  • enhance mutual aid relationships for time of need.

None of the above is being accomplished right now, as many fire and police chiefs have no idea what to do relative to the catastrophic (if not tragic) effects of having little to no electricity for very prolonged periods of time over multiple regions of the country simultaneously. Just for fun, go and ask your local fire chief to explain the effects of an electromagnetic pulse on his/her department and the effects of no electricity (meaning no water pressure) for a prolonged time frame. You can then waste more time by asking your police chief the same thing.

Thinking of the military “cavalry coming over the hill” after the blackout? Forget it. Again, plan for the worst case! You won’t be able to count on the military for help because, just like you, they too are heavily dependent for support from their surrounding community electric grid, which powers all military posts, including the crucial defense industrial base. Nor do they train or conduct exercises in an EMP environment or the loss of electric power for sustained periods. Again, they are wired to the same grid you are. And what will be on the mind of military personnel (here and overseas) after a prolonged period of time of no power? Could it be their families? What will be their “level of readiness” with little to no contact and certain doubt? While the DoD is working this issue aggressively, time is of the essence.

Another area devoid of planning in a grid-down event is the effect on nuclear power plant back-up power (batteries and generators) for coolant controls to keep the core and spent fuel pools (spent fuel pools store numerous discarded rods from the core) cool and temporarily safe. Interesting note: the August 2003 blackout that affected more than 90 million people and portions of northeastern U.S. and Canada also shut down more than 500 power generating plants, with 22 of them being nuclear power plants! To keep the core rods and spent fuel pool cool, batteries last about 12-48 hours, at best. Generators, if they even start to begin with (remember Fukushima?) will eventually run out of fuel (in approximately 30 days) with resupply highly questionable (don’t forget that refineries and the transportation system will be affected, also). Once generators run out of fuel, venting of Cesiun-134 from the spent fuel pools will occur first, and in little time a compromised core. Let this fact sink in: a nuclear power plant can only be restarted by a full-up external power source; it cannot “black start” itself.

Need some good news that is an excellent example of a viable public-private (industry) partnership to save lives? In early spring of 2012, a plan was proposed by EMPact America, a non-profit organization from Elma, New York, to “hard wire” (EMP proof) a military installation located in VERY close proximity to a hydroelectric generating plant. This hydro plant has very attractive attributes: it’s a renewable source of energy that cannot be shut down by lack of a source (H20); it has maintained the Analog system (as opposed to the vulnerable “cyber hack-able” Digital system); and has the distinction of being the only power generating plant remaining operational during the 2003 Northeast blackout. Best of all, it can re-start itself (if needed), and can facilitate the black start of a downed nuclear power plant! No negatives were noted during the initial study. So what has been done with this basic proposal? Absolutely nothing. But if/when completed, it could be a great cookie-cutter model for other hydroelectric plants in our nation, and could provide the military and surrounding community an extended runway, the capability to receive/store repositioned aircraft, a civilian and military command center, a viable support system for military and civilian emergency services, and a capability to receive, stage, and prepare for onward movement of life-sustaining goods, among other things. And the cost? Let’s say considerably less than the past recent “Cash-4 Clunkers” debacle. This project was stalled during the election cycle, but perhaps we can get it going now. As a reminder, this can facilitate a restart of a downed nuclear power plant.

Past Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta also recently warned of an impending cyber Pearl Harbor attack that could result in an electric breakdown with cascading failure of critical infrastructure (power generating plants) across the nation. But here’s more good news. DoD is leaning forward in the foxhole for your survival as plans are developing for “islands of power,” micro-grids if you will, to provide sustained power to a number of military installations (and possibly defense industrial base facilities). These will consist of solar, wind, and other varied sources of power to provide at least 20 percent of essential need. Also, a bipartisan House Resolution 762 encourages local communities to begin the process of doing the same thing in every local community–namely making 20 percent of what is needed locally, such as power and food–so they can withstand a grid collapse. However, this proposal, like many others, went nowhere. Cyber hacking is occurring all the time right now, and there is no effective defense. Our Critical Infrastructure/Key Resource (CI/KR), such as nuclear and chemical power plants, banking systems, dams, White House, FBI, and the DoD have all been affected.


It is a basic tenet of sound military planning that a commander’s staff must plan for the worst-case situation, and the same should be true for disaster planning. This is where your government is failing you. In addition to the failed H.R. 762, Congress is literally sitting on additional legislation that will help protect the grid and save many lives. The SHIELD Act (H.R. 668) was held in a congressional committee nearly two years and expired on December 31, 2012. Even though they all seem concerned, please contact your congressional and senate representatives to demand they initiate similar legislation. Additionally (just for the fun of it), contact your local, county, and state representatives and ask them what they are doing to make your community more resilient in the case of a prolonged electric grid blackout. Trust me, they won’t be able to answer you.

It is unfathomable that you have not been told of these threats by your leaders, especially the one agency entrusted to keep you informed and secure: DHS. The threat from either a natural or man-made EMP is very real and inevitable, as stated by two Congressional EMP Commission reports, as well as studies performed by the National Academy of Science on grid vulnerabilities, the Northern Electric Reliability Corporation, the NASA Goddard Space Center, the recently declassified (finally by DHS) National Research Council study entitled “Terrorism and the Electric Power Deliver System,” the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, and many more.

Unfortunately (here I am again with the bad news), the time needed to “fix” the grid even if the SHIELD Act bill had passed would have been years, so it is prudent now for you to prepare for a prolonged blackout by storing essential supplies for your own and your family’s survival. Do not continue to think in the false terms of the 72-hour mantra, as DHS states! Try to prepare and stock provisions within your financial means to do so for as long a term as you are financially able to–preferably a year or more.

The bottom-line is that your leaders at all levels and the electric industry have been severely negligent in not making recovery a priority, or even developing scenarios and exercises to deal with a complex catastrophic event involving a long-duration power blackout over several regions of our country at the same time. For our own survival, and for the survival of our children and our nation, we and our government must act now. By reading this, you have taken a step forward that many others may be willing to take also. If you remember nothing else from this message, remember that in the end you are inevitably on your own.

Strategically, our congress and senate are neutered, and are of no help. Remember that in 2012 Congress had the chance to pass H.R. 762 and the Shield Act HR 668, but they failed to do so (picture my shocked look!). I strongly encourage you to contact your federal representative to support the re-write of these bills, which will hopefully surface again in the 2013 Congress. Even more essential, go to the EMPact America Web site at empactamerica.org. Consider joining (at no cost) this dedicated non-profit, non-partisan group, which will not take any contributions and exists only to prepare individuals and communities to survive and work together (unlike some representatives, who receive donations from the electric industry). Remember, there are fellow citizens out to help guide and inform you, and no, it’s not DHS. Lend your expertise to help others; prepare your family and community. Most importantly, talk to your leaders and demand that they do their job. Remember, the power of one: you!

Ken Chrosniak a retired Army general officer living in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. He is a member of EMPact America, a firefighter with Carlisle Fire Rescue, VP of Cumberland Goodwill Ambulance (EMS) Company, and member of the FBI vetted InfraGard EMP Special Interest Group. Ken is an instructor at the Army War College’s Center for Strategic Leadership Development.

*The opinions noted within this article are those of the author, and cannot be attributed to any government or non-government entity to which the author has been associated.

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