Terrorism and the Electric Power Delivery System. National Academy of Sciences.

Much of what follows is from the 2012 National Academy of Science report written for the Department of Homeland Security: “Terrorism and the Electric Power Delivery System


Electricity is ubiquitous, reliable, and taken for granted . . . until the lights go out. Our modern society is almost totally dependent on electrical systems. Electricity is essential to the U.S. economy and way of life. The National Academy of Engineering called the grid the world’s largest integrated machine and a central part of the greatest engineering achievement of the 20th century.

A few of the services that fail in a Blackout: Pumping of drinking water, sewage, and irrigation water; the internet, banking, communications, refineries, shipping, and transportation systems; refrigeration, gas station pumps, home and commercial life-support systems (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning), traffic and railroad signals, natural gas and oil (most pipelines use electricity) to power stations, homes, and businesses.

The U.S. power delivery system is extremely complex. It is a network of substations, transmission lines, distribution lines, and less visible automatic and human controls that operate the system, as well as an intricate web of computers and communication systems that tie everything together.

The reliable operation of the power grid is complex and demanding:

  • Electricity moves at close to the speed of light (186,000 miles per second) and is not economically storable in large quantities, so electricity must be produced the instant it is used.
  • Voltage and frequency must be maintained within the extremely narrow range of 59.98 to 60.02 Hz, or power systems and equipment can be damaged, potentially leading to blackouts if the damage spreads widely

A well-executed terrorist attack could cause hundreds of billions of dollars in damage and take out the grid for over a year

Electric systems are not designed to withstand or quickly recover from damage inflicted simultaneously on multiple components. Such an attack could be carried out by knowledgeable attackers with little risk of detection. A large and coordinated attack by terrorists could leave the electric power system in a large region of the country disabled many months or, in absolute worst cases, several years, because substation and generator step-up transformers are vulnerable to attack from within and from outside the substation, are very large, difficult to move, custom-built, and can take over a year to replace. We no longer make them – getting one from another country can take a while because they’re in such high demand across the developing world.

The Grid is an easy target for terrorists. There are 5,800 major power plants connected by 450,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines spanning thousands of miles to unguarded facilities protected only by a chain-link fence. This makes the electric grid hard to protect, and so it can be severely damaged by a small number of well-informed attackers.

Cyber-attack. The grid depends on complex systems of sensors and automated and manual controls, all of which are tied together through communication systems, so instead of a physical assault; terrorists can cause blackouts by spoofing, jamming, or sending improper signals. Hacking and cyber-attacks are becoming increasingly common.

Military Attacks. Commandos with special training could mount a far stronger attack than even the most sophisticated terrorist group. The object would be to create havoc and demoralization before overt hostilities commence. A hostile country might take this approach if it were unable or unwilling to declare war but wanted to take some military action against the United States. The ultimate attack would be an overt military operation. The vulnerability of electric power systems can have serious national security implications. In World War II, Germany’s highly centralized electric system was not attacked until late in the war. German officials commented after the war that ‘‘The war would have finished 2 years earlier if the Allies had bombed our power plants. This experience will not be ignored in any future hostilities. (OTA 1990)

Terrorist attacks in other countries.   The U.S. Department of State lists over 42 international terrorist groups operating around the world today using rocket propelled grenades, mortars, and small arms. It’s hard, if not impossible, to defend substations from explosions, bullets, or other projectiles fired from a distance. Most attacks so far have come from local groups bent on damaging or destabilizing established ruling power structures. Around 2,500 attacks have occurred over the past 10 years, 528 against substations, 2,539 against transmission towers.

Who’s going to fix the grid? Half of workers retire in 5 to 10 years

As many as half of the 400,000 electric utility workers will be eligible to retire in the next 5 to 10 years. This loss of critical skills and training new workers is a significant problem for the electric utility industry, and likely to make nation’s electric power system will less reliable and more vulnerable to external threats, including terrorist intrusion and disruption from natural disasters.

One reason there aren’t enough employees is that they were fired due to industry restructuring, pressures from Wall Street and regulators, mergers and acquisitions, and the evolution of wholesale markets.

This substantial downsizing has made electric utility jobs far less secure and therefore stressful. Many utility engineers report a substantial broadening of work assignments without the necessary time to become “experts” in their new areas of responsibility. They cover more functions and technical areas at less depth, now that so many engineers have been fired. This in turn has led to few students wanting to go into power engineering as a career, most universities have dropped power engineering, only 12 colleges have this degree now.

As the workforce declines, a significant loss of institutional knowledge is occurring. This knowledge is often not documented, and frequently it is known only to a very few people. When today’s employees leave the workforce, this knowledge leaves with them.

Workforce vulnerability. After a terrorist action, restoration workers themselves may become targets (i.e. several line crews were shot at after Hurricane Katrina). Workers on poles and towers and in open areas in substations are particularly vulnerable. Further complications arise if terrorist attacks involve chemical, radio nuclear, or biological agents. Should a pandemic occur it will touch every part of the electric system in ways few have considered, because if workers don’t show up to run the grid, many essential services will stop running (see blackout list in introduction and table 8.1 below)

What to Do? Too much money to protect every installation, buy all the spare parts

Much of the document deals with how to solve these issues, how to protect facilities, the desperate need for engineers to replace the 50% of retiring workers, and how to get private businesses, industries, and essential services to buy back-up generation.

The researchers conclude it would cost too much money to protect every installation, and too much money to buy all the spare parts needed.

The threat to any given utility is modest, so to spread the risk, there is a program to get utilities to share in the cost of buying spare parts collectively, especially transformers. But EPRI has had difficulty getting the electric power industry to do this, which the NAS report calls “a classic case of “tragedy of the commons.”

I think the ruthless nature of capitalism will prevent an effective collective spare parts collaboration, because each privately owned entity is selfishly motivated to make profits for its executives and shareholders only. “The Market” will not spend money to protect the public from a year without electricity unless forced to, and I’m not sure how corporations can be forced to do anything now that corporate lobbyists practically run government and can easily stop such legislation. If that sounds radical, read Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress–and a Plan to Stop It by Lawrence Lessig, The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power by Joel Bakan, Corporations Are Not People: Why They Have More Rights Than You Do and What You Can Do About It by Jeffrey D. Clements, Free Lunch: How the Wealthiest Americans Enrich Themselves at Government Expense (and Stick You with the Bill) by David Cay Johnston, or When Corporations Rule the World by David C Korten.

My Summary of the report

There are many Really Stupid Energy-Electric Grid Interdependencies that will make outages from terrorism, natural disasters, and other causes much worse

Here are some other factors that I think will exacerbate the problems in the future as the system ages and there’s less oil to fix all the growing problems of society:

Natural gas power plants are fed by natural gas pipelines that use electricity to keep the natural gas flowing. So when the electricity goes out, the natural gas will stop flowing to power plants. Terrorists are also likely to take out natural gas transmission lines when they attack the electric system as well. Natural gas pipelines used to use the natural gas flowing through them to power the continued flow of natural gas.

Refineries are fed by oil pipelines that use electricity to keep the oil flowing. So when the electricity goes out, the oil will stop flowing to refineries, and there will be no fuel for ships, trucks, barges, cars, or airplanes.

Gasoline stations need electricity for the pumps. So even if a business or home has had the foresight to buy back-up generators, they won’t be able to get gas or diesel fuel because most gas stations don’t have backup power.

Coal supply chains. Coal travels an average of 848 miles by rail to power plants. Railroads heavily depend on signals, which will be out in an electric blackout. They too are vulnerable to climate change (rising sea level, heat buckled rails, etc.), failing infrastructure, and declining coal supplies. Trains deliver 70% of coal, and a lot of it: over 1 in 5 railcars are carrying coal – over 40% of the weight trains haul. In 2008, 7,710,000 carloads with 878,600,000 tons of coal were delivered by train (AAR).

Microprocessors can’t be made if the electric grid isn’t up or delivers low-quality electricity. The grid can’t function without microprocessors. Over 10% of electric demand is controlled by microprocessors,by 2020 it’ll be over 30% (EPRI, 2003). The electric power system was designed to serve analog electric loads and doesn’t always provide the quality power required by digital manufacturing assembly lines and information systems. A nearly imperceptible 1-second variation in power quality due to transients, harmonics, and voltage surges and sags at a semiconductor-fabrication plant can ruin an entire 30-hour batch of microprocessors and sometimes the manufacturing equipment, and take several days or more for a fabrication plant to recover and resume production again. Any device with a microprocessor is vulnerable to the slightest disruption of electricity. Billions, if not trillions, of microprocessors exist in electronic devices.

I believe that chip fabrication will be one of the first industries to fail, and not just from electric grid outages and/or poor quality electricity. Microprocessors have the longest supply chains, single points of failure in both nations and machinery, require silicon, water and chemicals of up to .9999999% purity, at least 60 minerals (many of them rare), $10 billion dollar clean rooms, and much more. (For details, see my articles The Fragility of Microchips, Microchips and fab plants: a Detailed description, High-tech can’t last: limited minerals and metals, and Motherboards in Computers – too complex to make in the future).

The biggest threat to the electric grid isn’t even mentioned in this report: lack of fossil fuels, uranium, and hydro-power to keep it going

We’re running out of the fossil fuels, uranium, and dams that keep 94.2% of the electric grid running: Coal 37%, Natural gas 30%, Nuclear 19%, Oil 1%, and hydropower (6.2%). We are at (or near) peak coal, peak natural gas, peak uranium, and peak oil.

Most “renewable” power comes from hydro-power, which isn’t really renewable, because dams fail when their short-lived concrete crumbles, and silt up within 50 to 200 years. Within the next 20 years, 85% of U.S. dams that cost taxpayers $2 trillion dollars will have outlived their average 50-year lifespan.

Renewables can’t keep the electric grid running either:

  1. Wind and solar are too sporadic and unpredictable, and their lifespan is only 20-30 years.
  2. According to Steven Chu, former US energy secretary, “Without technological breakthroughs in efficient, large-scale energy storage, it will be difficult to rely on intermittent renewables for much more than 20-30% of electricity.” We’re a long way from figuring out how to make low cost, high energy density, fast response, and safe storage devices.
  3. The grid must stay within an extremely narrow range of 59.98 to 60.02 Hz to prevent blackouts. This limits the use of intermittent renewables like wind and solar, because the more you add, the more unstable the electric grid gets (Halper).
  4. Adding renewables doesn’t reduce the use of fossil fuels, and can do the opposite, because additional natural gas combined cycle plants need to be built to kick in suddenly when the wind dies.

Terrorists: We are fully capable of ruining the electric grid without any help from you

The biggest threat isn’t terrorism (yet), it’s natural disasters, the aging electric power system, too much complexity, and lack of capital and energy to fix the system.

The Electric Power System is falling apart. The American Society of Civil Engineers gives our energy infrastructure a D+. The electric grid and most of our other infrastructure is old and falling apart. Both the average age and lifespan of power transformers is 40 years old, and much of the rest of the grid is at or nearing the need to be replaced, and this will lead to more and more blackouts. In the late 1990s, the restructuring and re-regulation of the U.S. transmission system led to a decrease in investment and now the grid operates at or near its physical limits, resulting in many parts of the bulk high-voltage system being heavily stressed.

Capitalism ensures most of the money needed to fix the grid will go to fat cats instead.  Because of deregulation and over 90% of America’s infrastructure being privately owned, money that ought to have been invested in maintenance and improvements has gone instead to CEO’s, top executives, and shareholders.

Natural Disasters & Climate Change. Hurricanes will be fiercer and more frequent in the future, as will tornadoes, ice storms, extreme droughts and flooding, severe thunderstorms, and the coup de grace – rising sea levels. All of these will take the grid down more often and for longer periods over wider areas.

There are many other ways the grid can come down besides terrorism. Cyber or nuclear war, an Electromagnetic pulse, natural gas shortages, coal shortages, and oil shocks.

Too Complex – Too Many Owners and operators, over 3,000 entities to coordinate, many with conflicting goals and interests. The U.S. electric power industry today is composed of a wide variety of players, entities, and institutions, all of which play different roles, and the actions of individual asset owners and operators affect each other.

Deregulation has made the system unstable. Competition in the wholesale electricity market has increased the operational complexity of the power delivery system. Electricity is being shipped much longer distances over a transmission system designed only to provide limited power and reserve sharing among nearby utilities.

Related Articles:


AAR. Association of American Railroads. August 2013. Railroads and Coal. Aar.org

EPRI (Electric Power Research Institute). 2003. Electricity Technology Roadmap: Meeting the Critical Challenges of the 21st Century: Summary and Synthesis. Palo Alto, Calif.: EPRI.

Halper, Evan. Dec 2, 2013. Power struggle: Green energy versus a grid that’s not ready. Minders of a fragile national power grid say the rush to renewable energy might actually make it harder to keep the lights on. Los Angeles Times.

LaCommare, K.H., Eto, J.H., 2004. Understanding the cost of power interruptions to U.S. electricity  consumers. Ernest Orlando Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, LBNL-55718, Berkeley, CA, September. http://eetd.lbl.gov/ea/EMP/EMP-pubs.html

OTA (Office of Technology Assessment). 1990. Physical Vulnerability of Electric System to Natural Disasters and Sabotage. OTA-E-453. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.


Annual sales in 2006 were $326 billion. Electricity outages in the U.S. cost an estimated $80 billion every year, mostly from small disturbances (LaCommare).

Table 2.1 Major Industry Players in the U.S. Electric Industry

  • Asset Owners: 1) Vertically integrated utilities (owning generation, transmission, and distribution) 2) Generation and transmission utilities 3) Transmission utilities or companies   4) Distribution utilities 5) Generation companies 6) Marketing companies
  • Institutional Structures of Asset Owners: 1) Investor-owned electric utilities (IOUs), 2) Rural electric cooperatives (RECs or Co-ops) 3) Municipal utilities (MUNIs) 4) Federal power agencies
  • Other Asset Operators and Coordinators: 1) North American Electric Reliability Council (NERC), 2) Independent system operators (ISOs)  3) Regional transmission operators (RTOs)   4) Regional reliability organizations (RROs)
  • Government Entities and Regulatory Authorities: 1) State regulatory commissions, 2) Power marketing authorities (PMAs) 3) Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) 4) U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) 5) Energy Information Administration (EIA)   6) Bonneville Power Administration (BPA)   7) Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA)   8) V Western Area Power Administration (WAPPA)
  • Industry Associations and Institutions: 1) Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), 2) National Regulatory Research Institute (NRRI)    3) Edison Electric Institute (EEI) 4) National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA)  5) Electric Power Supply Association (EPSA)  6) National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC)    7) Association of State Energy Research and Technology Transfer Institutes (ASERTTI) 8) National Association of State Utility Consumer Advocates (NASUCA)

NERC requires organizations to register as one or more of: Generator owners, Generator operators, Transmission service providers, Transmission owners, Transmission operators, Distribution providers, Load-serving entities, Purchasing-selling entities, Reliability authorities, Planning authorities, Balancing authorities, Interchange authorities, Transmission planners, Resource planners, Standards developers, and/or Compliance monitors.

Table 8.1. Examples of Critical Social Services that depend on Availability of Electric Power

Emergency Services

  • 911 and other dispatch centers
  • Police headquarters and station houses
  • Fire protection services
  • Emergency medical services
  • Hazardous materials Response Teams

Medical Services: Ambulance, Life-critical hospital care, Clinics and Pharmacies, Nursing Homes

Communications and cyber services

  • Radio broadcast media
  • Television broadcast media
  • Cable television
  • Conventional and wireless telephone and data systems
  • Wired data service
  • Computer Services

Water and sewer: Water supply & Sewer systems

Natural gas. Pipes may burst in cold weather if homes/buildings are left without heat.


  • Retail groceries (cash registers, lighting, etc)
  • Wholesale grocery and distribution networks
  • Food production facilities (farms, animal facilities, processing, packaging, etc)
  • Refrigeration: Spoiled food in homes and grocery stores

Financial Cash Machines                 Credit card systems                Banks

Fuel   Bulk fuel delivery                     Local storage infrastructure    Retail gasoline sales

Non-emergency government services

  • Information service offices: Important for distributing emergency information. Risk of chaos if information not available.
  • Operations units
  • Prisons and other detention facilities: Potential risks to prisoners, guards, and public if security systems fail.
  • Schools

Transportation systems

  • Traffic lights
  • Tunnels (esp ventilation)
  • Light rail systems and subways
  • Stranded commuter trains (i.e. outage in Italy 110 trains with 30,000 passengers)
  • Conventional rail systems, including railroad crossings
  • Air traffic control, navigation, landing aids, and airport operations
  • River lock and dam operations
  • Buses
  • Drawbridge operations

Lighting: buildings, residential (risk of fires from candles), commercial and industrial, street

Building operations: elevators, space heating and cooling

Other instabilities.Some states have more stringent environmental regulations than at the federal level, and don’t allow coal generated electricity, making it harder for systems operators to meet reliability objectives. This is made even harder when communities build renewable-energy-based resources like wind for generation, since unreliable renewables are often far from customers, and not able to generate electricity when the need is greatest, increasing the complications of system design, operation, [and the need for natural gas combined cycle plants to make up for the lack of power].

Other Impacts (OTA 1990)

  • Agriculture. There can be significant hazards to livestock and produce during a blackout. Sensitive processes include incubation, milking, pumping, heating, air-conditioning, and refrigeration.
  • Residential. Consumers do not have air-conditioning, heat, hot water, lights, freezers, refrigerators, stoves and microwave ovens, toasters, home computers, elevators etc.
  • Transportation A blackout affects virtually every mode of transportation (box D). Subways, elevators, and escalators stop running, street traffic is snarled without traffic lights. Gasoline pumps do not work, taxis and buses decline over time. Parking lot gates and toll booths will not operate. Trains can function, but it can be hazardous without signal lights. Other transportation effects result from the inability to deliver goods.
  • Looting and fires. Looting and arson can severely strain police and fire-fighting and services. During the New York City blackout there were 1,037 fires (primarily arson)
  • Water supply systems often rely on gravity to move water from reservoirs through the mains and to maintain pressure throughout the system. Some power may be required at pumping stations and reservoirs. Loss of pressure in mains hampers free-fighting and may permit contaminants to seep into the water supply.
  • Electricity is needed in treatment and pumping of sewage. An outage at a treatment plant causes raw sewage to bypass the treatment process and flow into the waterways. Lack of pumping station power prevents sewage flow and ultimately causes a backup at the lowest points of input (usually basements in low-lying areas. Many sewage treatment plants and pumping stations have standby power supplies, but only for short durations. After standby power is exhausted, untreated sewage flows continuously from the treatment plant.
  • Destruction of Four or More Major Transmission Substations. The destruction of more than 3 transmission substations would cause long-term blackouts in many areas of the country. Only a few areas have a good enough geographic balance of load and generation to survive this very severe test.

Costs of blackouts: food spoilage, damage to electronic data, life-support systems inoperable in hospitals, arson and looting (in the 1977 New York City blackout, this accounted for half of the economic costs — $155 million), overtime payments to police and fire personnel, increases in insurance rates, lost productivity at commercial and industrial companies. Many industrial processes are highly sensitive to power disruptions. An interruption of less than 1 second can shut plant equipment down for several hours. Outages can spoil raw materials, work-in-progress, and finished goods. Spoilage is a significant problem in chemical processes, steel manufacture, food products, and other industries (OTA 1990)

Sabotage and Vandalism: Insulators on distribution lines are a frequent target for vandals with guns. To date, no long-term blackouts have been caused in the United States by sabotage. However, this observation is less reassuring than it sounds. Electric power system components have been targets of numerous isolated acts of sabotage in this country. Several incidents have resulted in multimillion-dollar repair bills. In several other countries, sabotage has led to extensive blackouts and considerable economic damage in addition to the cost of repair

United States before 1990: Over the past decade there were few notable acts of sabotage, and apparently none that were intended to cause harm other than to the local utility. The most common cause has been labor disputes. In July 1989, a tower on a 765-kV line owned by the Kentucky Power Co. was bombed, temporarily disabling the line. No arrests have been made. In 1987-88, power line poles and substations were bombed or shot in the Wyoming-Montana border area. Later in 1988, similar attacks were experienced in West Virginia. Such attacks had also occurred in 1985 in West Virginia and Kentucky. All these attacks occurred during coal mine strikes. Two Florida substations were heavily damaged by simultaneous dynamite explosions in 1981 in one of the most expensive incidents. Damages totaled about $3 million, but no significant customer outages resulted. No arrests have been made, but circumstantial evidence points to a contractor labor dispute. Incidents stemming from unknown motives include the cutting of guy wires and subsequent toppling of a tower on the 1,800-MW, 1,000-kV DC intertie in California in 1987. There was negligible impact on the power system, because the load on the line was light at the time and it was scheduled for maintenance the next day, so alternate power routes had already been arranged.

Another incident demonstrates that saboteurs can mount a coordinated operation. In 1986, three 500-kV lines from the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station were grounded simultaneously over a 30-mile stretch. It happened at a time when none of the nuclear reactors was operating, so no disruption occurred. Under different conditions, the reactors would have shut down. No arrests have been made.

El Salvador: Attacks on electric power systems have been most severe in El Salvador. The Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) has repeatedly bombed or fired on transmission towers, substations and hydroelectric power plants. Up to 90 percent of the entire Nation has been blacked out by the FMLN during some sabotage campaigns. The FMLN has even produced a manual detailing how to attack an electric power system. According to official sources, the FMLN has launched over 2,000 attacks on electric systems since 1980. The Sendero Luminosa (Shining Path) revolutionary group has adopted a similar strategy in Peru, frequently leaving Lima, as well as a 600-mile stretch of the country, blacked out or under power rationing for 40 to 50 days (OTA, 1990).

Industries most dependent on electricity (in New Jersey): aluminum, wet corn milling, cement, pipelines (oil, natural gas, water), electrometallurgical products, petroleum refining, platemaking, soybean oil mills, carbon black, smelting and refining of copper, industrial organic and inorganic chemicals, plastics and resins (Greenberg, Met al. 2007. “Short and Intermediate Economic Impacts of a Terrorist Initiated Loss of Electric Power: Case Study of New Jersey.” Energy Policy 35(1):722–733.








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One Response to Terrorism and the Electric Power Delivery System. National Academy of Sciences.

  1. A great book – unfortunately didn’t make it into English – called “Blackout” by Marc Elsberg went through exactly this scenario for his novel. He interviewed top policy makers on contingency plans and exposed the danger that a two week blackout would cause ie. nuclear meltdowns all over France. As a result of the book, many policy makers and general public listened up, further underlining the necessity for localised grids and emergency back-ups. It would be worth some author (yes, I’m busy with my own future scenario, sorry) to do the same thing in English. Elsbergs book was extremely well researched (and very popular in Germany) but perhaps not up to scratch entertainment wise for a fairly spoilt English speaking audience, though I found it passable on that front.