Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) and other ways to bring down the electric grid

Preface.  At some point of energy decline the electric grid will fail, and civilization will take a giant step downward (financial systems gone, knowledge stored gone, computers / phones inoperable) and so on.

“Reliance on this most flexible and most convenient form of energy has rapidly developed into an all-encompassing dependence. Without electricity, modern societies could not farm or eat the way they do: electricity powers compressors in both ammonia plants and domestic refrigerators. They could not prevent disease (now controlled with refrigerated vaccines) and take care of the sick (with diagnoses dependent on electricity-powered machines, from venerable x-ray machines to the latest MRI, and with extensive monitoring in intensive care units), control their transportation networks, or handle their enormous volume of information (with data centers becoming some of the largest point consumers of electricity) or urban sewage.  operating the machines that make parts with amazing precision and exact tolerance for jet engines, medical diagnostic devices, and much more” (Vaclav Smil. 2015. Energy and Civilization).

Related articles:

Alice Friedemann   www.energyskeptic.com  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report ]

Nakashima, E. June 12, 2017. Russia has developed a cyberweapon that can disrupt power grids, according to new research. Washington Post.

[ According to this article: The outages from this malware would last a few hours and probably not more than a couple of days, because the U.S. electric industry has trained its operators to handle disruptions caused by large storms. They’re used to having to restore power with manual operations. So although the malware is a significant leap forward in tradecraft, it’s also not a doomsday scenario.

I don’t know enough about this topic to decide how dangerous it is.  If the right substations are targeted, a substantial portion of the grid can be taken out.  What if the Russians do this over and over?  Also, some regions might be more vulnerable or stay down longer.  For example, hydropower is the easiest way to blackstart the grid (restart it), but if the Russians choose sections of the electric grid with little hydro-power and/or where the maintenance and aging of the infrastructure was the worst, recovery might take longer. ]

Hackers allied with the Russian government have devised a cyberweapon that has the potential to be the most disruptive yet against electric systems that Americans depend on for daily life.

The malware, dubbed CrashOverridebriefly shut down one-fifth of the electric power generated in Kiev and left 225,000 customers without power. With modifications, it could be deployed against U.S. electric transmission and distribution systems to devastating effect.  And Russian government hackers have shown their interest in targeting U.S. energy and other utility systems, researchers said.  It’s the culmination of over a decade of theory and attack scenarios. It’s a game changer.

The revelation comes as the U.S. government is investigating a wide-ranging, ambitious effort by the Russian government last year to disrupt the U.S. presidential election and influence its outcome. That campaign employed a variety of methods, including hacking hundreds of political and other organizations, and leveraging social media, U.S. officials said.

“The same Russian group that targeted U.S. [industrial control] systems in 2014 turned out the lights in Ukraine in 2015,” said John Hultquist, who analyzed both incidents while at iSight Partners, a cyber-intelligence firm now owned by FireEye, where he is director of intelligence analysis.  “We believe this group is tied in some way to the Russian government…perhaps the security services.”

“U.S. utilities have been enhancing their cybersecurity, but attacker tools like this one pose a very real risk to reliable operation of power systems,” said Michael J. Assante, who worked at Idaho National Labs and is a former chief security officer of the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, where he oversaw the rollout of industry cybersecurity standards.

CrashOverride is only the second instance of malware specifically tailored to disrupt or destroy industrial control systems. Stuxnet, the worm created by the United States and Israel to disrupt Iran’s nuclear capability, was an advanced military-grade weapon designed to affect centrifuges that enrich uranium.

In 2015, the Russians used malware to gain access to the power supply network in western Ukraine, but it was hackers at the keyboards who remotely manipulated the control systems to cause the blackout — not the malware itself, Hultquist said.

With CrashOverride, “what is particularly alarming . . . is that it is all part of a larger framework,” said Dan Gunter, a senior threat hunter for Dragos.

The malware is like a Swiss Army knife, where you flip open the tool you need and where different tools can be added to achieve different effects, Gunter said.

Theoretically, the malware can be modified to attack different types of industrial control systems, such as water and gas. However, the adversary has not demonstrated that level of sophistication, Lee said.

Still, the attackers probably had experts and resources available not only to develop the framework but also to test it, Gunter said. “This speaks to a larger effort often associated with nation-state or highly funded team operations.”

One of the most insidious tools in CrashOverride manipulates the settings on electric power control systems. It scans for critical components that operate circuit breakers and opens the circuit breakers, which stops the flow of electricity. It continues to keep them open even if a grid operator tries to close them, creating a sustained power outage.

The malware also has a “wiper” component that erases the software on the computer system that controls the circuit breakers, forcing the grid operator to revert to manual operations, which means driving to the substation to restore power.

With this malware, the attacker can target multiple locations with a “time bomb” functionality and set the malware to trigger simultaneously, Lee said. That could create outages in different areas at the same time.

Bob Adelmann. May 6, 2015. EMP Threats Force NORAD Back Into Cheyenne Mountain. The New American.

NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command) is moving back into its previous Cheyenne Mountain underground bunker in Colorado Springs because it is EMP-hardened, and due to threats from enemies who now possess the capabilities to launch an EMP nuclear weapon from the south where NORAD is blind.

North Korea now has operational the KN-08, a nuclear-weapon-armed missile, that can be launched undetected and set off a nuclear explosion sufficient to shut down the entire North American electric grid.

NORAD is prepared to defend the country from attacks from North Korea and Iran (even if negotiations are successful), provided that those attacks come over the North Pole. But all eyes are facing north, with none facing south.

Peter Vincent Pry, executive director of the EMP Task Force, has written frequently in attempts to warn citizens of the danger. Back in August he and James Woolsey, former CIA director said in a Wall Street Journal that North Korea and Iran will soon match Russia and China in their ability to launch an EMP attack with 1) simple ballistic missiles such as Scuds launched from a freighter near our shores, 2) space-launched vehicles able to loft low-earth-orbit satellites, or 3) simple low-yield nuclear weapons that can generate gamma rays and fireballs.

Pry said it wouldn’t take much to melt the grid with an EMP strike, most likely from the detonation of a nuclear weapon in space, which would destroy unprotected military and civilian electronics worldwide, blacking out the electric grid and other critical infrastructure for months or years. Iran should be regarded as already having nuclear missiles capable of making an EMP attack against the U.S. Iran and North Korea have successfully orbited satellites on south-polar trajectories that appear to practice evading U.S. missile defenses, and at optimum altitudes to make a surprise EMP attack.

Such costs were spelled out in a dystopian novel that made it onto the New York Times best-sellers list back in 2011: One Second After, by William R. Forstchen. It’s the story of how one man struggles to deal with a world that no longer works, first evidenced when cars passing by on the highway come to an immediate and permanent halt thanks to internal computers that no longer work. In the afterword, Forstchen quotes a letter from Captain Bill Sanders of the U.S. Navy, who notes that One Second After is not so much a novel as it is a warning: “An Electronic Pulse (EPM) explosion over the continental United States would have devastating consequences for our country….A well-designed nuclear weapon detonated at a high altitude over Kansas could have damaging effects over virtually all of the continental United States. Our technologically oriented society and its heavy dependence on advanced electronics systems could be brought to its knees with cascading failures of our critical infrastructure. Our vulnerability increases daily as our use and dependence on electronics continues to accelerate.”

Joan Trossman. 21 Nov 2012. Fire in the Sky. Scientists warn of a solar flare large enough to paralyze our electrified world. Pasadena Weekly.

If you have never heard of an electromagnetic pulse, or EMP, then you have not spent any time worrying about an EMP causing the end of civilization as we know it. But scientists and some policymakers worry about such a thing happening, and for very good reason.

If an EMP were to occur over the United States, caused either by a particularly violent solar storm or by a small nuclear device detonated many miles above the ground, chances are high that the country’s entire electrical grid would fail, as a massive surge of electricity would fry the huge transformers that keep the grid humming. Satellites we rely on for navigation and communication would be damaged beyond repair, and society would crumble into a dysfunctional scramble for survival. The very necessities of life, such as clean water, food, medications, transportation, even government, would all either disappear or be in very short supply.

Given the fact that extreme solar events happen once or twice a decade, “It is just a question of not if, but when the Earth happens to be in the path of these kinds of [solar] storms,” according to Dan Baker, director of Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) at the University of Colorado.

Solar flares are not unusual.  On March 13, 1989, one blew out power in Quebec, leaving 6 million people in the dark. In 1921, a solar storm hit, but didn’t cause much damage. Today, such an occurrence would have darkened half of North America.

Last summer, Baker said there was a very close call. “Just on July 22, there was a very ugly, mean-looking active region on the sun that had moved across the face of the sun. A satellite was watching it. A huge flare, and then a CME, came at the spacecraft and it was moving at the highest recorded speed that has been seen in the modern Space Age. It reached the satellite in 17 hours. That’s an hour faster than the Carrington Event, and it led to extremely intense magnetic fields in the interplanetary medium. For all intents and purposes, that was a Carrington Event that just missed us. We dodged the proverbial bullet there. Now we know there have been others like this.

Can it happen again? “Some people say that the Carrington Event is a moldy old event and these things happen only once in 1,000 years,” Baker said. “I think recent work has suggested quite the contrary. The probability of any of these occurring during one 11-year cycle of solar storms is like 10 percent, a pretty significant probability. It’s not a rare thing.

Ultimately, whether triggered by a rogue nation’s high-altitude detonation of a small nuclear weapon or set off by a rare but possible extremely strong solar flare, the result will be the same if we continue to do nothing.

Congressional committees have acknowledged the danger since 2001. There have been studies ordered, hearings held, admissions of lack of knowledge and lists of problems. Still, it remains in the talking stages and no action has been taken to lessen the danger. The Department of Homeland Security admitted as recently as this past September that it has no estimate of the costs associated with an EMP. But experts, including Baker, have placed the cost at $1 trillion to $2 trillion. Estimates of the cost of meaningful preparation are $150 million to $200 million.

On Sept. 12, the House Committee on Homeland Security, Subcommittee on Cyber security, Infrastructure Protection, and Security Technologies held a hearing on the electromagnetic pulse threat. Rep. Dan Lungren of California chaired the hearing.

Lundgren, a former California Attorney General, said in his opening statement that an EMP from either a geomagnetic storm or an attack would wipe out the entire country’s electrical grid. Referring to a 2010 computer simulation conducted at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Lundgren said the power system collapse could take four to 10 years from which to fully recover.

“In 2004 and 2008, the EMP Commission testified before the Armed Services Committee that the US society and economy are so critically dependent upon the availability of electricity that a significant collapse of our grid…could result in catastrophic civilian casualties,” Franks said. “This conclusion is echoed by separate reports recently compiled by the DOD (Department of Defense), DHS (Department of Homeland Security), DOE (Department of Energy), NAS (National Academy of Sciences), along with various other agencies and independent researchers.

On Oct. 18, federal regulators took the first step toward mitigating the effects of an EMP. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) said present standards have “a reliability gap” and “do not adequately address vulnerabilities” from a destructive solar storm. FERC called for the agency that oversees the national grid to draft rules requiring power companies to assess their weaknesses and upgrade their grids to withstand the electrical onslaught.

Most power companies in the country are privately owned. As such, those companies have categorized the danger of an EMP as highly unlikely and have refused to officially assess their own vulnerabilities. In Baker’s opinion, that’s a big mistake.

“What would a Carrington Event look like in modern times? We need to be constantly vigilant, we need to keep our eye on our beautiful but dangerous partner here, the sun,” Baker said. “Knowing what’s coming at us is going to be very advantageous.”


Nov 22, 2012.  Preventing Armageddon Would Cost Only $100 Million … But Congress Is Too Thick to Approve the Fix. WashingtonsBlog

Government Spends Tens of Trillions On Unnecessary, Harmful Projects … But Won’t Spend $100 Million to Prevent the Greatest Threat.


Newt Gingrich.  12 July 2012.  Newt Gingrich: Preparing for the next outage. Washington Post.

Gingrich is a former speaker of the House and a Republican candidate for president.

Without power, the comforts of home become worthless. You sit in the sweltering heat, realizing you are living in a box that, without electricity, is a trap. You pray for the “juice” to return before your groceries go bad. You either make do in the heat or find refuge with friends who have electricity.  I write this now because of my concern for national security and our power grid, which are susceptible to doomsday-level damage if hit by an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) strike or a major solar storm.

It is almost unthinkable, yet possible, that an enemy could detonate a nuclear weapon over the atmosphere over the continental United States, triggering an electromagnetic pulse. This would short-circuit our power grid, taking power off­line for months, perhaps even years.

A similar crisis could be sparked by a solar storm like the Carrington Event of 1859, a type of geomagnetic disturbance that occurs about every 75 years. Statistically, we are long overdue for such a storm. There have been some recent examples of the potential impact, such as the millions in Quebec who lost power for several hours in 1989 as a result of a space storm.

Our nation’s communications infrastructure, modes of transportation and many fundamentals of survival all rely on a power grid that is vulnerable. The current system lacks safety features needed to prevent damage to critical electrical infrastructure.

In 2009, my friend — and sometimes co-author — William R. Forstchen published a truly frightening book, “One Second After.” The story is fiction but based on hard facts. It is a cautionary tale about the threat of EMP strikes and major solar storms, known as coronal mass ejections.

Suppose that, rather than being a temporary disruption in our lives, the power outage lasted weeks or months, or even years. Consider what state all of us, from the richest to the poorest, would be in if we were still literally in the dark. Millions could be trapped in houses or apartments that were never designed for this climate without air conditioning. No cool air; months with no food shipments and every pharmacy shut down — no refills for life-sustaining medications.

In a crisis, many in the Washington area could not even flee because the impact of an EMP attack would disable most cars and public transportation. The water supply would go dry without electricity to pump water from rivers and wells. Imagine if you could find a bottle of potable water for, say, your children. How much would you pay? What would you pay with if every bank and ATM were shut down? Public safety? Forget it. No power means no police cars, no communications and no 911 emergency service. For criminals, it would be time to run rampant.


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2 Responses to Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) and other ways to bring down the electric grid

  1. Rice Farmer says:

    Hacking, EMP attacks, and various natural phenomena are very real threats, but in terms of probability, I think collapse of the global financial system is the biggest threat. Everything runs on debt, and indeed debt expansion is a requirement for economic expansion. Remember when Hanjin Shipping ran aground? Ships and their cargoes were left in a state of limbo because no one was certain they would get paid. And it happened very quickly. Now imagine that on a global scale, including everything from mom-and-pop stores to giant multinational corporations. Of course power producers and grid operators too need to be paid. Economic and finance gurus from Bill Gross to David Stockman are now predicting a near-future crash which they claim will be worse than 2008.

    BTW, if grids go down, that leaves nuclear power plants and their spent fuel pools without offsite power. How long could they hold out? It could be a planet-wide nuclear disaster.

    • energyskeptic says:

      For sure the corrupt unreformed financial system is at the top of the list for looming disasters, but as the world grows more and more unstable I can’t help but think the Black Swans breed and multiply. North Korea will be able within years to cause a nation-wide EMP in the U.S., Pakistan and other nations surely have corrupt or fanatic religious leaders who would be willing to sell nuclear weapons to terrorists. And yes, the nuclear spent fuel pools are a huge danger. Only Finland is nearing permanent disposal of their nuclear wastes. Shame on us for not doing the same, we’re passing on a bad enough world to the grandchildren.