National Security

Single Tree Branch Brought Down U.S. Northeastern Power Grid in 2003 — Have We Since Learned?

At 4:10 p.m.on August 14, 2003, a tree branch caused approximately 500 million dollars in economic damages when it severed a single powerline at First Energy Corporation’s East Lake power plant in Ohio. This triggered a series of power outages because of safety software at other power plants, which took anywhere from two to 24 hours to fix.  The blackout affected nearly 50 million people during one of the hottest periods of the year in the Northeastern United States and was initially reported as a possible terrorist attack. Including seven nuclear power plants, 295 power plants served the Northeastern U.S. at the time, all of which initially automatically shut down when the power surge caused by the tree branch was detected. While hardened infrastructures such as hospitals, some federal buildings, and military bases used backup generators, the average American was left in the sweltering summer without power.

Manhattan Blackout

The recent July 13th blackout in Manhattan is another example of how the electricity grid of the U.S. can so quickly fail. This short power outage stranded people in subway cars, bogged motorists at intersections with failed traffic signals, millennials contemplating life without the Internet, and families forced to finally speak to each other for lack of other electronic options. The technical aspects of these to similar circumstances are compelling. From a strategic level, it highlights once again that the U.S.’s power grid is still an under-protected critical vulnerability (CV) that can neutralize the economy, society, police forces, and military by simple means.

More Ways to Cause Blackouts

The U.S. power grid as a CV to attack the American people has been evident to our enemies for decades. I am not saying that a fallen tree branch is an enemy of the U.S., just homeowners. The old, antiquated, and poorly managed electricity grid of the U.S. power industry can be highly effective and a straightforward means to attack the U.S. for maximum effect and at a minimal cost. The recent 2015 Russian attempt to use hacking and a cyber weapon called “Black Energy” to cause blackouts in Ukraine was ineffective because the country’s Soviet-era power industry facilities were still literally hand operated. In the U.S. we moved away from the primarily hand-operated power transmission facilities in the 1960s. Cyber-attacks should always be the number one concern of the U.S. power industry today. Mainly because the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has decided to implement more Internet connectivity to any further updates to the U.S. power grid through the Internet of things (IOT). Besides hacking threats, three additional pressing threats highlight the need to reimagine how we are updating the U.S. power grid.

All the Power is Still At the Plant

Green energy is inconsistent and uses the same susceptible power transmission lines as coal, nuclear, and gas power plants. As we all know, the sun does not always shine, wind doesn’t infinitely blow, and most energy is expended throughout the nights and during summers in the U.S. You can make all the energy you want, but if you generate 1000 megawatts and it cannot make its way to NYC, LA, DC, and more delightful places in between, does it really exist?

Power Grids Initially Designed During FDR’s Administration Might Need an Update

Our 1930s-designed power grid is organized off an antiquated government-built model and ineffective. Some transmission lines lose half the power that is generated. We can and should update the design, build, and organize our power grid from the government-supported model of the 1930s to 1980s, when government-mandated price-fixing and regulations removed the incentives for investment.

Defective Chinese Components

Many of the components used recently (and that are planned to update our power grid) have been designed and built by our major geopolitical enemy: the communist People’s Republic of China (PRC). The PRC is the world’s most prolific hacking nation and economic competitor of the U.S. A recent PRC law, the 2017 Intelligence Law, coerces firms located in the PRC and communist party members/citizens to support all intelligence operations. The PRC has been accused of bugging, adding malicious components, and installing software pre-loaded with malware. As in the case of Huawei’s fifth generation (5g) cellular infrastructure components. Fixing the software bugs and erecting firewalls against cyber-attacks are all fine. But if a single tree branch can down our inefficient, cheaply made, and selectively defective Chinese-built power grid components on a hot August night when green energy does not work, then what is the point?

Hopefully, Blackouts Only Last 24 Hours

How could you use the U.S. power grid to attack America’s economy, society, military, and people? I would typically not give specifics on how to best attack the U.S. for multiple reasons. But since the Chinese, Russians, Iranians, Islamic Terrorist, and U.S.-based Eco-terrorist have openly talked about it since 1991, I think we are safe to review this topic publicly. While our military bases, intelligence infrastructure, and essential government facilities have backup generators, your average American does not. Neither do the gate guards at some federal compounds. The support staff for these facilities will work for about three days before their concern for their families begins to take hold.

Modern Man’s Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

The average American relies too much on electricity for food, water, A/C, and many other essentials. This is before we even start up Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs regarding banking, social media, gaming, and adult Internet content. The same concerns would affect the police, military, and all aspects of society. Think of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina or any recent major storm, but without the water stopping people from acting a fool. This is not a doomsday scenario, since most Americans recently have gone without power for anywhere from a few hours to a few days due to storms or tree branches.

Prepare Yourself

Thankfully, these have been relatively short because they have been accidents or acts of God. But a prolonged blackout due to another fallen tree branch or cyber-attack might not be as pleasant. In fact, the only people that might benefit from a protracted power outage will be preppers, whose dating prospects will skyrocket if only Google Maps worked, cell phone batteries lasted more than 2 ½ hours without signal, and the preppers sent laminated cards to potential paramours’ home addresses before the blackout. We might want to fix these power grid issues before someone acts on this gaping hole in a vital part of the U.S.’s economy, government security apparatus, and society. We can ill-afford another tree branch falling on a single power line, causing a prolonged blackout.

The opinions expressed here by contributors are their own and are not the view of OpsLens which seeks to provide a platform for experience-driven commentary on today's trending headlines in the U.S. and around the world. Have a different opinion or something more to add on this topic? Contact us for guidelines on submitting your own experience-driven commentary.
Richard Hofmann-Warner

Richard Augustus Hoffman-Warner is a former US Marine Corps infantry officer and high threat security contractor with multiple deployments to the greater Middle East, Afghanistan, and Iraq. He has been an advisor to the Omani, Saudi Arabian, Kuwaiti, and Jordanian militaries, combat advisor to the Afghan National Army in Helmand province, and Marine advisor instructor. He is a current graduate student at George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs in the Security Policy Studies program, focusing on US National Security and Cybersecurity policy.

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