The Vulnerability of the Power Grid

In the wake of Superstorm Sandy, millions are without power. It will take days, perhaps weeks, before power is restored to the vast majority of those homes. A power outage is one of the more difficult situations to Prep for. But this post is not about preparing for an outage; it’s about how likely and how harmful power outages may be. We should put more time and effort into preparing for those disasters that are most likely and those that are most harmful. An extended power outage is both.

The Northeast blackout of 2003 left 55 million persons without power in the Northeastern U.S. and Canada: 10 million in Ontario and 45 million in 8 U.S. States. In the days that followed, there was talk about the need for major legislation from Congress to fix vulnerability problems in the power grid, making the grid less vulnerable to outages. But no such legislation materialized.

An article from the Associated Press summed up the issues:

Scientists and engineers with the National Research Council warned the White House and Congress about the vulnerability of the power grid as recently as November, saying nationwide weaknesses needed to be repaired — and fast.

Little has been done, despite a chorus of experts who’ve pushed since well before Sept. 11 to fix a grid that’s riddled with threadbare links and plagued by chronic shortages.
[...]
A day after the largest blackout in U.S. history darkened lives across the most populous swath of North America, power experts said the system’s sorry shape appears to have been a surprise only to the unwitting consumers who relied on it.

“We’re trying to build a 21st-century electric marketplace on top of a 20th-century electric grid,” said Ellen Vancko, a spokeswoman for the North American Electric Reliability Council. “No significant additions have been made to the grid in 20 years of bulk electric transmission, yet we’ve had significant increases in the amount of generation.”
[...]
“We just kept stretching our systems further and further” as consumers and businesses upgraded homes and offices to cope with power-craving air conditioners and computers.
(Experts Warned of Weak Power Grid, AP report in Wired.com)

Storms of various kinds — not only remarkable hurricanes and blizzards, but also relatively ordinary storms — can cause power outages that last for hours to days. The worst of these types of events will leave people without power for weeks. And since the government is not inclined to spend the money to improve the grid, the vulnerability continues. As the nations grows, it uses more power and so it produces more power to fill that need. But the grid remains largely unchanged. The result is an increasing vulnerability to power outages.

Now consider that, if there is a SHTF or TEOTWAWKI type event, the burden on the gird will be much greater. Power outages are one of the most likely disaster scenarios, and yet one of the least discussed.

How harmful is an extended power outage? It ranks right up there with some of the worst disasters. A power outage in winter means that many homes will have no way to keep warm. Your very survival is threatened. In hot weather, it becomes difficult to cool your home, increasing the number of deaths from heat exhaustion and heat stroke.

An extended power outage also harms the economy. It becomes difficult, if not impossible, for many businesses to operate. If an outage were to extend for more than a few days, many people would be without work and without a source of income. Grocery stores without power have to discard all of their frozen and refrigerated foods. It becomes difficult for an area without power to obtain food. Most sources of meat, poultry, fish, and dairy require power for refrigeration or freezing.

So an extended power outage is a serious disaster scenario. And the longer the outage, the worse it gets.

Take a look at some of our past articles on prepping for power outages:

The Looming Threat Of Power Outages
The Disaster Domino Effect
Electricity, E-Lec-Tricity!
Snowstorm Preparedness Tips
Using a Computer and the Internet during Power Outages
Keeping Cool without Power

– Thoreau

3 Responses to The Vulnerability of the Power Grid

  1. Covering your freezer with blankets will extend the amount of time the food stays frozen. This should give you a couple extra days depending on the number of blankets used. Be sre to take the blankets off as soon as the power returns,

  2. Sandy is a devastating thing for more than a few people. Our prayers are with them. But maybe more sheepeople will wake up ! Even if the sun comes up on Dec 22 2012, Winter is still on it’s way, along with the occassional earthquake or tornado etc…
    The point is crap happens, now maybe fewer people will wander aimlessly through life. Maybe they’ll make plan and be help in a disaster not a burden

  3. Part of the americans power problem is so much of the US still strings its power cables from poles, which may be cheap in the short term but is folly in the long term. Its reported than many of the heartbreaking fires that happened in New Jersey and New York were caused by power cables being blown down. Its not an attack on my American friends but most of the rest of the western world bury their power cables in most medium to large communities.