Would a collapse of the power grid be doomsday?

Published on Tuesday, August 13, 2013 By Brad Wardell In Everything Else

About a year ago, I wrote “The lights go out: What happens if the grid goes down”.  It talked about what would likely happen if the power went out and works through the first 4 weeks.  In short, it’s not a pretty picture.

Doomsday Scenarios

Below are my opinions and just my opinions. They’re based on reading and researching these topics in my spare time out of morbid curiosity.  I define a doomsday scenario as a scenario where the civil society could potentially break down as a result.  The break down of civil society (law and order) would, in turn, activate the “preppers” various bug out / bug in contingency plans.

Scenario #1: Economic Collapse

I consider the likelihood of this happening to be basically zero.  It seems to be the most discussed, most feared scenario I read online. At the risk of alienating preppers right off the bat, I consider this scenario largely baseless.


Scenario #2: EMP attack

imageThis is the scenario where someone sets of a powerful electromagnetic pulse that fries the power grid and many low voltage dependent systems.  There is a lot of debate on the level of damage this would do.  My opinion is that any EMP attack worth considering would, at the very least, wreck the power grid for an extended period of time.  However, I don’t think it likely that it’ll take out cars (even modern cars).  While the computer systems in cars are sensitive and a car isn’t a true “faraday cage” I am highly skeptical that an EMP would take out most cars, modern or not.

Nevertheless, an EMP attack would probably cause many millions of people to be without power for an extended period of time.

The odds of this happening in our lifetime I think are pretty low.  If I had to guess, maybe 1 in 100.

Scenario #3: Solar based EMP

imageSometimes called coronal mass ejections, these solar based EMPs could truly wreck our day. We’ve had them before (Carrington Event) which occurred in the 19th century. Had this hit us today, we’d have a huge issue (I’d guess worldwide power outages that could take months to repair).

We had one in 2013 on July 16th…well, almost. It missed us by a solar day.  So this isn’t a question of if, it’s a question of when and how bad.  The electrical grid in most countries is hooked up like an extra fragile Christmas tree.  It would not be inaccurate to describe it as “cobbled” together.  It works but it’s not very robust.  It takes remarkably little to knock out the power for huge swaths of territory.

The odds of this happening in our lifetime are pretty low also. I’d say 1 in 50.

Scenario #4: Cyber based attack

imageThis one worries me quite a bit because few people are aware of it. Some people have heard Stuxnet and other weaponized computer worms that have been used to slow down Iran’s nuclear program.  But few people have given much thought of how vulnerable the United States and other western countries are to this kind of attack. 

In 2003, the Northeast of the United States and Canada went without power for about a week, affecting 45 million people. It was largely caused by a software bug at a single power station in Ohio.  Imagine a malicious attempt to wreck the control systems for the power grid.

The odds of this happening I think are a lot less remote than people think. Probably 1 in 25 in our lifetime.

Why losing power is such a big deal

Overall, I’d say that the odds of something causing a national, extended power outage to be about 1 in 10.  Anyone under 50 probably has no experience of just how recent electrical power actually is.  A century ago, most people didn’t have electricity and even 75 years ago, it was considered pretty flaky.  Yet, today, we are totally and completely dependent on it.

Let’s walk through a few of the things that would happen if we lost electrical power for an extended period of time.

  1. Our logistics system would be trashed.  We are now very dependent on “Just in time” infrastructure. That is, we don’t keep huge warehouses anymore. We deliver things just as needed to maximize efficiency.  To put things into perspective, you could cripple our economy just by wiping out the computers at Fed Ex and UPS. 
  2. Little food. Your local supermarket relies on daily inventory replenishment. Even if the trucks and trains and such are still running, the ability to deliver food would be severely disrupted. 
  3. No gas. Our capacity to refine, deliver and distribute gasoline would be curtailed dramatically. So while I don’t personally think there’s a realistic scenario where your cars and such would be directly affected by a viable doomsday scenario, your ability to drive might not last very long.
  4. No money. How much cash do you keep on hand? No power, no credit card processing.  Let’s focus on this a second. Next time you’re out doing something, consider what would happen if you no longer had the ability to use a credit/debit card but instead had to rely purely on the cash on hand. How would that work out for you? Imagine a cyber attack that disrupted the merchant account services sector and nothing else. What about ATMs? Nope, they’re down.  How about going to a teller? No power, they can’t tell you how much you’ve got in the bank. I think we’d be able to quickly adapt (i.e. write things down, as long as you have an ID, but it would slow things to a crawl).
  5. Water. Water is something I think we would probably do okay with. We’d soon run out of running water but barring a truly worst case scenario, this is one area I think the government could help large %’s of the population with (distributing water). But if you’re in a more rural area, it would get sticky and our ability to produce and deliver food would still become a huge problem.  I’m just saying I don’t think water would be the “SHTF” trigger in a likely doomsday scenario. At least, as long as the government is up and running and can coordinate with local producers/distributors of bottled water.
  6. Habitation. God forbid that this happen in the Winter.  Natural gas would likely flow for a long while but you wouldn’t be able to do much with it if there’s no electricity. Similarly, our ability to store food (no refrigeration) would be reduced.
  7. Communication.  Our ability to communicate would drop to nill. I think much of the Internet, powered through extensive backup systems (depending on the severity, a really powerful EMP might wreck the ability of natural gas based backup systems to function) would be ok.  But our ability to connect to it would be greatly reduced. I’m not confident my local cell tower or Comcast would be up for the duration.

There’s probably more I am not thinking of here. In, fact, I’m sure there are.  Moreover, the severity of the points above really are dependent on how resources/handy you are. The big question though is how long would modern civil society be able to last without electricity?  How habitable is a modern American city without electricity? Would/could order be maintained?

The big assumption I make here is that our vehicles would still work.  I can envision EMP based catastrophes that are bad enough to fry most cars. My problem with those scenarios is that they’re about as likely as us being hit by a extinction level asteroid/comet or a mega volcano or a super plague at which point, all bets are off.

No, to me, the big question would be maintaining civil society.

The thin veneer of civilization

For the purposes of our discussion, things don’t really “hit the fan” until civil society breaks down. In my opinion, the most likely trigger for that would be lack of food.

I have a high confidence in our government’s ability to obtain and deliver water for a long period of time.  I also believe that state and local authorities could obtain and distribute food for an extended period of time – a month for instance. But without our modern logistics system up and running, after a month, food shortages would become very serious. 

There have been many documentaries on how our food is produced now (manufactured is probably more accurate). It’s a very complex industrial process with a lot of moving parts.  It’s not like we would stop producing any food at all.  But our ability to feed 300+ million people daily rests on our modern manufacturing and logistics system which is dependent on electricity.

So for me, the big question is, how long, without electricity, would most people be able to obtain enough food to feed themselves and their families.  Once the ability to obtain food without violence disappears, so too does civil society.

So what do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments.


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