© 2023 Kansas City Public Radio
NPR in Kansas City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Small-Scale Attacks Could Bring Down U.S. Power Grid, Report Says

A power outage in August 2003 darkened New York City. A report warns that the national power grid could be knocked out if just a handful of key power stations were sabotaged.
George Widman

The nation's entire power grid could be blacked out for months if as few as nine of the nation's 55,000 electric substations were put out of commission by saboteurs, The Wall Street Journal writes, citing a "previously unreported" study by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

The Journal's report follows accounts of what happened last April at a power station near San Jose, Calif.

As we reported here and here, snipers apparently fired at the station's transformers. Seventeen of the transformers were knocked out by the shots. Officials avoided a local blackout by rerouting power around the site. No one has been arrested in connection with the incident.

That attack led former FERC Chairman Jon Wellinghoff to tell NPR and other news outlets that there's a dangerous lack of security around key parts of the nation's power grid. He called for "mitigation measures," including the placement of concrete barriers in front of transformers so that they can't be shot at from outside power stations.

Now, there's word from the Journal that the FERC study concludes "that coordinated attacks in each of the nation's three separate electric systems could cause the entire power network to collapse, people familiar with the research said." Such attacks would be especially damaging if they came on a day when the power grid is already under stress — such as a hot summer day when demand for air conditioning is especially high.

The reason such attacks could do so much damage, the Journal writes, is that "a small number of the country's substations play an outsize role in keeping power flowing across large regions." Regulators believe that "knocking out nine of those key substations could plunge the country into darkness for weeks, if not months," the Journal says.

Thirty substations are considered "critical," according to the Journal, which notes that it "isn't publishing the list." FERC has told power companies they have until June to come up with new, tougher security standards.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Mark Memmott is NPR's supervising senior editor for Standards & Practices. In that role, he's a resource for NPR's journalists – helping them raise the right questions as they do their work and uphold the organization's standards.
KCUR serves the Kansas City region with breaking news and powerful storytelling.
Your donation helps make nonprofit journalism available for everyone.