Lights out: Can the U.S. survive a ‘catastrophic’ power outage?

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Recently, the President’s National Infrastructure Advisory Council (NIAC) examined the ability of the U.S. federal government to respond to and recover from a catastrophic power outage striking a large swath of the nation.

What is a catastrophic power outage? It’s a power outage longer than a few days or even weeks and that is, according to the NIAC, “a magnitude beyond modern experience, exceeding prior events in severity, scale, duration, and consequence.”

What could cause such an outage? It could be a severe natural disaster combined with cyber and physical attacks, or an electromagnetic event such as a coronal mass ejection. Any such event could cause a long-term outage.

Through interviews with leaders in the utility industry and other related experts, the report found that existing plans to restore power were inadequate to deal with a catastrophic power outage.

The NIAC concluded that considerable public and private action is required to mitigate the risks associated with any such outage. Such a power outage could cause cascading failures in other essential services including water and wastewater management, communications, transportation, healthcare, and financial services — all of which are critical to public health and safety and our national and economic security.

The report concluded that the U.S. should approach the challenge in two predominate themes. The first is to “design a national approach to prepare for, respond to, and recover from catastrophic power outages that provides the federal guidance, resources, and incentives needed to take action across all levels of government and industry and down to communities and individuals.”

The second was to improve the nation’s understanding of how cascading failures across critical infrastructure will affect restoration and survival.

Other, more specific recommendations from the report, include:

Examine and clarify the federal authorities that may be exercised during a catastrophic power outage and grid security emergency and clearly identify the cabinet-level leadership and decision-making processes.

Develop a federal design basis and the design standards/criteria that identify what infrastructure sectors, cities, communities, and rural areas need to reduce the impacts and recover from a catastrophic power outage.

Develop guidance and provide resources for states, territories, cities, and localities to design community enclaves—areas that co-locate critical services and resources to sustain surrounding populaces, maintain health and safety, and allow residents to shelter in place.

Design and support a portfolio of incentives that provide financial support or remove financial and regulatory barriers to help companies and state, local, tribal, and territorial governments implement the recommendations included in this report.

Conduct a series of regional catastrophic power outage exercises that identify the second- and third-order cascading failures of an outage over time, as backup resources and mutual aid agreements are exhausted, and examine cross-sector supply chain and cyber risks that could delay re-energizing the grid.

Ensure that all critical natural gas transmission pipeline infrastructure has the appropriate standards, design, and practices to continue service during a catastrophic power outage and maintain rapid availability to support blackstart generations.

Develop or support a flexible, adaptable emergency communications system that all sectors can interoperably use, that is self-powered, and is reasonably protected against all hazards to support critical service restoration and connect infrastructure owners/operators, emergency responders, and government leaders.

The NIAC believes these recommendations offer a way to enhance the nation’s electrical grid resiliency. The NIAC requests the National Security Council, working with lead agencies, provide a status update within nine months of the final approval of the report on how the recommendations are being implemented, as well as progress being made on ongoing initiatives, or any significant implementation barriers.


  1. Thanks for this post!

    I’ve been wondering about the dangers of such an incidence since watching James Burke’s seminal documentary TV series, Connections, which ran about 40 years ago. His show noted how dependent we are on technology, and yet how these systems might be knocked out relatively easily, as illustrated by the power blackout in 1965, affecting over 30 million people in the northeast.

    It was further heightened for me when the Wall Street Journal reported on a sniper, who cut telecommunications wires and fired upon a power plant, “surgically knocked out 17 giant transformers.” It took that plant about a month to get back to being operational, back in 2014. And now the news about Russia hacking of our energy grid, as well as other hackers gaining control of some power plants.

    A WSJ opinion piece recently noted that the U.S. is partially protected by the fact that private companies separately run the numerous energy grids across our nation, making it complex and diffuse, but one risk assessment determined that up to 93 million people could be powerless with a targeted attack. That’s almost a third of the United States population.

    FYI: I would tag this under “Energy” as well as “Utilities”. This is an obviously serious issue for these industry topic names as well.

    I would love to see a follow-up or companion article about telecommunications, as it is dependent upon satellites, which could also be destroyed by a coronal mass ejection as well, cutting out communications as well as power, as your article noted.

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