Preparedness & Recovery

Catastrophic Power Outages Pose Significant Recovery Challenges

Hurricane Sandy knocked out power for weeks, but what if the weeks had turned into months?

by / January 21, 2013
Photo courtesy of AP Images AP Images

When Superstorm Sandy took down the power in the Northeast, the scene looked all too familiar to Keith Stammer. As director of Joplin/Jasper County (Mo.) Emergency Management, he had seen the lights go out in the wake of a tornado that tore a swath through the town a mile wide and six miles long in May 2011. Hospitals lost power, as did the city’s water supplier.

“In the short term, people generally had enough food, clothing, batteries, medicine and such for anywhere from 72 to 96 hours. That’s generally the time it takes for the cavalry to show up,” he said. “Once you get beyond that point, it seems this will turn into a long-term situation, which makes it much more difficult.”

Joplin struggled for weeks to recover, just as parts of New York and New Jersey lived in the dark for weeks following Hurricane Sandy. But what if those weeks had stretched to a month or more, reaching beyond one town or state to encompass a whole region?

Such a catastrophic power outage lies not in the realm of science fiction. It’s a real possibility, and one that poses significant challenges to the emergency management community.

Catastrophic power loss doesn’t get a lot of play in the media or the first responder community. There may be a degree of a head-in-the-sand response, but more likely it’s because basic concepts are difficult to grasp.

“You can’t hold a kilowatt hour in your hand. It’s this abstract thing about motion and heat, things that can be very hard to understand,” said Benjamin Sovacool, senior researcher for energy security and justice at the Institute for Energy and the Environment at Vermont Law School. But the threat is no less real. “I am surprised it hasn’t already happened.”

Why the likelihood? The entire nation runs on just three power grids. “So this will be not just a power outage in the city or in the Northeast — this will affect six to 10 states,” said Garry Briese, local program integrator for the Wide Area Recovery and Resiliency Program for the Denver UASI.

Briese has been a nationwide advocate for preparedness in the face of a potential disaster that many would rather not face. And it will be a disaster, he insists. “Everything in our society revolves around the availability of electric power,” he said. “We will go from 2012 to 1850.”

The U.S. energy grid comprises some 160,000 miles of high-voltage lines, 5 million miles of distribution lines, thousands of generators and transformers, and tens of thousands of other pieces of equipment, The Wall Street Journal reported, adding: “It is difficult to imagine hardening so massive a structure against random, natural disturbances; it is almost inconceivable that it could be hardened against deliberate and intelligent attacks.”

So there’s widespread agreement that such an outage is possible and even likely. So what happens when the lights go out for a couple of months?

The social implications of a major outage will happen quickly. Supermarkets will be cleaned out in a couple of days. Fresh water will become scarce. Generators will run out of gas, and gas stations will run dry, too, as was seen in Sandy, where New York and New Jersey instituted rationing to control gas lines that ran four hours long.

As law enforcement knows, dark neighborhoods are more vulnerable to crime, especially when a whole city is hungry and scared. As one source suggested, “people tend to move down Maslow’s pyramid pretty fast.”

People find personal firearms a tempting proposition. But this doesn’t help the professionals keep order.

“The social systems begin breaking down within 72 hours,” Briese said. “People’s innate restraint breaks down.”

Shelter will become a priority, especially if weather is a consideration. In that case, people will go stay with family and friends for three to five days, Stammer said. They may find hotels and rental properties to be a temporary housing solution, possibly for a couple of weeks.

First responders have to keep order, but they also must be aware of the profound social consequences that will play out as the background to their efforts. Even if citizens are not running riot in the streets (and they may well be), there still will be new and often unprecedented challenges to order.

The problem begins with a structural vulnerability. There are just three grids — east, west and Texas — and just 12 points of connectivity among the grids. It’s easy to imagine how breakdowns at a few key points could cut the flow entirely.

As a further complication, the flow of energy — call it supply — must always be in sync with the demand, Sovacool said. If the two get out of sync, generators implode and devices melt down, much the way U.S. hair dryers have done when plugged into European sockets.

For Terry Jarrett, a commissioner with the Missouri Public Service Commission, the biggest risk comes in the realm of cybersecurity. With virtually all the power grid managed electronically, a disruption to the guiding computer systems could be catastrophic.

“Cybersecurity is a big issue in my field of utility regulation,” he said. “We have seen hackers do a lot of damage in the commercial world, in corporations, and there’s no reason to think they could not do that in terms of the power grids.”

A cyberattack could come from one hacker, or it could be a sophisticated effort by a nation-state, criminal or terrorist. That’s one of the big concerns about a cyberbreach: too many variables.

“There are issues that we just don’t understand. That’s a moving target,” said Mark McGranaghan, vice president of power delivery and utilization research at the Electric Power Research Institute in Washington, D.C. “There’s probably a lot that could happen that we just don’t know about yet.”

The sun could play a part, too, in the form of massive solar storms. Such an event blacked out the Canadian province of Quebec in March 1989, cutting power to more than 6 million people in less than two minutes, Briese said. The National Academy of Sciences estimates that a massive solar storm could cause economic disruption equivalent to more than 20 Katrina-class hurricanes, costing $1 trillion to $2 trillion in the first year and taking more than a decade to recover.

And then there are the squirrels.

  • October 2012: A squirrel caused a power outage that affected 500 to 700 customers on the east side of Easton, Md. The animal reportedly touched two conductors on an 8,320-volt, three-phase, high-voltage, overhead power line.
     
  • September 2012: A recurring power outage left 11,000 power customers in Oakland and Berkeley, Calif., without electricity after a squirrel crawled into some equipment at a Pacific Gas and Electric Co. substation.
     
  • November 2012: A squirrel damaged Middle Tennessee State University’s electrical grid, shutting off power and phone service for hours.

Is it likely that a rodent, even one that’s very malicious or clever, could knock out a power grid to the extent that we are talking about? Not very. But these few illustrations serve to make a point. This power system to which the nation is so wedded is vulnerable. There’s not a single aspect of our lives — heating, food, fuel, communications, medical care and the list goes on — that’s not intimately tied to a network of machinery that can be readily disabled by a squirrel.

And if it breaks, we cannot fix it in a timely way. There is very little domestic production of the equipment needed for energy generation, transmission and distribution. The big transformers are made in Korea, Japan, Germany and Israel. Those parts would have to be forged and transported from overseas, should a dramatic need arise.

It’s possible to look at a cataclysmic blackout and think, well, maybe it wouldn’t be that bad. “We forget that electricity is a relatively new phenomenon,” Sovacool said. “Life 140 years ago, before Edison, wasn’t so bad. People were relatively happy. Life expectancy was 60 or 65. People went to plays.”

Realistically we probably won’t be going to plays. We’ll likelier be forming angry mobs. The mentality will be: “I have what I have, and I need to defend what I have,” Briese said.

Emergency responders need to avoid or at least mitigate that scenario. That means, first, educating citizens. Remind them to keep electric devices charged. Urge them to make at least a partial conversion to solar energy in their homes. And alert them in advance about the locations of emergency shelters.

Planning also must play out on the municipal level, with emergency managers taking advantage of all that the latest technologies have to offer, McGranaghan said. That could mean using tax incentives to encourage local utilities to help with the construction of a local solar-and-wind microgrid, or the conversion of municipal fleets to alternative fuels.

“Those technologies might have a role in emergency management in the future that hasn’t been possible in the past,” McGranaghan said.

To be fully prepared, emergency managers also would have to step up and ask for the most precious of all commodities: money.

Consider the math. If a handful of capacitors and transformers went down, an entire region could go dark, and it might take months for replacement parts to arrive from overseas, Sovacool said. The sensible precaution would be to stockpile replacements, but that is a pricey proposition in the face of a risk that some view as being generally remote. It may be up to emergency management to make the case for investing now, rather than paying the costs of cleanup down the road.

That large-scale municipal picture is only one piece of the puzzle, however. In the most immediate sense, first responders must ensure that they can in fact respond — that their own capacity to function remains intact.

“We still have about 50 percent of our first responder facilities without backup power: fire stations, police stations, city government buildings,” Briese said. “We are just now crossing the 50 percent line. So when we ask government to function in one of these critical situations, government first needs to guarantee electricity to itself.”

Even as they advocate for spending on the regional level, emergency managers need to be pushing for the installation of backup power in their own facilities — most likely solar and wind, which can operate free of the electric grid.

Then there are the responders themselves. It is understood that in the case of dire emergency, some responders will divert their attention away from the crisis to ensure that their families are safe. To avoid this scenario, it makes sense to create a designated shelter where the families of first responders can be safe and accounted for.

Partnerships are critical. In Joplin, Stammer relies on the American Red Cross to provide shelter. When the tornado came through, some 150 law enforcement agencies rode into town by prearranged agreement.

Those relations expand in concentric circles, with neighboring municipalities, state resources and national resources coming into play as needed. When all that isn’t enough — and it may not be in a blackout lasting weeks or months — it may be time to bring in the big guns. Literally. That’s what Stammer did, calling in the Missouri National Guard to keep order, with instructions to come armed.

“You are going to have a lot of death; you are going to have a lot of injuries,” he said. “There is no question that is going to happen. The only question here is: How are you going to establish law and order? And then you’re talking about the military.”

Adam Stone Contributing Writer

A seasoned journalist with 20+ years' experience, Adam Stone covers education, technology, government and the military, along with diverse other topics. His work has appeared in dozens of general and niche publications nationwide.