Grid Down Scenarios: How to Survive a Power Grid Attack

grid down scenario

A grid-down scenario is a prepper’s worst nightmare. And it is something that preppers and the government share a mutual fear of.

In just one month in a grid-down scenario, services, supplies, and necessities will be so severe that your neighbor would kill you for food, and law enforcement will be so understaffed that they won’t be there to help.

You might think this is the stuff of movies, but it is very possible, and in a very real grid-down scenario, society as we know it would stop to function.

Every single process that is run on the electric grid would come to a sudden halt. Much of what we need to survive, such as the things we eat, what we drink, and many of the comforts we have, are automated. Without a stable electric grid, they would cease.

And it’s not as if someone can just fix a power unit, or flick a switch and the grid comes back on. If crucial components of our power grid go, they need to be made again. But how can you make and repair a grid without electricity? It would be like trying to replace a lightbulb in your living room without light bulbs.

In the modern world, high-powered transformers in power plants convert generator voltage into consumable electricity for the grid. They are the heart of the grid that we rely on every day.

power grid attack

These large power transformers (LPTs) aren’t just any piece of machinery. They cost millions of dollars to make and have an average weight of 200-300 tonnes. They take a minimum of 12 months to create, which is if there are substantial power and economic resources, and transport available. Replacing them alone takes at least a month.

If these are taken out, the grid will go down and an entire country will be crippled, left in the dark ages, and it won’t recover overnight.

What happens if the grid goes down?

Whatever contingency plan a government has in place for a grid-down situation, it will not be able to cope with the pressures of what will occur.

At the initial point of a grid down, power will be out like any normal blackout. Emergency services and recovery efforts will get to work as planned. Most companies will have measures in place to ensure their procedures can work on a temporary outage as they would in a blackout.

But those strategies are for a temporary outage, not for a permanent outage.

If the grid goes bust, every part of the developed life will be switched off. The only thing your phone will be good for is looking at old photos or using the flashlight function at night when desperate hungry people are breaking into your home.

power outage grid down

Everything that is automated and runs on digital services will stop. The three major necessities we rely on every day are water, food, and money. Without these, after one month, society would crumble at the seams.

Water – Without access to the grid, city water supplies will stop. There’s no way for pump stations to rely indefinitely on backup generators or emergency power resources if a grid was to go down. This means that public water sources simply wouldn’t run anymore, and sewerage systems would likely fail and backup.

Food – Food is a major concern as many farms and food producers are ran on automated services, feeding, and harvesting. Not only that but the refrigeration of foods from providers, and their delivery, all run on a digital system.

The trucks that deliver food from farms to stores run on an electronically-kept schedule, the stores are not able to provide refrigeration to fresh foods, and eventually, supplies will not be able to keep up with demand. Some researchers say that social disorder will ensue after a week of a grid down the situation as food shortages will drive tension amongst the large portion of the population.

A grid-down will also remove the option of being able to cook food with gas systems, and refrigerating any necessary foods will be impossible.

Money – There’s no way around the cash system we have at the moment. Most of us have the majority of our money kept in banks that we wouldn’t be able to touch or use if our electric grid was attacked. We live in an almost cashless society, and all of our plastic money, ATMs, card services, and credit systems run on electricity.

After a week of a grid-down, the majority of people are not going to have enough money to purchase food or services, as they would not have had that lump amount of cash in hand.

The majority of these shortages will be caused by a lack of transport and a lack of access to electricity. But it is not what will kill us. The biggest danger is what will come a week, or a month, into a grid-down scenario when a large part of the population is starving, fighting for food and water for their families.

How a lawless world can happen in a blackout

With these three services shutting down, and our society reversed to the dark ages, no matter who you are, or what role you play in society, you will be affected. There is no doubt that after a week, or a month, as supplies, systems, and services are beyond stretched, people will refuse to work. Instead, they will focus on their survival and the basic provision of their families.

grid-down hunger

This means that emergency workers, military, and a majority of police will also be affected. They won’t have pay, which means if they do work, they work for the service, not the pay. In this respect, emergency services, law enforcement, and the military will be completely understaffed and undermanned.

Meanwhile, society’s crime levels will no doubt rise as desperation sets in.

After a month of a grid-down scenario, your neighbor would kill you for your food and there will be no law enforcement to help.

In this timeline, a world without rules or laws can happen in 30 days.

Let’s look at the four ways that can happen.

4 likely causes of a grid-down scenario

You have seen how desperate and dangerous a grid-down scenario can make the world we live in.

It is not the stuff of fantasies either. A grid-down scenario is a very real threat to a lot of preppers. It’s a large reason why the prepper movement exists. And it’s not only preppers and survivalists who are worried and taking actions. Western governments regularly trial grid-down scenarios to test their departmental responses and action plans to develop counter-strategies against the hell that happens as society starts to collapse.

But what could trigger a grid-down scenario? It is likely to be caused by an EMP, cyber-attack, terrorist attack, or a coronal mass ejection. Let’s take a closer look at how each one of those would happen.

1. EMP (Electromagnetic Pulse)

emp bomb

An EMP is the worst-case scenario for any country. It doesn’t just disable a country’s grid, it renders almost all electrical items useless and will shut off the grid indefinitely.

The power of an EMP can vary. However, its effect will largely fry anything that is connected to the grid. There are some things that it won’t destroy, such as large battery units that are made with large thick plates and smaller gadgets such as smartphones that have internal EMI shielding (the thing that stops interference). The problem is everything that you would use with these (anything you’d plug into the battery) would be dead. And the phone would be useless, given cell towers would be fried and there would be no power.

A majority of vehicles that use computer processors would also come to a dead stop, which would see most of the vehicles on the street stopped in their tracks.

It is a situation like this that worries preppers to the extent of researching off-grid methods from cooking to transport, as these will be skills that will greatly increase the chances of survival, as well as the rebuilding of communities.

According to the US EMP Commission designed to assess the threat of an EMP attack:

A single EMP attack may seriously degrade or shut down a large part of the electric power grid in the geographic area of EMP exposure effectively instantaneously. There is also a possibility of functional collapse of grids beyond the exposed area, as electrical effects propagate from one region to another…

Should significant parts of the electrical power infrastructure be lost for any substantial period of time, the Commission believes that the consequences are likely to be catastrophic, and many people may ultimately die for lack of the basic elements necessary to sustain life in dense urban and suburban communities. In fact, the Commission is deeply concerned that such impacts are likely in the event of an EMP attack unless practical steps are taken to provide protection for critical elements of the electric system and for rapid restoration of electric power, particularly to essential services.

– Report of the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse.

Here is a retired Navy SEAL’s point of view on an EMP attack by North Korea:

What an EMP attack would cause

Gingrich said the US could be possibly “caught in the dark“. His description was enough to warrant concern. He said if an EMP attack was to occur the blackout could encompass entire regions and “could take months to years to repair”. He listed some other subsequent effects of an EMP attack which were:

  • Non-perishable foods would spoil from lack of refrigeration
  • Hospitals would run out of life-saving, temperature-controlled medications within days
  • Dialysis and other medical devices would stop working
  • Water systems that rely on electricity would stop pumping water and pipes would burst from the weight and pressure

For emergency services, this would be a nightmare as their communications run on an exposed grid. Mobile phones, police, and military networks would be without communication and all digital currency payment systems would be unable to work.

That and any vehicle with an electrical system is gone.

An EMP is an SHTF event.

How an EMP attack would occur

The leader of the Task Force on National and Homeland Security, Peter Vincent Pry, said North Korea imposed two threats, being nuclear and EMP. He said that EMP would require much less precision and less advanced technology. According to Pry:

EMP attack

A successful nuclear strike on US soil requires:

  • High precision
  • Advanced missile technology

An EMP attack requires:

  • Detonating a nuclear weapon at high-altitude, above the atmosphere

For North Korea, who have less advanced missile technology, the EMP attack is much easier to commit.

How far an EMP attack could reach

According to Pry, the impact and reachable area of an EMP wave are immense. If a warhead was detonated at an altitude of 18 miles, it would generate an EMP field on the ground with a radius of 372 miles.

If an EMP attack was to be triggered at an altitude of 294 miles it would cover most of the US.

The distance an EMP attack can get to

How far an EMP will reach dependant upon the height of detonation.

While there are several causes of an EMP, the Commission points out that the most likely cause of an EMP is one resulting from a nuclear detonation.

The electromagnetic pulse generated by a high altitude nuclear explosion is one of a small number of threats that can hold our society at risk of catastrophic consequences.

A more exact measure of the possible toll on American lives that an EMP could inflict was heard in US Congress earlier this year. If a high-altitude electromagnetic pulse was created over US soil the “result could be to shut down the U.S. electric power grid for an indefinite period, leading to the death within a year of up to 90 percent of all Americans”.

This would have a worse effect than a nuclear weapon where unaffected home soil areas that have not been struck would be able to assist. With an EMP detonated at a high altitude, almost the entire US electrical grid could be shut down in a single strike.

An EMP is one disaster that not avoidable by preppers. You simply cannot move away from it or live in another area that is unlikely affected by it.

Two preparations to prepare is to research more methods of conducting daily life ‘off-grid’ methods to survive without the need for electricity and supplies from services such as grocery stores and public water pumps. These are homesteading practices that are widely adopted by preppers. The second prepper strategy for an EMP attack is to develop a faraday cage and protective covering for necessary devices against EMP damage.

2. Cyberattack

cyber attack grid down

Another weakness of the US grid, and a likely cause to a grid-down scenario, is from a more invisible war that is being fought online. Hackers have, for the past few years, been waging a war against many developed countries in a bid to test, penetrate, and attack the power grids of many countries.

The US power grid has been the target of a major campaign of attacks led by Russian hackers in the last two years which has proven to be very successful. According to the Department of Homeland Security, Russian operatives have successfully hacked their way into the US power grid earlier this year.

What effect can cyberattack intrusions have on the power grid?

It might seem like a hacker can just have the ability to control a few processes and see what information is present in a system, but with those processes, a hacker can also interrupt the way our power plants operate, and the aviation industry works, putting millions of lives at risk.

While this video below is quite aged, from 2007, it is a sample from a report conducted by CNN how a hacker can potentially cause a generator in a power plant to explode:

How easy is it for cybercriminals to access our grids?

So just how easy is it for our grid system to be hacked? This report by Tech Insider follows a group of ‘white hat’ hackers to hack into a power station in less than a week. It was pretty easy for them, and this is only a small group. Imagine what a country with ulterior motives might be able to do?

The breach into the US power grid system was a show of force by an unidentified hacker group with the simple goal to show that they are capable of taking down the US grid. And this is just an individual. Imagine if a Government was to commit to a hacking war against another country? It could cripple and destroy a country’s electrical grid.

When people hear the term hacking, it is easy to assume that the worst that could happen is some information or email passwords are obtained. Wrong. Hackers can do a lot more damage than just that, and can even cause harm or death.

Many of a power station’s large power transformers are controlled by terminals that decide how they operate, and at what levels they function. Those controls are connected to a grid, accessible through the internet, meaning hackers could essentially change the settings of a power transformer and cause it to explode. At this point, hacking becomes a weapon to cause physical harm to others as well as to destabilize a country’s grid.

While many preppers fear a grid-down situation, for Ukrainians, this has been a real situation caused by hackers. In what is believed to be a concentrated effort by Russian hackers, Ukraine’s power grid has been hit several times, as well as their transportation systems, energy, media, and financial systems. Many of these attacks have been attributed to operations ran by the Kremlin. But there have also been intrusive measures by both Chinese and North Korean hackers as well.

It is a very real and very frightening concept – hackers have already obtained access to the controls of power stations in the US. They have shown the world how they can cripple a country’s grid as they did in Ukraine. If there was a more concentrated effort to make an act of war, hackers could destroy many of the power plants in the US and effectively wipe out the grid in one swift attack.

3. Terrorist attack

attacks on the power grid

While an attack by Russian hackers and a possible Government-led attack would cause a grid-down scenario, radical terrorism is also a large threat to the grid.

“There is an imminent threat from ISIS to the national electric grid and not just to a single U.S. city,” says Dr. Peter Pry, Executive director of the Task Force on National and Homeland Security. He says “inadequate grid security, a porous U.S.-Mexico border, and a fragile transmission system make the electric grid a target for ISIS”.

A report from the National Research Council stated that a concentrated terrorist movement would cripple the grid.

A terrorist attack on the power system would lack the dramatic impact of the attacks in New York, Madrid, or London. It would not immediately kill many people or make for spectacular television footage of bloody destruction. But if it were carried out in a carefully planned way, by people who knew what they were doing, it could deny large regions of the country access to bulk system power for weeks or even months. An event of this magnitude and duration could lead to turmoil, widespread public fear, and an image of helplessness that would play directly into the hands of the terrorists. If such large extended outages were to occur during times of extreme weather, they could also result in hundreds or even thousands of deaths due to heat stress or extended exposure to extreme cold. 

And those attacks need not just be from overseas Islamic-based terrorism, but can also be terrorism on home soil. Terrorism poses both a physical and digital threat to the power grid, as they are growing more and more capable of digital attacks (as above) as well as crafting weapons on home soil to be used to destabilize power factories.

Homeland Security experts have said that a terrorist attack on the grid would be well-planned and researched. Some have identified that an attack on the grid would be the start of a two-pronged approach, where lights, communication, cameras, and security would be shut off with a grid-down scenario, then a group would likely use this as an advantage to launch a secondary attack with bombing essential structures.

One Senator said this was a way for terrorists to “create chaos on top of chaos.”

As many of these attacks on the grid, there is no way to tell when they might happen. Only that if they do, there is going to be a lot of chaos as a country settles into darkness.

4. Solar flare and coronal mass ejection

preppers coronal mass ejection

A different threat to the power grid is one that is not posed by a human, but rather, by nature and science, and is an EMP from a coronal mass ejection.

In 2012, our entire planet was on the brink of a doomsday apocalypse. That’s right, we were about to be sent back to the stone age from a massive solar storm. The cause was from our hot neighboring star, the Sun. It had one of its biggest solar flares and coronal mass ejections ever seen since scientists have been watching the Sun.

What on earth is a coronal mass ejection you might ask? A coronal mass ejection (CME) is when a giant cloud of energy and solar plasma is blown away from the sun in a very large and violent eruption. This is a little different from solar flares which are bursts of light eruptions. Whether it affects us is largely based on where and when it happens, as it could completely miss Earth, or it could be directed right at us.

When it happened in 2012, it just missed us. Had it have been a little closer, you would not be reading this. Why? Because a CME causes a gigantic rush of electrons through the atmosphere destroying everything electronic. The strength of a CME is likely to be far more effective than a manmade EMP from a bomb and thus would have a much larger impact area.

While we might have plans for grid-down scenarios such as ones caused by hackers, a manmade EMP, or terrorism-based, when it comes to a CME, if directed at Earth, can have the EMP power of 20 million nuclear bombs.

In 1989 a geomagnetic storm hit Earth, yet there was much less of an impact given we had less of a reliance on technology. But it still had its effect. For instance, Canada’s power grid collapsed within 90 seconds of the EMP arriving.

If it were to happen today, the costs would be crippling. According to the National Academy of Science, the potential damage of a storm similar to the 1989 CME would cost between $1 trillion to $2 trillion in the first 12 months of recovery. The report says a full recovery for the power grid would take four to 10 years.

Preparing for a grid down

There is no doubt that the power grid is a weak spot for a country. With one swift strike, or EMP, it can destroy a country and a recovery would take longer than 12 months before the heart of our power plants can be replaced again.

Prepping for this possible scenario is not easy. You will find it would be much easier to prep for a storm or natural disaster. These events are temporary in how long they last. One week into a grid-down scenario and you are likely to see poverty, starvation, lawlessness, and societal collapse.

Preparing for this type of event doesn’t involve just having a simple food supply and a bug out bag. It requires knowing how to live without technology and power, and develop sustainable methods of harvesting water, and providing food.

There are a few ways you can prepare yourself if a power grid failure should ever occur.

  • Lighting – The ability to see is invaluable when a power failure occurs. Remember, flashlights use batteries and once you run out of batteries, you will need an alternative lighting source. Have plenty of candles around or oil lamps that could provide lighting. A crank-powered flashlight can also come in handy.
  • Batteries – As previously mentioned, batteries are important. You may need them for flashlights, radios, and other important items. Consider purchasing rechargeable batteries and a charger that can be connected to your generator.
  • Water – You can’t live long without water. Always keep a couple of cases of bottled water around for an emergency. If you suspect that your power may go out and cannot get to a store to purchase water, start filling your sinks and bathtubs with water. It also doesn’t hurt to know how to distill water.
  • Refrigeration – While some types of food can be safely kept out of the fridge, others need to remain at a certain temperature to prevent spoiling. If it’s winter and you are without power for an extended period, place the food in a tub with a lid and set it out in the snow. If summer, try to keep the fridge closed as long as possible to prevent cold from escaping.
  • Suppliers – Always have the necessary emergency supplies on hand so that you are prepared for any event that should occur. This includes flashlights, fresh batteries, candles, matches, fuel for a generator, water, battery-powered radio, canned and dry food, and food for your pets.

In this worst-case prepper scenario, your best method of survival is to work with a community of like-minded individuals that can share the workload of food growing, water collection, security, and rebuilding society.

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