A single nuclear device set off at a high altitude creates an electromagnetic pulse that knocks out electricity in a third of the United States. Key electrical infrastructure is damaged and destroyed, including large power transformers that will take years to replace. As weeks without power turn into months, the disruption in communications, transportation and food supply leads to increasing civil disorder. By the time it’s all over, tens of millions have died.
It sounds like something out of a disaster movie. Yet the threat of an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack is not science fiction. The federal Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse concluded in 2004 that a “high-altitude nuclear weapon-generated electromagnetic pulse (EMP) is one of a small number of threats that has the potential to hold our society seriously at risk and might result in defeat of our military forces.” Top officials and experts–from former Central Intelligence Agency Director James Woolsey to Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Chairman Jon Wellinghoff–have warned that we are inadequately prepared against such attacks.
While a coordinated EMP attack represents the worst-case scenario for electrical failure, it’s hardly the only threat to the grid. A coronal mass ejection–that is, a large ejection of plasma and magnetic field from the sun–could cause similar disruptions to electricity. In 2012, a large CME just barely missed hitting Earth. Estimates are that a direct hit would have caused between $600 billion and $2.6 trillion in damage.
In fact, the electrical grid is vulnerable to a range of natural or man-made attacks. Everything from cyber warfare and conventional attacks to natural disasters and human error could bring down the grid temporarily, causing substantial damage to the nation’s economy and well-being. In 2003, a fallen tree branch cut electrical lines in a way that caused a cascade of power failures, ultimately knocking out power in much of the Northeast and Midwest United States, as well as parts of Canada. Most power was restored within a few days, but even this temporary shutdown caused an estimated $10 billion in lost economic activity and may have contributed to a 10-cent-a-gallon rise in the price of gasoline.
Acknowledging these threats in no way minimizes the effectiveness of today’s electricity infrastructure. The grid is an achievement of civilization and Texas, in particular, ought to be proud of its independent, well-managed grid system. The reason the grid leaves us so vulnerable is precisely because reliable electricity is so valuable. Cheap, readily available electricity is a major factor in the rise of modern prosperity and the foundation for the interconnected world we often take for granted.
But that the grid has been successful to date is no reason to be complacent. We buy insurance, even though the odds our house will burn down are small. To the extent we can take reasonable steps to protect against devastating risks, we should do so, even if those risks are unlikely to materialize.
In particular, we should make the grid a less attractive target by making it harder to bring it down all at once. Chairman Wellinghoff, for example, has noted that distributed generation (small-scale, on-site electrical generation at a home or business) can limit the effects of an attack: “If everyone had solar panels on their respective roofs then we could adequately disperse power generation in such a way that it makes nodes practically irrelevant. It is easy to hack into a node and cause it to malfunction but it is basically impossible to hack 10 million solar power systems.”
Texas needs to protect itself. Luckily, the growth of distributed generation in Texas is already underway. Market forces are expected to push continued expansion of things like rooftop solar. Given the potential that distributed generation can provide increased resilience to the grid against attack, the Legislature and state regulators should be careful not to impose burdens on continued growth in this sector.
Josiah Neeley is the Texas Director for the R Street Institute.