The societal catastrophe that would result if the grid went down was once dismissed by many as a concern of conspiracy theorists. Those days are ending as a growing number of authoritative sources have acknowledged the threat in an official capacity. (I've also written about this topic in my Discussion Guide.)
For example, the U.S. government recently recognized several threats to the grid. The National Intelligence Council (NIC) discussed these threats in a 2012 report. The NIC is a little recognized U.S. government organization that supports the Director of National Intelligence by focusing on long-term strategic analysis. The NIC report contains a document titled Potential Black Swans That Would Cause The Greatest Disruptive Impact. Two threats to the grid make an appearance in that document: the threat of a cyberattack and the threat of a solar storm.
Of particular importance is the organization of the document. The NIC included the threat of a cyberattack against the grid in the same category of potentially destructive events as a weapon of mass destruction. The following is a quote from the report:
Nuclear War or WMD/Cyber Attack: Nuclear powers such as Russia and Pakistan and potential aspirants such as Iran and North Korea see nuclear weapons as compensation for other political and security weaknesses, heightening the risk of their use. The chance of nonstate actors conducting a cyber attack—or using WMD— also is increasing.
I've included a video below by Ted Koppel, the respected journalist, for those unfamiliar with the cyber threat to the grid. The video offers a concise explanation of the threat.
The item following nuclear war on the NIC list of catastrophes is a solar storm. The following is a quote from the report:
Solar geomagnetic storms could knock out satellites, the electric grid, and many sensitive electronic devices. The recurrence intervals of crippling solar geomagnetic storms, which are less than a century, now pose a substantial threat because of the world’s dependence on electricity.
I've also included a video below by NASA for those unfamiliar with the threat of a solar storm to the grid.
Scientists estimate that there is a 12% chance per decade that Earth could be hit by a solar storm as large as the Carrington Event. Many people estimate that such a storm could destroy the hardware of our critical electrical infrastructure, resulting in the potential collapse of our civilization and widespread, catastrophic causalities.
The important take away here is that the NIC report discusses two mechanisms of destruction that have the realistic potential of taking down power grids worldwide. Such events have the potential to end civilization as we know it because in a worst-case scenario, we would be in a race to restore the power grid before society collapsed.
Let's unpack that.
In my novel Patriarch Run, I chose the loss of the power grid as weapon of mass destruction because I learned that it was a realistic means to kill off the majority of the human population, which was the intent of the bad guy in my story.
A reasonable person might ask, how could that be?
Over the course of the last 100 years, our society has unwittingly evolved to become absolutely dependent on a vulnerable critical infrastructure. 100 years ago you didn't need electricity to feed the population. That's because the "pre-electrical" carrying capacity of the planet was less than 2 billion people. Our vulnerable infrastructure has increased the planet's carrying capacity to 7.5 billion.
The critical hardware that would be damaged in this type of cyberattack or solar storm cannot be easily replaced. For example, the 2,100 large transformers of our power grid are handmade and take years to manufacture when our infrastructure is working perfectly. When those large transformers go down, the surrounding grid goes down. If a large number of those units were to be destroyed, the grid could be lost. In the absence of electrical power, there would be a race to restore the grid before society collapsed.
Without the use of widespread, reliable electricity, we could not grow, process, and transport enough food to feed the population. We could not distribute clean drinking water to our cities or provide sanitation or healthcare. There would be no commerce as we have come to know it. Such a collapse would probably result in widespread starvation, the reintroduction of diseases vanquished by modern sanitation, unprecedented social unrest, and a skyrocketing mortality rate.
I know that sounds bad. That’s because it is. If you want to learn more about how vulnerable we are, you can read my story Patriarch Run. You can also watch a few additional videos in my Discussion Guide. I’d recommend that you start with the National Geographic documentary.
You can also search the vulnerable infrastructure category of my blog to find more resources on this topic and to engage me on the matter.