Power Struggles: Grid Attacks and Extremism in an Age of Climate Volatility
A vast maze of transmission wires and power substations crisscrosses the United States, upkept by a patchwork of utilities and regulatory agencies. This labyrinth sustains modern American life, and yet it is perilously vulnerable. Many of the power grid’s physical infirmities date back to its inception, but in recent decades experts and independent assessors have warned of an approaching breaking point, emphasizing how disastrous a coordinated, surgical attack on only a few critical points in that electrical landscape could be. Besides a few perfunctory efforts to address the power grid’s weaknesses, however, lawmakers have largely brushed off those admonitions. As a result, a crucial element of American national security remains largely unguarded.
Meanwhile, the national security threat environment has changed. Domestic extremists have displaced foreign adversaries as the greatest threat to U.S. security, and they view the grid’s chronic vulnerability to sabotage as an opportunity to advance their goals. The arrest of an Atomwaffen-affiliated Maryland couple on charges that they conspired to destroy the grid around Baltimore, among other recent attacks on the physical instruments of power generation and distribution, underscore both the grid’s susceptibility to unsophisticated assaults as well as its appeal as a target to those aiming to destabilize American society.
Compounding that worsening threat are the effects of climate change and the government response to that crisis. Undisrupted electricity provision is more essential than ever to Americans seeking to insulate themselves from punishing heat, cold, and other increasingly frequent extreme weather conditions. This comes as the United States moves to electrify the American economy in its whole-of-society approach to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The confluence of the meteorological volatility catalyzed by climate change and the transition to an electrified, decarbonized society renders a physically secure power grid of paramount importance. Without the devotion of additional resources to hardening that infrastructure and improving grid resilience, domestic extremists are likely to capitalize on the grid’s defenselessness with dire consequences for national security.
The History of the U.S. Power Grid and Its Modern Woes
For all its technological wonders, the U.S. power grid bears an array of vulnerabilities. Some of these are inherent in bringing light to a nation as large and diversely governed as the United States; others, however, are the outcome of poor governance and regulatory neglect. Even as these weaknesses have sown persistent turmoil in the maintenance of a critical element of national security, federal appropriators have failed to legislate effective solutions to the grid’s ongoing troubles, often misidentifying the greatest challenges or sloughing off responsibility for their solutions to lightly regulated utilities. Meager attention to these flaws and to hardening the grid’s defenses in recent energy-, climate-, and defense-related bills showcases the problem’s entrenchment.
The U.S. power grid originated in the 1880s out of the combined efforts of federal and state governments and public and private utilities. In its earliest form, the proto-grid was a constellation of more than 4,000 utilities operating in isolation. In their race to build customer bases, these early utilities entered into regulatory compacts with the federal and state governments, allowing them to establish monopolies over burgeoning electrical regions. Electricity demand skyrocketed after World War II, which incentivized utility companies to launch a massive infrastructure build-out across thousands of miles of American terrain, thus hooking more consumers into the grid. Congress flirted with federal regulation of the power grid with the Federal Power Act of 1920, which formed the Federal Power Commission (FPC) to supervise the construction of hydroelectric power plants on federal lands and to regulate the nation’s border-crossing utilities. But Washington ultimately embraced a largely hands-off approach to grid regulation, granting the utilities their desired independence. A similar paradigm developed within the states, in which public utility commissions enjoy significant leeway from state governments in the grid’s management.
Though later tumult in the electricity market prompted greater government involvement in the stewardship of the power grid, utilities retained significant regulatory latitude. The oil embargo and resulting energy crisis of the early 1970s prompted the creation in 1977 of the FPC’s successor, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), within but independent from the Department of Energy. FERC’s remit grants the commission a wide mandate to regulate the interstate transmission and sale of electricity and to protect consumers from exorbitantly high electricity prices and market manipulation. The Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act of 1978 upped FERC’s authority and sought to loosen utilities’ iron grip on electricity production and bring down electricity costs for consumers by encouraging competition within the electricity market. FERC has since intervened in the power grid’s fundamental structure and operation in various ways, including by supporting the creation of regional transmission organizations with sway over the regulatory landscape and by certifying an electric reliability organization with the writ to codify industry standards. Still, individual states and utilities control the lion’s share of electricity generation, transmission, and sale, meaning that the federal government continues to entrust a pillar of critical infrastructure and national security to nonfederal stakeholders.
The ways in which the grid has evolved—or, more pointedly, the ways in which it has not —have engendered its current vulnerabilities. The Herculean task of stitching a power grid across the U.S. landmass resulted in a diffuse system of more than 55,000 power substations and millions of miles of high- and low-voltage transmission wires that provide electricity to American households and other domestic consumers in three distinct sectors: Eastern, Western, and Texas. Within these regions, the grid is well connected. This provides an advantage for intraregional power-sharing but a notable disadvantage when a single fault cascades into a blackout for millions of Americans cohabitating in one electrical region. Despite that intraregional interconnectedness, links between the regions are minimal, meaning that functioning substations in the Western section cannot easily provide excess power to those suffering an outage in the Eastern section, and vice versa.
Hardware supply is another key dimension of the grid’s overall vulnerability. Like other industries whose manufacturing bases lie abroad, many of the transformers, chips, and other technologies that compose the electrical system are produced overseas and bear price tags that can run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars per unit. This leads utilities and governments to scramble to secure replacement parts when infrastructure is damaged. Add economy-wide supply chain snarls from the coronavirus pandemic, and the wait to acquire the needed instruments to fix faltering or sabotaged equipment and restore grid functionality can run into the weeks, if not months, leaving potentially millions of Americans in the dark.
In recent decades, grid failures have forced lawmakers to address, however sincerely, these persistent issues. In 2005, Congress passed the Energy Policy Act, which for the first time in years devoted significant attention to the issue of grid reliability. The catalyst for that newfound attention to the grid issue was the record-breaking 2003 Northeast blackout, in which a tryst between some tree branches and a few unremarkable power lines in Ohio knocked out electricity to 50 million people in the Northeast and southeastern Canada for two days, resulting in the deaths of 11 people and approximately $6 billion in economic damages. The law substantially expanded FERC’s regulatory powers and granted the agency the power to devise and enforce standards on the facilities that generate power and the utilities that distribute it. Nevertheless, utilities retained their electrical monopolies in many regions and states.
Along with failing to address the root causes of the grid’s fragility, these attempts have done little to harden the system’s physical infrastructure, making it a brittle defense against the potential calamities baked into the grid’s design and stewardship. Transmission wires drape across thousands of lonely miles of rural America and transformers rarely boast more than a chain-link fence as protection, leaving both forms of infrastructure astonishingly vulnerable to simple kinetic attacks by anyone with a vehicle and firearms.
The most recent infrastructure-, security-, and energy-focused laws demonstrate how these rudimentary physical vulnerabilities still fail to garner serious attention from lawmakers. The 2021 infrastructure bill takes minor steps toward renovating the grid but carves out little progress on the issue of physical grid security. The bill makes small advances, including directives to move power infrastructure underground and to harden grid security at large. But in the tens of millions of dollars it allocates to clean energy and climate measures—including nearly $50 billion for resilience and mitigation efforts—it makes no mention of protecting the grid with traditional defenses against kinetic attacks, focusing almost entirely on climate-driven and cyber threats to the grid.
Little solace is found in the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, the most ambitious piece of climate-focused legislation in American history. The law envisions a revamped electrical grid powered by renewable energy but fails to devote any resources to—or even mention—efforts or technology to secure the thousands of miles of transmission wires and power facilities that grid requires.
Additionally, the hulking defense bill passed last December falls flat. The act pumps more than $800 billion into U.S. defense—both domestic and foreign—and telegraphs the United States’s defense priorities, with a predominant focus on China and the Pacific and ongoing support for Ukraine in its fight against Russia. Though the bill ponders means by which the electrical grid can remain resilient with the nascent load burden posed by the adoption of electric vehicles, there is no discussion of grid resilience and stability against physical attacks by domestic actors. The law—a fixture of congressional proceedings so marquee that lawmakers have passed a version of it for 62 years running—is considered the playbill of the United States’s defense priorities for the coming year. That it fails to address the issue of grid vulnerability to physical attacks demonstrates the extent of the problem’s neglect.
Overhauling the physical security of the power grid would be expensive and potentially disruptive. Critics may argue that resources would be better spent on cyber defenses. And lawmakers, regulatory bodies, and utilities may lean on the fact that, despite a steady uptick in isolated attacks, the power grid has been relatively stable for decades despite no shortage of foreign and domestic adversaries aiming to sow chaos and rancor. But the threat environment has changed rapidly in just a handful of years. And as the grid has aged and its weaknesses persisted, every unsecured transformer and above-ground mile of transmission wire has become a target.
Domestic Extremists and the Power Grid’s Appeal
Though an opponent’s power infrastructure is an alluring target for any combatant looking for an edge in a conflict, attacks on electricity supplies carry a particular appeal for domestic extremists. Intelligence bulletins indicate that many of these groups identify the power grid as ripe for such sabotage, and recent attacks across the United States only vindicate those assessments. As these nongovernmental threats continue their decades-long ascent up the ladder of national security risks and with a contentious election looming in 2024, the severity of the threat is likely to grow.
Foreign adversaries have had the U.S. power grid in their sights for years. Industry players have warned that the energy sector is among the most targeted by hackers. The 2021 shutdown of the Colonial Pipeline offered a preview of the economic and political disruption energy-focused attacks can incur. Meanwhile, the war in Ukraine, in which Russia has systematically bombarded Ukraine’s energy infrastructure, has illustrated the extent to which at least one U.S. geopolitical rival views opponents’ power grids as a legitimate combat target: Moscow has already threatened the American power grid as a reprisal for U.S. support for Ukraine.
By the same logic, the nature of the power grid and its function in modern society make it an enticing target for domestic extremists. These groups rarely engage in direct, military-style confrontations with their better-equipped opponents in law enforcement (though there are notable exceptions to that rule). Power grid attacks do not require that sort of head-on combat. Disabling or destroying electrical infrastructure is merely a strategy to spark rancor or to indirectly threaten civilians. Those desired ends are often informed by “accelerationist” ideologies, namely a drive to hasten the collapse of civilization to realize prophesied outcomes or goals. A tenet of accelerationism is that modern society is perennially only a few blows away from disintegration: Remove the cornerstones, and collapse will follow. That is why domestic extremists who espouse accelerationist ideologies increasingly target critical infrastructure of all types.
Power grid attacks are well suited to accelerationism. It is hard to name a component of modern society more essential, and its disabling more catastrophic, than electricity. Wastewater treatment, personal banking, home security—so many of the ballasts that anchor modern American life, and curb its ills, would cease to function if the power grid faltered for an extended amount of time.
Unsurprisingly, digital researchers report that online chatter among extremist groups points to a cresting fascination with coordinated attacks on the power grid. These communications also suggest an awareness of the grid’s inadequate defenses. After an attack on a power substation in Metcalf, California in 2013, FERC warned that a coordinated assault on nine critical substations around the country—combined with an attack on one of the few domestic transformer manufacturers—could plunge the United States into darkness for 18 months. This possibility has become so tantalizing to domestic extremists that its progenitor has gained its own stand-in in extremists’ parlance: the “nine substation problem.” Though the utility that owns the Metcalf substation subsequently erected a wall around the facility, most substations and infrastructure lack such defenses.
In the years since the Metcalf incident, despite an order from FERC pledging to review and improve the grid’s physical security, the number of attacks on the power grid has risen. There were more than 100 attacks on U.S. electrical infrastructure in 2022, the most in more than 10 years. The final weeks of 2022 saw low-tech attacks on power substations in North Carolina, Washington state, and Oregon. (It’s important to note that the motives for these attacks are still under investigation, and not all power grid assaults are carried out by non-state actors with extremist aims. However, at least one of these recent incidents appears to have been driven by political aims.) The perpetrators were able to knock out the power to tens of thousands of Americans for multiple days with everyday tools and a desultory spray of bullets. FERC ordered a review of the grid’s physical security after the North Carolina and Pacific Northwest attacks, but for the reasons outlined in the preceding section, the federal government’s past forays into the issue do not inspire confidence.
Federal security agencies have echoed energy regulators’ calls for greater attention to the risks posed to the grid by domestic extremists. The Department of Homeland Security emphasized in a recent bulletin that power grid attacks could satisfy the goals of a wide range of groups with diverse ideologies because of the potential for such attacks to cause widespread disruptions. The FBI has conveyed the same possibility. The Homeland Security notice links an uptick in threats against the power grid to dissatisfaction with the results of the 2020 election, demonstrating how extremists construe the power grid—or, in this case, its collapse—as an optimal vehicle by which to effect sociopolitical distemper. With no indication that polarization or the threat from domestic extremists is likely to abate in the near future, the 2024 election could be a flashpoint for such attacks depending on the character of the race and its outcome. Experts understandably fear the consequences should a coordinated, advanced assault succeed.
Climate Change: Amplifying the Risk, Worsening the Costs
The grid’s defenselessness and the bedlam to which a successful, concerted attack could give rise are national security risks in normal times. But a new, unprecedented threat—with a harsh economic and human toll—is rising. Climatic conditions in the 21st century are rapidly straying from the Edenic sweet spot that modern humans have inhabited for thousands of years. As a result, climate volatility engendered by human activities is colliding with the grid’s languishing physical security and surging domestic extremism to make power outages an even more potent piece of the extremist toolkit. Societal advances toward decarbonization—necessary to address climate change—introduce another challenging variable into the risk calculus by expanding the pool of basic survival needs that a power grid attack would compromise.
Even without pressures from domestic extremists, the power grid is flagging under the yoke of more punishing and frequent extreme weather. The United States already endures more blackouts, most of which are weather related, than its developed counterparts. The root causes of those outages hearken back to the long-standing underinvestment and neglect covered above, but even higher levels of investment and resilience-outfitting would struggle to completely prepare the grid for the catastrophic natural disasters now routinely battering its infrastructure.
These outages incur steep economic and human costs. Estimates put the average economic losses from weather-related blackouts between 2003 and 2012 at $18 billion to $33 billion per year. The February 2021 winter storm that blindsided the central United States killed nearly 250 people (with some experts pegging a much higher death toll), most of whom died from hypothermia. Estimates of the death toll from the June 2021 Pacific Northwest heat wave range from the low hundreds to more than 1,000 from Oregon to British Columbia. Extreme weather wreaks greater havoc on the U.S. power grid with each passing year, leading to more frequent outages and endangering—and in the worst cases, killing—the most vulnerable.
Each of these events, the clip of which will accelerate as climate change intensifies, is a risk multiplier for national security and a potential opportunity for domestic extremists. The power grid is already a target for those groups; power outages foment unrest and strain societal systems even in tranquil weather. By coordinating an attack on power infrastructure before a slug of extreme weather, extremists may be able to augment the disruption they seek to inspire and threaten hundreds, if not thousands, more lives by escalating a power outage from a nuisance to a potentially life-or-death threat. A regional blackout engineered to coincide with a prolonged, triple-digit heat wave is manna to extremists who aim to orchestrate the chaos they believe will herald the long-sought collapse central to accelerationism or who simply wish to inflict suffering and death. The same can be said of an outage before an Arctic outbreak, hurricane, or any other variety of extreme weather.
Paradoxically, government and societal efforts to discontinue the very practices that have fueled more frequent extreme weather exacerbate the risk of power grid attacks. As part of its platform on climate action, the Biden administration and congressional Democrats have championed the electrification of key sectors of the American economy. A plank of this initiative is the full switch from fossil fuels to renewables by 2035 to provide the United States’s electricity. Though that transition has been underway for some time, its pace has accelerated and now has the winds of tailored legislation and market momentum at its back. Many of the new energy-generating sites—namely, solar fields and wind turbine arrays—will be constructed in rural locales like West Texas and the Sonoran Desert to then transmit power to cities and suburbs hundreds, if not thousands, of miles away. The remoteness of these power-generating sites renders them harder to police and, by extension, easier to attack.
Other industries are electrifying at various speeds. Electric vehicles, including cars, trucks, and bikes, are just beginning to meaningfully expand their share of the market. Heat pumps, electric stoves, and other electricity- or battery-powered appliances are becoming more affordable and widespread in American homes. More and more of American society—and its survival needs—depends on electricity. This is a technological and societal achievement, but it drags additional, critical instruments of life—and, in a time of crisis, survival—within the splash radius of a sustained power grid attack, ratcheting up that attack’s impact.
The solution is not to slow or abandon the electrification and decarbonization of the American economy, but to accept that measures to spare the planet and society from the ravages of climate change will require greater emphasis on security and resilience as the grid evolves to support an electrified world. These vulnerabilities could be mitigated by the deployment and uptake of solar panels and other electricity-generation technologies by individual homeowners and communities. The conversion of the U.S. electrical system to smaller microgrids, whereby fewer households and communities would be affected by an attack on any individual power substation or other piece of infrastructure, could also decentralize electricity provision in a way that increases the burden on would-be attackers.
But as long as most Americans continue to receive electricity into their homes, schools, and businesses from a grid highly dependent on a handful of critical nodes, and as long as those nodes remain unprotected, homegrown electricity production is unlikely to appreciably reduce the appeal of power grid attacks to extremists. Extreme weather and economy-wide electrification make pursuing holistic solutions to the grid’s physical vulnerabilities all the more urgent.
The powers that monitor the nation’s electrical grid—from utilities to local energy commissions to the federal government—have repeatedly failed to allocate adequate funds or otherwise treat the power grid’s long-standing physical weaknesses as legitimate national security threats. The frailty of the grid’s physical infrastructure—the substations, wires, and transformers that power the nation—has been habitually neglected, even as the risks have grown and attacks on that infrastructure have increased. Adding to that enhanced threat environment are climate and industry changes that bolster the appeal of power grid attacks to the domestic extremists already eyeing the nation’s electrical system. Heat waves are longer and more intense; cold spells are more biting; and floods, fires, and hurricanes are more cataclysmic, all while Americans increasingly turn to electricity to shield them from climate extremes. The societal calamity that a well-timed attack on the grid—hardly requiring much sophistication—could engender is exactly what domestic extremists are after. Before disaster finally forces their hand, the federal, state, and private arbiters of the power grid should treat that hypothetical with the existential urgency it deserves.