When the Lights Go Out: Is America’s Power Grid at Risk?

By Milo Jones | Posted January 09, 2023

Nobody likes extreme weather—especially when it causes power outages. But when the lights go out suddenly in the absence of a heat wave or an ice storm, the cause might be something more sinister.

An electric grid has three main components: power plants, long-distance power lines, and substations. Power plants use different types of fuel to generate electricity. Long-distance power lines carry the electricity in high voltages to substations. And substations convert the electricity to lower voltages before sending it to buildings through distribution lines.

These substations cannot convert electricity without transformers—devices that regulate voltage levels. When these malfunction, the power goes out. Thus, they are the optimal target for terrorists bent on disrupting America’s power grid.

Substation Attacks Rising

America was reminded of the vulnerability of its power grid when, in February 2022, three men pleaded guilty to the crime of “conspiring to provide material support to terrorists.” As part of the conspiracy, each defendant was to use a high-powered rifle to attack a substation in a different region of the country. The FBI foiled their operation.

Nevertheless, 2022 continued with an increase in substation attacks, the most notable ones happening toward the end of the year.

In Florida, six “substation intrusion events” occurred in September. In each case, an intruder forcibly entered the facility and “manually tripped and locked out … equipment,” causing brief outages.

In Washington and Oregon, six substations were vandalized in November. According to an FBI memo, “criminal actors bypassed security by cutting the fence links, lighting nearby fires, shooting equipment from a distance, or throwing objects over the fence and onto equipment.” Four additional substations were attacked on Christmas morning, leaving nearly 15,000 people in the dark. Year-end data from the U.S. Department of Energy showed that “the Northwest grid was physically attacked more in 2022 than in the previous six years combined.”

But the most impactful attack of 2022 was felt by the residents of Moore County in North Carolina. On December 3, unknown suspects fired multiple shots at two substations, putting 45,000 residents under a state of emergency for four days. Thousands of people visited shelters with generators to charge cell phones, operate medical equipment, or just warm themselves from the cold.

Not since a 2013 attack on the Metcalf substation in San Jose, Californian—in which a team of snipers damaged 17 transformers—has America witnessed so much targeting of its critical infrastructure. 

America’s Achilles Heel?

NPR highlighted the vulnerability of the nation’s power grid, going back to the Metcalf incident in 2013. That incident was “extremely sophisticated, … a stunning attack,” reported Jon Wellinghoff, former chair of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). Snipers were assigned different positions, and their bullets drained more than 50,000 gallons of cooling oil from 17 of the 21 transformers. 

The consequences of such an attack are twofold. In the short term, thousands of homes and businesses lose power. But in the long term, equipment is difficult to replace. Many high-voltage transformers are made in other countries; some are as big as railroad boxcars. “The backlogs [for replacements] can stretch to 18 months, with price tags that can run into millions of dollars.”

Appropriately, the Metcalf substation received security upgrades, including a concrete wall to stop bullets. However, when FERC oversaw the risk assessment of other electric facilities, they noted that most of America’s 55,000 substations we not prepared.

As a result, most substations are still surrounded by chain-link fencing with limited or no camera surveillance. And because many of them are in rural areas, surrounded by foliage, saboteurs can remain undetected. Such vulnerabilities in the power grid, according to former FERC Chairman Wellinghoff, add up to a colossal problem: A “series of precisely targeted substation attacks could trigger a cascade of failures, taking down most of the … grid.”

Thus, “the electric grid is the Achilles’ heel of the United States,” said Mike Mabee, a grid security specialist. “If a terrorist organization … wants to visit damage on the [nation’s] electric grid, the easiest way to do it is by a physical attack.”

A Spiritual Power Grid

The Bible says something about spiritual electricity. 

No residence can operate lights and appliances without being connected to a power source. Likewise, no person can bear the fruit of love (Galatians 5:22) without being connected to the divine power source. Jesus said, “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). No wonder the devil is desperate to break this connection!

Just as physical substations today need concrete walls to stop a terrorist’s bullets, Christians need the shield of faith to stop the devil’s fiery darts (Ephesians 6:16) designed to inflame our carnal desires, which are categorized in 1 John 2:16 as “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life”—sensualism, materialism, and egotism. Into one or more of these categories fits every temptation. 

But how do Christians take up the shield of faith? By watchfulness and prayer (Matthew 17:19–21; 26:41). Watchfulness happens when we stay on the lookout for potential temptation. We must avoid any activity that arouses our fleshly desires. And prayer happens when we get on our knees in conversation with God. He speaks to us through His Word, and we ask that Word be written on our hearts.

It was by the Word of God that Jesus overcame the devil. When tempted with starvation (sensualism), with worldly kingdoms (materialism), and on the temple’s pinnacle (egotism), “It is written” was His reply (Matthew 4:1–11). And because He overcame, sinful humans can access a power that exceeds the highest voltages in the grid.

To learn more about accessing God’s power, check out Pastor Doug’s booklet Tips for Resisting Temptation.

Milo Jones
Milo Jones is a writer and editor for Amazing Facts International and lives in College Place, WA.

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