"The U.S. could suffer a coast-to-coast blackout if saboteurs knocked out just nine of the country's 55,000 electric-transmission substations on a scorching summer day, according to a previously unreported federal analysis," the Wall Street Journal's Rebecca Smith reported on the front page of Thursday's paper. A set of "coordinated attacks in each of the nations' three separate electric systems could cause the entire power network to collapse," Smith noted, citing "people familiar with the [Federal Energy Regulatory Commission] research."
A development like this is quite newsworthy and a topic that makes for good TV news, yet the broadcast networks -- ABC, CBS, and NBC -- completely ignored the item both on the March 13 evening newscasts and the March 14 morning news programs. By contrast, they found air time for rather frivolous stories such as:
- A new revelation made in a British court about the late Princess Diana (ABC's World News; 30 seconds)
- A brief obituary for a movie-trailer voiceover artist (NBC Nightly News, 30 seconds)
- The latest winter storm (Nightly News; 18 seconds)
- Colin Powell's 1950s selfie posted to Twitter for Throwback Thursday (CBS Evening News; 21 seconds)
- Extensive coverage of the Oscar Pistorius murder trial in South Africa (NBC's March 14 Today show; 5 minutes 39 seconds)
- Princess Diana may have been leak in Buckingham Palace (Good Morning America; 2 minutes, 3 seconds)
- More Princess Diana coverage on NBC (Today; 1 minute, 41 seconds)
- Some cool smartphone apps worth downloading (Today; 2 minutes, 11 seconds)
- A pot-related job fair in Colorado (CBS This Morning; 2 minutes, 49 seconds)
- A diplomatic spat involving the EU and US over how we label certain cheeses (CBS This Morning; 3 minutes 34 seconds)
- A Texas bakery accountant charged with embezzling $16 million (Good Morning America; 1 minute 41 seconds)
As Smith reported, while remote, the threat of a nationwide blackout is not impossible, and, what's more, a still-unsolved attack on a substation last April shows just how vulnerable they are to attack (emphasis mine):
In its modeling, FERC studied what would happen if various combinations of substations were crippled in the three electrical systems that serve the contiguous U.S. The agency concluded the systems could go dark if as few as nine locations were knocked out: four in the East, three in the West and two in Texas, people with knowledge of the analysis said.
The actual number of locations that would have to be knocked out to spawn a massive blackout would vary depending on available generation resources, energy demand, which is highest on hot days, and other factors, experts said. Because it is difficult to build new transmission routes, existing big substations are becoming more crucial to handling electricity.
In last April's attack at PG&E Corp.'s Metcalf substation, gunmen shot 17 large transformers over 19 minutes before fleeing in advance of police. The state grid operator was able to avoid any blackouts.
The Metcalf substation sits near a freeway outside San Jose, Calif. Some experts worry that substations farther from cities could face longer attacks because of their distance from police. Many sites aren't staffed and are protected by little more than chain-link fences and cameras.
While the prospect of a nationwide blackout because of sabotage might seem remote, small equipment failures have led to widespread power outages. In September 2011, for example, a failed transmission line in Arizona set off a chain reaction that created an outage affecting millions of people in the state and Southern California.
Sabotage could wreak worse havoc, experts said.
"The power grid, built over many decades in a benign environment, now faces a range of threats it was never designed to survive," said Paul Stockton, a former assistant secretary of defense and president of risk-assessment firm Cloud Peak Analytics. "That's got to be the focus going forward."