Electrical Systems & 21st Century Threats

by Benjamin Dancer

One leading researcher shares his insights into the existential threats that the electrical infrastructure faces. He proposes that a superhighway with electrical systems protected at multiple points is not only feasible, but it could help reduce carbon emissions, build electromagnetic resilience, and address major space weather events that could threaten the life and health of human populations.

Alexander MacDonald, the former director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Earth System Research Laboratory, gave a talk on 27 April 2016 entitled, “Create a 21st Century Electric System,” at the Space Weather Workshop in Broomfield, Colorado. The workshop was co-sponsored by the NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center, the National Science Foundation Division of Atmospheric and Geospace Sciences, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Heliophysics Division.

MacDonald’s talk was a presentation of a study that he published on 25 January 2016, in the journal Nature Climate Change. He laid out a plan to build an underground, high-voltage direct current (HVDC) superhighway by 2030 that could, “solve the two greatest problems the U.S. faces: the threat of human-induced climate change and the threat of massive homeland destruction from electromagnetic pulse (EMP) or solar ejections.” This HVDC superhighway would be the backbone of a multi-point protected electric system (see Figure 1).

Reducing Carbon Emissions A NOAA supercomputer was used to calculate future electrical costs, demand, generation, and transmission scenarios. The computer also crunched billions of bits of data from the country’s weather history. The study concluded that an HVDC transmission infrastructure that uses converter stations to move power to the present AC distribution points could reduce energy loss and allow weather-driven renewable resources to supply 70 percent of the nation’s electricity without raising costs to the consumer. Moreover, implementing the plan would dramatically cut greenhouse gas emissions from power production.

“Our research shows a transition to a reliable, low-carbon, electrical generation and transmission system can be accomplished with commercially available technology and within 15 years,” MacDonald said.

Because energy is available in the United States from solar or wind sources (see Figure 2), the solution to the problem of intermittent renewable generation is to ramp up the renewable energy generation system to keep pace with the scale of the country’s weather systems. One of the greatest obstacles to a transition to renewable energy has been the problem of storage. A large and strategically placed renewable generation system solves the problem of energy storage by allowing electrons generated in one part of the country to be immediately transmitted to any other. This type of efficient transmission is not possible with the current infrastructure.

When describing the HVDC grid, MacDonald employed the analogy of the interstate highway system, which revolutionized the U.S. economy in the 1950s. “With an ‘interstate for electrons,’ renewable energy could be delivered anywhere in the country while emissions plummet,” he said.

Building Electromagnetic Resilience Citing the Report of the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Attack, MacDonald concluded that the U.S. civilian infrastructure is essentially unprotected from an EMP attack. An EMP weapon could create an electromagnetic energy field that would damage critical components of the electric grid, including large transformers and supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems. The potential for damage is so catastrophic that an EMP attack poses an existential threat to the United States. “Today there are rogue states with specially designed EMP nuclear weapons,” MacDonald said. “Tomorrow these weapons will be available to terrorists and any small state with a grudge and a balloon.”

Addressing Major Space Weather Events MacDonald also cited space weather as a potential threat. A coronal mass ejection the size of the 1859 Carrington event, or bigger, could pose a threat to the United States on the same scale as an EMP attack. The Carrington event was a massive solar storm that caused telegraph systems all over the world to malfunction or fail.

The design of the proposed underground HVDC network would include protecting it from EMP. The cable system would be protected by an outer sheath that would function much like a faraday cage (a grounded metal screen surrounding a piece of equipment to shield it from electromagnetic influences). Moreover, the cable itself would be grounded at every junction. The converter stations would also be EMP protected.

“An important point,” MacDonald said, “is that a protected HVDC network by itself is not enough. We would also have to take action to protect the backbone of the AC distribution system – maybe 5 percent of the AC system would have shields and very rapid response circuit breakers.”

In a subsequent interview with the author on 25 May 2016, MacDonald described the importance of protecting the homeland from EMP. There are several mechanisms of destruction that have the potential to disable the power grid, including cyberattack, EMP attack, and space weather. When asked which of the threats caused him the most anxiety, MacDonald said EMP.

Over the course of the last 100 years, society has unwittingly evolved to become dependent on a vulnerable critical infrastructure. People 100 years ago did not need electricity to feed the population or to provide clean drinking water. Today they do. An EMP attack could disable the power grid and create an economic catastrophe on a scale unprecedented in human history. A sophisticated attack has an enormous potential for human casualties. Dr. Peter Pry, a member of the Congressional EMP Commission and executive director of the Task Force on National and Homeland Security, testified before a congressional subcommittee in 2014 that “a nuclear EMP attack ... could kill 9 of 10 Americans.”

“The generalea is that a limited set of electric transmission and distribution should be protected,” MacDonald said. “In the most likely scenario, where a large geographic area is impacted (e.g., the 10 most western U.S. states by a bomb above the Pacific off of California), there would be a large area with no services – no food, no heat, no fuel, no ability to provide medical or law enforcement, no drinking water, etc. Social breakdown occurs when large numbers of people become desperate and fight among themselves.”

MacDonald concluded, “Theea of a robust system is that, if electricity can be made available at key points, services can be available that enable the larger, unharmed part of the U.S. to deliver aid. On the other hand, if the airports and gas stations aren’t functional, and the ability to keep public roads, food, and water available are gone in a large area, the disorder and violence can become self-feeding fairly rapidly.”


Benjamin Dancer, who works as an advisor and mentor at a Colorado high school, is the author of the literary thriller Patriarch Run, which explores the vulnerability of the nation’s critical infrastructure to cyberattack. He also writes about education, parenting, sustainability, and national security. More about the author and the vulnerable critical infrastructure can be found at