The Texas Grid and U.S. National Security

Policy Backgrounders | National Security

No. 182
Monday, May 02, 2016
by David Grantham

America’s electric power grid is arguably the most vulnerable part of our nation’s infrastructure. Divided among three geographical regions, the U.S. network remains dangerously exposed to a host of potentially devastating natural disasters and foreign attacks. Yet, Texas finds itself in a unique position to act.

Utilities in the Lone Star State operate their own, self-contained grid. And, because it is confined within state borders, the Texas government has authority to preempt catastrophe by “hardening” the system. The state government has the responsibility for public safety, the financial resources and access to the latest technologies necessary to accomplish this mission.

The Threat Cannot Be Overstated. In 2010, the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) released a translated copy of an Iranian military doctrine publication. The “Passive Defense” textbook advocates for a variety of Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) attacks as a means of blacking out an enemy’s electric grid, suddenly and anonymously. Former CIA Director James Woolsey explains that the most devastating EMP options remains the high-altitude detonation of a nuclear weapon. Such an operation could theoretically be accomplished by simply launching a single, unsophisticated ballistic missile from a freighter floating off the American coast. Other delivery systems include low-orbit satellites and crude nuclear devices. North Korea actually practiced a nuclear EMP attack in April 2013, and the U.S. EMP Commission concluded that Russia and China now favor this type of asymmetric warfare — a style of war wherein the military capabilities between two combatants differ significantly — and have both the capability and motivation to carry it out.

An EMP can also be a natural hazard. Recent analysis shows that solar storms create natural EMPs in the Earth’s atmosphere that could decimate electric grids. In fact, something similar occurred in 1859. Known as the Carrington Event, the solar storm emitted an electromagnetic pulse that rendered telegraph systems in the United States, Europe and elsewhere inoperable for two days. The impact was minimal due to the limited use of electricity. The same weatherrelated incident today, however, would have enormous repercussions for our multilayered, interconnected web of energy and electricity. According to experts, a Carrington-level solar storm occurs roughly every 150 years. The last incident happened 154 years ago.

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