“Every single way you look at it, modern society is not prepared to live without electricity,” says Tommy Waller, the president and CEO of the Center for Security Policy and an expert on the U.S. grid. He's also featured in the documentary “Grid Down, Power Up.”
In a recent episode of "American Thought Leaders," host Jan Jekielek and Mr. Waller discussed the vulnerabilities of the United States' electrical grid, why the industry and our government have failed to correct these problems, and what happens if the grid goes down.
Many experts consider these extra-high-voltage transformers to be the backbone of our modern grid. If this device that we depend on for the lifeblood of our modern civilization could be manipulated or turned off, then that would be extremely problematic for us. It’s a vector of attack that the Trump administration tried to address through executive order. Unfortunately, on the first day of the current Biden administration, that executive order was suspended. Our nation has since imported about another 100 transformers from China. There are now somewhere around 400 in the U.S. grid.
When we say the grid, we’re talking about the whole system that generates electricity, transmits it, and distributes it. This transmission normally occurs over long distances. These extra-high-voltage transformers are needed to step up the voltage and then to bring it back down. It’s that high voltage that allows it to travel those long distances. These assets are absolutely critical.
If that transformer stopped working for any reason, then you’re not moving that electricity from where it’s produced to where it’s needed. The assets themselves, the large ones, may take years to produce. The lead time for that production has gone from about a year to more like four years, and there’s only so many of those assets. We can’t afford to lose them for any reason, whether it’s because they were manufactured with the malicious intent of manipulating them, or because they’re somehow attacked.
Think about our dependence on electricity. If you’re in an urban environment, you lose water right away. Refrigeration is critical to our food system, and that depends on electricity. Every single way you look at it, modern society is not prepared to live without electricity. In short order, you have suffering and chaos.
FERC did a classified study in the wake of that attack. They discovered that if an adversary knew which nine substations to attack, this could cause cascading failures that could black out the whole country for an extended period of time. Some may remember the great Northeast blackout of August 14, 2003, when there was a cascading failure from a tree branch in Ohio striking a transmission line. That single point of failure caused a cascading blackout that resulted in 55 million customers losing power, some for up to two weeks. Whether it’s Mother Nature or a human adversary, the system can be taken down if it’s not properly protected.
In this case, what the Chinese did was genius. They realized that these transformers need a certain type of steel to be manufactured, grain-oriented electrical steel. What do the Chinese do? They dumped into the market massive amounts of grain-oriented steel. They cornered the market for the precursors that are needed to create the transformers. I’m sure you and your viewers are familiar with the inexpensive aspect of purchasing products from China, which is made possible by slave labor, if you want to call it that.
Today, our country needs to identify where these transformers are and get them inspected. Then we need to produce these domestically or else have our allies produce them while ensuring they are not using components from communist China.
Texas, for example, has its own grid. The last legislative session passed the Lone Star Protection Act or Infrastructure Protection Act. It was designed to identify whether critical infrastructure components were coming from adversaries to make sure problems like this don’t happen in that state.
There will also be blackouts if we continue some of the policies of our government. You can’t shut down large baseload powered generators like nuclear, coal, and fossil fuel plants and replace them with renewables, when the sun only shines and the wind only blows intermittently, and at the same time electrify everything.
The grid is also vulnerable to threats from Mother Nature. It’s 100 percent certain that at some point the grid will go down because of solar weather. That’s a warning I’ve personally issued at least twice to Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm. So far, it doesn’t look like we’re doing what we need to do about it, even though it’s a completely fixable problem.
In fact, just this past March, there was a massive solar storm, and it happened to be on the opposite side of the sun. Had it traveled toward Earth, we might not be having this interview right now. The reason is that these highly charged particles react with the Earth’s magnetosphere. In fact, in the northern latitudes, people can see the Aurora Borealis, the Northern Lights, which is the visual depiction of the electromagnetic energy generated when these particles slam into our magnetosphere.
In 1921, there was a solar storm. They call it the railroad storm because there were railroad stations in Connecticut and throughout the Northeast that caught fire and burned to the ground. Why did they catch fire? Because the telegraph lines were 100-plus kilometers long and had ground-induced currents from a solar storm that caused sparks and fires.
Those currents go into our transformers. The level of protection we have from the current standards is so low that the grid will go down if we have a significant storm. When I say that it’s 100 percent certain, all I’m saying is that the level of protection we have now and the standards that have been set by the industry and approved by the government guarantee that the grid goes down if we suffer a solar storm of significant magnitude.
I told myself I’d stay in until they kicked me out, and we reached that point. I took a stand on the COVID vaccine mandate, and unfortunately, along with many others, my religious accommodations were denied. I waited a year, I appealed, and did everything I could, but I was not allowed to continue serving.
I was also recruited at one point by the U.S. Air Force’s Electromagnetic Defense Task Force, to be a staff member of that organization and to help them form a task force to address electromagnetic spectrum threats, and to produce two reports on this issue that lay out the challenges.
I was blessed that during the last half of my career in the reserves, I had this civilian job with the Center for Security Policy, a nonprofit founded by Frank Gaffney, who worked for President Reagan. Frank knew all about nuclear EMP years before it was declassified. He’d been worried about the grid for decades.
This job is more than a job, it’s a calling in life. He taught me about electromagnetic pulse and about these threats. Then, he assigned me the duty of managing this nationwide Secure the Grid Coalition.
I’m not a physicist or an engineer. I’m an infantry guy. But I was blessed to be the apprentice to some of the world’s foremost experts in all of these different threats to this critical infrastructure. I was able to translate to the American people and to our policymakers the reality of those threats and what needs to be done to defend against them.
When we embrace policies that create a dependency on China, while at the same time creating vulnerabilities because we are not producing enough electricity, that’s one threat. The second one is cyber. We know that China has a significant cyber capability, and that can mean cyber espionage where they’re stealing secrets in our power production, whether it’s nuclear power or otherwise.
The supply chain we mentioned already. They could be producing different things with a hardware backdoor that would allow them to remotely control certain things. Then there is electromagnetic attack. We know that the Chinese are obviously nuclear-capable; it’s part of their war-fighting doctrine to focus on both that and cyber. Part of their cyber doctrine is the use of electromagnetic pulse.
Nuclear EMP is in the cards if they wanted to use that. We just watched a balloon cross the entire continental United States, and that balloon could be a platform for an EMP attack. It doesn’t take an intercontinental ballistic missile.
Then there’s the possibility of physical sabotage. Look at our open borders and our immigration policy with respect to the People’s Republic of China. If they put the right people here with the right know-how, they can conduct physical attacks on the grid.
We’re talking about a volunteer effort in the states and at the federal level to shape policies to protect this critical infrastructure. One valuable product of that effort has been “Grid Down, Power Up.” One of the members of the Secure the Grid Coalition, David Tice, sank an immense amount of money, time, and effort into the film. Dennis Quaid is the narrator. Now you’ve got David Tice and Dennis Quaid speaking all around the country because they care about this. But the film they produced, “Grid Down, Power Up,” is the culmination of nearly a decade of interviews of the experts in our coalition. I’ve been trying to brief policymakers for nine years, and this film can teach them in less than an hour.
If they were to install these neutral ground blockers on these transformers, analysis has shown they could solve that problem for the entire United States for just over $4 billion. This is what I explained to the secretary of energy regarding the bipartisan infrastructure bill, $1.2 trillion.
So one-third of 1 percent of that infrastructure bill could solve the problem of solar weather. Yet there’s no indication, despite multiple attempts, they’re spending the money on that.
Here’s another example. Your viewers can drive down the road and look at the substation that provides the lifeblood to that neighborhood with only a chain link fence around it. It should be ballistic protected to make sure these transformers can’t be shot up and can’t be viewed. It’s a fixable problem.