Bob Owens

The saddest truth in politics is that people get the leaders they deserve

Cracking the grid

Written By: Bob - Aug• 07•12

Power lines in Catocin Mountains, Cunningham Falls State Park, MD. Photo via Panoramio.

Back in the mid 2000s after the dot-com crash in NY, I took a job for a Central Hudson subcontractor tasked with mapping the GPS coordinates of the major transmission power lines in lower upstate NY, in the counties to the north and west of the NYC. Central Hudson needed notes on the best access points for utility crews, and needed data on the footing condition of each steel tower or pole for maintenance purposes.

What this means is that I spent months riding a quad all over the mountains, forests, and swamps of NY, and got paid for it. I think I logged more than 1,000 miles in some very rough terrain.

One thing I took away from the experience was the fragility of the grid, and how isolated important transmission line towers and substations were. 9/11 was only a few years ago at that point, and I was acutely aware of how simple it would be for someone to topple some of these towers. Something as simple as a fire from stacking brush and logs around the supports (fire can melt steel, after all), perhaps helped along with a portable torch, could drop the steel towers. The wood structures would take even less. It would take firefighter’s an hour or more to access many locations, which were inaccessible to fire trucks.

To this day, I can’t ride past a transmission line and not cringe at the fragility of the system. Everyone focuses on the power stations, substations, and switches.

They seem to forget that all that power isn’t transmitted wirelessly.

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  1. Phelps says:

    Yup. Thermite is so easy to make, too. Quick trip to the hobby store and you’re all set.

    Of course, we could instead just wait for another solar event like 1859 and the whole grid is going to be down for years, worldwide, since we seem to show no interest in hardening it against that. We know another one will happen, it’s just a matter of when.

  2. Orion says:

    That has been my thought for ages.

    Hit a couple of the major inter-grid towers with a thermite sticky bomb and drive away. Stick a timer on it and it doesn’t even topple until you’re miles away. You can make half a dozen in a couple hours and basically take out any major coastal city’s power in a day.

    No power means no A/C, no water, no traffic lights, no lights at all, and no refrigeration…I don’t think it would take more than a day before the cities became massive riot zones.

    Use an R/C plane and drop iron filings over a major substation and watch the fireworks take out utterly irreplaceable transformers before you drop the towers and they’ll be down for years.

    Hardening the grid really needs to be a H U G E priority for our nation.


    • SDN says:

      That would have actually been a reasonable use for the “stimulus” but (no kidding) NOW protested that infrastructure projects spent too many dollars on “jobs for burly men.”

  3. Sean says:

    It’s too late to harden the grid. If we’d started it as a project back around 9/11…yeah maybe. Now? Considering what’s happened in the last several years, considering what I personally believe is coming in the next 18-48 months? Lonnnnng past ‘too late’.

  4. LCB says:

    Yeah…. Honestly…how do you ‘harden’ thousands upon thousands of transmission towers. oh…maybe it’s millions…I don’t know. But…what do you do? Build a guarded fort around each one???

    Hardening the major transformers against solar events makes sense…especially the large ones. Utilities may be quietly doing this…but I’ve not heard anything.

    For what it’s worth, utilities are aware of the dangers. But…the government won’t let them raise rates to cover the cost of hardening the systems. My utility is a public company, regulated by the state of Ohio. Yeah…they make money…but they don’t have the excess to do everything that needs to be done.

  5. Al Reasin says:

    In 1859 the telegraph system failed. I don’t even want to imagine if this country was without a complete electrical grid for as long as 10 years. I even wonder if we would still have a county. The movie “The Postman” seems the likely outcome.

  6. Jeff Hoser says:

    Keep moving, nothing to see here. A lot of knowledgable folks have been preaching this for decades only to be called “alarmists”. The same folks have also have also pitched “cache” nuke plants – small fail cold salt/thorium plants with small physical and environmental footprints – to surround metro areas superceding the large scale interconnects between mega-watt generators we now rely upon. >MW

  7. Firehand says:

    We’ve got people who seem to think they can add millions of electric cars without adding capacity to the grid, electrons apparently just appearing at the outlet; you expect them to worry about this?