How many ways can an electrical power grid be put out of commission? Here are a few, but the number is limited by the human imagination:
- A broad-based cyber attack on power infrastructure
- A high altitude electromagnetic pulse attack
- A barrage of high power solar flares
- A series of graphite bomb attacks
- Targeted terrorist attacks on grid infrastructure using explosives, missiles, and small arm
More information at the Vulnerability of Electric Power Grids Analysis Project
Here is a look at one possible form of low-tech terrorist attack against power grid infrastructure:
The most vulnerable structure, system or component for large scale coal plants is the main step up transformer – that component that handles electricity at 230 or 500 kV. They are one of a kind components, and no two are exactly alike. They are so huge and so heavy that they must be transported to the site via special designed rail cars intended only for them, and only about three of these exist in the U.S.
They are no longer fabricated in the U.S., much the same as other large scale steel fabrication. It’s manufacture has primarily gone overseas. These step up transformers must be ordered years in advance of their installation. Some utilities are part of a consortium to keep one of these transformers available for multiple coal units, hoping that more will not be needed at any one time. In industrial engineering terms, the warehouse min-max for these components is a fine line.
On any given day with the right timing, several well trained, dedicated, well armed fighters would be able to force their way on to utility property, fire missiles or lay explosives at the transformer, destroy it, and perhaps even go to the next given the security for coal plants. Next in line along the transmission system are other important transformers, not as important as the main step up transformers, but still important, that would also be vulnerable to attack. With the transmission system in chaos and completely isolated due to protective relaying, and with the coal units that supply the majority of the electricity to the nation incapable of providing that power for years due to the wait for step up transformers, whole cites, heavy industry, and homes and businesses would be left in the dark for a protracted period of time, all over the nation.
The economy would collapse, regardless of how much good will and positive hope there was among the ruling elite. The hard facts of life – America in the dark – would soon become apparent to everyone, and the economy wouldn’t be able to absorb it. _Captain's Journal
Surviving under such conditions would be very difficult, particularly if other forces antagonistic to the US continued to attack vital infrastructure and supply lines after much of the power grid had collapsed for the duration.
Useful information on "grid-down survival"
People do not typically do well on their own -- they need families, friends, and social support structures. Modern, technology-dependent humans do very poorly indeed when on their own, without their support technologies and societal infrastructures.
It would cost over $1 trillion to harden the power grid structures of North America against these various forms of attacks. That money is unlikely to be spent for such purposes, since it is being spent for politically expedient reasons instead.
That leaves the ball squarely in your court.