Lessons from the 2003 North East Blackout: How Private Electrical Organizations Can Help Mitigate EMP Risk

Adam A. Lawrence

Do you know where your power comes from? In the past generations, transportation and delivery of power was all carried out by large corporations. These corporations, also known as vertically-integrated monopoly utilities (IOUs), were highly regulated at the state level to ensure power was delivered at a reasonable price, and at a cost that the corporations could profit from to keep the generation plants open and functioning. This was the standard power utility operating structure for decades. 

In the mid-1990’s, major restructuring to the regulations imposed on the IOUs were put into place to make the power distribution business into a more market-based structure. In the paper The U.S. Electrical Industry After 20 Years of Restructuring, the authors write, “Transmission restructuring proceeded along two paths, a regulatory path that attempted to impose rules upon vertically-integrated utilities that would promote third party access to their networks, and an institutional path that encouraged the creation of Independent System Operators (ISOs) and later Regional Transmission Organizations (RTOs)” (Borenstein, Bushnell, 2015). Essentially, due to this restructuring the IOUs would be able to divest their transmission systems in order to utilize their money elsewhere, like more efficient ways of generating the power. Inversely, the smaller companies who would then buy the transmission and delivery grids could invest in technological upgrades to make the system more efficient and profitable.

Another effect of the divestment of the grid created an integrated system in which many different power companies (generators and distributors alike) would all be interconnected within the grid. This interconnectivity can lead to some issues with the reliability of the grid across many different organizations, regardless of the origin point of the root cause event. One can look at the 2003 Northeast Blackout to see how one issue with one section of the grid can have a cascading impact on the rest of the grid. On August 14, 2003 a section of the power grid experienced several grid breaker trips that were evidence of a ground fault located  at the Star-South Canton transmission line in Ohio, ending in the transmission line going completely dead at approximately 3:42pm. Power was able to be redirected, but being a hot summer day, the power load was already extensive on the remaining grid without the additional power load taken on by the failed line.

In North American Electric Reliability Council’s (NERC) report Technical Analysis of the August 14, 2003, Blackout, it says, “After the Star-South Canton line was lost, flows increased greatly on the 138-kV system toward Cleveland, and the Akron area voltage levels began to degrade on the 138-kV and 69-kV system. At the same time, power flow was increasing on the Sammis-Star line due to the 138-kV line trips and the dwindling number of remaining transmission paths into Cleveland from the south” (NERC, 2004). As the independently owned sections of the grid began to fail, they passed their load capacity onto the next owner who couldn’t handle the increased load and caused more failures. The subsequent blackout left approximately 55 million people without power in eight U.S. states and Canada. Most areas had their power back online with in a day or two, but some didn’t receive repaired service for one-two weeks.

Looking at this event, not caused by catastrophic circumstances, one could imagine the widespread outage that would be caused by even an localized electromagnetic pulse event. When an EMP device is detonated, charged particles released damages electronics within the line of site of the release. If the device were to be detonated at a lower altitude, a smaller area would be impacted. This does not mean that the damage would be any less. As one can infer from the events of the 2003 blackout, just one section of the power grid malfunctioning can cause a cascading effect knocking out other sections, not much unlike the waves of electromagnetic energy released from an EMP device.

Despite President Trumps signing of Executive Order on Coordinating National Resilience to Electromagnetic Pulses, government intervention into mitigating the threat is a far way off. The order calls for research and development and procedural and policy implementation prior to any concrete measures being made (EO13865, 2019). This means that if the power grid is to be protected expediently, private industry would have to make investments to protect their infrastructure. One way of doing this is to harden the individual components of the grids. However, this is expensive. In the 2004 EMP Commission’s Executive Report, it states, “There are too many components of too many different types, manufacturers, designs, and vulnerabilities within too many jurisdictional entities, and the cost to retrofit is too great” (EMP Commission, 2004).

Another option is the EMP Shield. The EMP Shield is a military grade and tested device that shunts incoming energy surges as they enter an electrical system. When the surge is detected, the EMP Shield shunts power in less than one billionth of a second. This exceeds the Department of Defense specification, which requires shunting to occur within 20 nanoseconds (DOD, 1994). If multiple power distribution companies, organizations and electrical cooperatives were to adopt this technology, if an EMP detonation were to occur, strategically placed shunting devices, like the EMP Shield, would be able to prevent the power from coursing from one grid to another, knocking them out like dominoes. This option is so effective that the February 2019

Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Protection and Resilience Guidelines for Critical Infrastructure and Equipment lists EMP Shields as a recommended EMP rated filters and suppressors (NCCIC, 2019).

Though the U.S. Government is making steps in the right direction to ensure the resiliency of the power grid, private industry is in a more effective position to make positive changes to the security of the nation’s power and electrical infrastructure. Investing in shunting and suppressor options now can save billions of dollars in the future if an EMP event occurs in the future. For more information about the EMP threat, visit www.myempshield.com and review the documents in the EMP Library.


Borenstein, S., & Bushnell, J. (2015, May). The U.S. Electricity Industry after 20 Years of Restructuring. Retrieved April 9, 2019, from https://ei.haas.berkeley.edu/research/papers/WP252.pdf

NERC. (2004, July 13). Technical Analysis of the August 14, 2003, Blackout: What Happened, Why, and What Did We Learn? (United States of America, North American Electric Reliability Council). Retrieved April 9, 2019, from https://www.nerc.com/docs/docs/blackout/NERC_Final_Blackout_Report_07_13_04.pdf

Exec. Order No. 13865, 3 C.F.R. 1 (2019).

United States of America, Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Attack. (2004). Report of the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Attack. Retrieved April 9, 2019, from http://www.empcommission.org/docs/empc_exec_rpt.pdf

Department of Defense. (1994). High-Altitude Electromagnetic Pulse (HEMP) Protection For Groung-Based C I Facilities Performing Critical, 4 Time-Urgent Missions (MIL-STD-188-125-1) (United States of America, Department of Defense, Department of Defense Interface Standard). Washington, DC: Department of Defense.

National Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Center. (2019, February 5). Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Protection and Resilience Guidelines for Critical Infrastructure and Equipment (United States of America, Department of Homeland Security, National Coordinating Center for Communications (NCC)). Retrieved April 9, 2019, from https://www.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/publications/19_0307_CISA_EMP-Protection-Resilience-Guidelines.pdf