Electrical Grid Attacks on the Rise

manhattan power outage

Attacks on our electrical grid are up 86% over last year! This is an ominous trend. Will it continue?

Two years ago I wrote an article describing the causes of power outages and the frequency of outages we’ve experienced. Once the public became aware of the risks and threats associated with power outages, government and industry leaders were pushed to minimize grid failure. The number of outages has leveled off, but the percentage of grid attacks has increased.

Here are U.S. statistics for the past 15 years based on U.S. Department of Energy records:

Table 1: Power Outages by Year


Source: https://www.oe.netl.doe.gov/OE417_annual_summary.aspx – Department of Energy – Office of Electricity Delivery & Energy Reliability

Interpreting the Results

First, notice we experienced just 31 outages in 2000. Then the number of outages slowly rose until there were 152 failures in 2008 and 122 in 2010. Until 2010, none of the failures were attributed to vandalism or sabotage. Instead, equipment failure or human error was blamed.

This all changed in 2011. Suddenly the number of outages skyrocketed from 122 to 300. And 121 of these were attributed to suspected or physical attack. The list included three cyber attacks. Since 911, we’ve had a barrage of vandalism, sabotage, and cyber attacks.

We live in a huge country (3.8 million square miles, 2,500 miles across) with over 300 million people. It helps to understand where the outages occurred and learn more about the nature of these outages.

Fig 50-1 MapStatesUS 300

Power outages have occurred in almost every state.

2015 Power Outages

Our country suffered 142 power outages in 2015. Figure 2 shows where these outages occurred.

States where power outages occurred in 2015.

States where power outages occurred in 2015.

Table 2 shows 2015 outages by month.

Table 2: 2015 Power Outages by Month


The causes for these outages are shown in Table 3 below.

Table 3: 2015 US Power Outages by Cause


Weather-related grid failures accounted for 46.4% of 2015 power outages. This is less than the percent failures attributed to weather in 2014. Of these142 outages, 43 were suspected or actual attacks on the electrical grid. This represents 30.3% of all outages for 2015. This percentage seems to be increasing.

Figure 3 shows states where attacks occurred in 2015.

Fig 50-3 Map2015Attacks300

States where power grid attacks occurred in 2015.

When we peel the onion we begin to understand the scope of the electrical grid reliability problem. Certain parts of our country are more susceptible to attack than others.

2016 Power Outages

Table 4 shows the number of recorded power outages for the first five months of 2016.

Table 4: 2016 Power Outages by Month


Figure 4 shows the location of outages through May 2016.

Where 2016 general power grid failures occurred.

Where 2016 general power grid failures occurred.

Table 5: Summary of 2016 General Power Outages


There were 415,103 customers affected in Texas April 18-20, 2016 (power out for 50.83 hours)

In four cases the outage didn’t affect any customers. Table 6 shows the causes for these grid failures.

Table 6: Reported Causes for 2016 U.S. Power Outages


Between January and the end of May 2016, there were 49 reported outages. Of these, 26 were attacks—representing 53% of all outages during this five month period. (In all of 2015 there were 43 suspected or actual attacks out of 142 outages. Attacks accounted for 30.3% of all outages.) In the first five months of 2016, the relative percentage of attacks among total outages is up 75% over 2015. This should be a great concern to all of us. Grid attacks now exceed weather related outages.

Figure 5 shows where attacks or suspected attacks on the electrical grid have occurred during this same time period.

Table 7: Summary of Power Grid Attacks


Of the 26 attacks reported, 21 had no effect on customers and no downtime occurred. On March 27th, 110,000 customers in Nevada lost power for 1 hour.

This suggests that when attacks occurred, fast reactions by grid operators minimized their effect. In many cases (21 of 26), there was no downtime. There were incidents of sabotage. An attack in January affected the grid in Wisconsin for 27 hours, but no customers lost power. Another incidence of sabotage occurred in March affecting power in Washington State for 32 hours. Again no customers were without power. In April sabotage of a Maryland power station caused a 28-hour event. No customers lost power. And in May, power in Missouri was sabotaged affecting operation for 20 hours. Like before, no customers were without electrical power.

Table 8 is a summary of power outages for 2015 and 2016.

Table 8: Where Power Outages Have Occurred

Where attacks have not occurred is as important as where they have occurred. Notice that no outages or power grid attacks are recorded by the DOE for Alaska and Hawaii. These states are on their own independent power grids. Also there were no outages or attacks recorded for Iowa, Montana, North Dakota, Nebraska, South Dakota, or Wyoming.

Table 9 shows the percentage of outages caused by attack.

Table 9: Percentage of Attacks on the Power Grid


The frequency of attacks has increased and this is ominous. But we’re getting more resilient. Grid operators are better able to react quickly. Homeowners are preparing for worst-case events and even politicians are waking up to the fact that we must act now to protect our infrastructure and stop those who mean us harm. As I said in an earlier article—we’ve come a long way. But there is much more to do.

Electrical Grid Attacks on the Rise

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Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on July 22, 2016, and has been updated for quality and relevancy.

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Electrical Grid Attacks on the Rise

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