Your microwave, stoplights, water sanitation plants, airports, cell phone chargers, what does this seemingly random collection of items have in common? In short, they require power. The United States power grid is the backbone of the world’s third-largest country and its dynamic economy – but its shortcomings pose a grave risk.

Between 2003 and 2012 outages as a result of weather disruptions caused economic losses of $335 billion. Due to domestic and geopolitical factors, simple weather outages may not be the most insidious threat to the grid.

Since the pandemic, there has been a steady uptick in the number of grid security incidents resulting from domestic terror and international meddling. The National Institute of Science and Technology observed an increase of 2,000 security weaknesses in the power system between 2022 and 2023. Furthermore, senior U.S. officials have expressed concern about the prospect of significant disruptions from its international adversaries: Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea. Former Department of Energy Office of Intelligence and Counterintelligence associate deputy director for operations, Victor Atkins suggests “it is only a matter of time before… these attack scenarios reach a point to cause much more catastrophic consequences.”

This raises the question: what are the looming threats and how can they be prevented?

In a 2021 study, the Hudson Institute put forward answers these questions. They posed a hypothetical situation in which either a traditional cyber-attack, quantum computing attack, or both caused a total blackout in the United States. In this scenario, setting the blackout date for Quarter 1 of 2025, total cross-sector costs were estimated to be $8.9 trillion and to bring GDP down to early pandemic levels. Further, it would be expected to cause significant immediate harm to crucial infrastructure and prevent medical care from being effectively administered.

Hudson proposes a three-pronged approach to prevent such a scenario:

Cryptographical Measures: Power companies must be incentivized to increase protections for Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems to mitigate future attacks. SCADA systems manage the hardware and software of the utilities industry. These protections include the developing post-quantum cryptography encryption software and using the entanglement of sub-atomic particles to generate hack-proof keys.

Strategic Reserve of LPTs: The U.S. Department of Energy issued a report in 2017 suggesting a crucial aspect of threat mitigation is developing a robust reserve of large power transformers capable of being deployed in a mass blackout scenario.

Increased Cooperation with Canada: The United States power grid is generally comprised of the Eastern and Western Interconnections and the Texas ERCOT system while also being highly integrated with the Canadian grid. Crucial to threat reduction is close cooperation between the two countries.

The risks to the American people, the economy, and the general welfare posed by an unsecured power grid cannot be overstated. Given the United States’ relative geographical security, it is likely that any foreign adversaries view an attack of a cyber nature as the only viable method of affecting the continental United States. Solutions to the problem will only come as the visibility of the issue increases and significant investments into the necessary technology come from both the government and private industry.


Written by Nicholas Cheyne, Public Policy Intern

The Alliance for Innovation and Infrastructure (Aii) is an independent, national research and educational organization. An innovative think tank, Aii explores the intersection of economics, law, and public policy in the areas of climate, damage prevention, energy, infrastructure, innovation, technology, and transportation.