It’s been exactly a decade since a cascading blackout across the Northeast crippled commerce and transportation in the U.S. and Canada by cutting off power to 50 million people and causing up to $10 billion of damage to the economy.

Since the 2003 blackout the government has implemented a slew of changes to the system aimed at preventing another blackout, but questions still swirl about whether or not a repeat of that eye-opening incident could occur.

While the incident a decade ago was sparked by an overgrown tree near Cleveland, today’s aging electric grid faces more complex challenges from intensifying extreme weather events and an increasingly-sophisticated cyber threat.

“Everything in our society, every economic activity depends on reliable, disturbance-free electricity,” said Massoud Amin, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Minnesota who has been dubbed the “father of smart grid.”

Amin said despite the post-blackout improvements, there is "always a risk of a major blackout" due to natural disasters, human error or other factors. 

“The infrastructure we have is a model of engineering. However, it is a model of 20th century engineering. To prepare it for a digital society we need to transform it into a much stronger, much more reliable grid,” he said.

Eye-Opening Experience

The 2003 blackout, the worst in North American history, highlights how enormous the economic stakes truly are.

The incident began in Ohio at around 4 p.m. on August 14, 2003 and cascaded throughout the region, knocking more than 400 generating units out of service.

By the end of the day about 50 million people were impacted and an estimated $4 billion to $10 billion of damage was inflicted on the economy amid spoiled goods and lost productivity.

Millions of Americans were stranded in the heat ahead of their evening commutes home.

“Even people who had hotels were taking the pillows and blankets from their rooms and sleeping outside in the park,” said Jim Rickards, a consultant on market intelligence at Omnis who was working in downtown Manhattan during the blackout.

‘A Long Way to Go’

A joint U.S. and Canadian task force assembled to examine the blackout concluded a number of factors triggered the event: inadequate situational awareness, failure to adequately trim trees in the transmission corridor and a failure by coordinators to promptly identify and deal with the escalating problems.

“I think the ‘03 outage surprised a lot of people in terms of the scale and the scope. Most people would have said you couldn’t have had such a major outage,” said Frank Cilluffo, who had been serving as a Homeland Security adviser in the Bush administration shortly before the blackout.

In response to the blackout, the government instituted a number of safeguards. Amin pointed to mandatory reliability standards enforced by regulators as well as more requirements aimed at boosting real-time situational awareness.

“The 2003 event was a turning point that led to mandatory and enforceable standards for the bulk power system, the creation of an international electric reliability organization (ERO) and renewed industry focus on reliability,” the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, or NERC, said in a statement marking the 10-year anniversary.

“Progress has been a good down payment for the future of the grid, but we still have a long way to go,” said Amin, who is a senior member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

Weather, Cyber Headaches on the Rise

That’s partially due to the evolution of two particular threats that complicate the ability to keep the lights running: extreme weather and cyber attacks.

According to Amin, the number of power outages caused by extreme weather had ranged between two and five per year from the 1950s until the early 1990s. Since then, they have steadily risen and in the last five years the number of extreme weather outages has spiked to between 70 and 130 per year, he said.

Excluding extreme weather events, the east coast of the U.S. experiences an average of 240 minutes of outages a year per customer, compared with just four minutes in Japan, Amin said.

At the same time, the frequency, sophistication and strength of cyber attacks have increased dramatically since 2003.

The country’s enemies appear to be paying close attention to the potential vulnerabilities of the electric grid. Amin said major control centers in the U.S. experience more than 100,000 probes per day.

Cilluffo, director of George Washington University’s Homeland Security Policy Institute, called these “troubling trends” and said they suggest “countries seem to be mapping our critical infrastructure” for vulnerabilities in case of a conflict.

Earlier this year, U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told a Senate panel that the intelligence community believes there is a “remote chance” of a major cyber attack against critical infrastructure systems over the next two years that would cause “long-term, wide-scale disruption of services, such as regional power outage.”

However, the country’s top spy said the “level of technical expertise and operational sophistication” needed to carry out such an attack will be “out of reach for most actors. Advanced cyber actors like Russia and China are “unlikely to launch such a devastating attack” outside of a military conflict or crisis they believe “threatens their vital interests,” he said.

Revamping the Grid

Ron Gula, a former National Security Agency expert, concurs with that assessment.

“Unless you have a shooting war with China or Russia or someone like that what benefit is there to take power out of New York City?” Gula, CEO of Tenable Network Security.

He also stressed the difficulty cyber actors would have in penetrating the grid, saying: “It’s not like you can hack in one place and there’s a magic red button. There are lots and lots of control systems and lots of capacity.”

Despite the low probability officials see of a successful attack that wipes out power, it’s clear security issues need to be at the forefront as the U.S. considers upgrading its infrastructure.

“We can’t just think of security as an afterthought. That has to be part and parcel of the economic decision making on the front end,” said Cilluffo.

So what would the electric grid of the future look like?

Amin is pushing for a two-pronged revamp, starting with a stronger grid that would require the construction of more than 42,000 miles of high-voltage lines. At $2 million per mile, that would cost $80 billion, or $8 billion a year over 10 years.

Amin is also calling for a smarter grid that would cost about $400 billion to create and would aim to reduce outages by about $49 billion a year.

A smarter, stronger electric grid would “more than pay for itself by creating long-term jobs and giving us better economic, environmental and national security,” said Amin.

Follow Matt Egan on Twitter @MattMEgan5