Experts say that it’s difficult to predict how long it would take the nation to recover from a prolonged failure of the nation’s electrical grid. A 2008 government report, which examined the scenario of electromagnetic pulse attack by an enemy nation or terrorists on the Baltimore-Washington-Richmond, Va. corridor, estimated that in a best-case scenario, it might take a month to repair damaged equipment and bring the region back to normal—at a cost of at least $9 billion. In the worst-case scenario, the report noted, it could take years to fix the damage. “The quantity of replacement equipment needed to restore the economy may quickly exhaust readily available supplies and, in extreme cases, existing manufacturing capacity,” the report noted. “In such cases, the availability of skilled labor to replace and restore key infrastructure elements may also be in extraordinarily short supply.”
Joel Gordes, electrical power research director for the U.S. Cyber Consequences Unit, a private-sector organization that studies the risk of cyber-attacks on the power grid and other critical infrastructure, says that restarting a failed grid can be difficult and complex. One critical factor is the pervasiveness of the blackout. “I suspect there will always be certain islands [in the system] that will remain operating,” he explains. “But how large they are, or how capable they might be for providing ‘black start’ power over a large area, raises questions.” Restarting the grid would require some generators that are capable of operating, as well as intact transmission lines that would enable the working generators to power up other plants as well.
Meanwhile, officials would be hampered by other problems as they tried to restart the grid. In order to procure replacement equipment, they’d have to be able to communicate with the manufacturing facilities that would make it, and transport the equipment long distances to where it is needed. Additionally, they’d also have to maintain civil order, so that repair crews could safely go about their work.