Chapter 6: Operation Circuit Breaker

It’s another sunny midsummer day in Phoenix, Arizona.  The routine of the day is much like that in any other large metropolitan area in the country.  Commuters drive to work, flights take off and land, children frolic in swimming pools, garbage collectors ply residential streets, semitrucks move goods back and forth along area freeways.  There’s a difference here though.  The appearance of normalcy rests on one technological device without which little of this would exist.

This city depends on air-conditioning like most cities depend on air.  Across the sprawling metro area of more than 4,000,000 people, virtually every home, vehicle and business is air-conditioned.  With summer temperatures that regularly rise upwards of 110 degrees Fahrenheit and can peak at more than 120 degrees, air-conditioning is not merely a luxury, it’s a necessity.  In this extreme climate, functioning normally would be impossible without it.  For the very young, the elderly, the sick, anyone in poor health, their survival depends on it.  At this time of year, everyone in this city lives on artificial life support, yet its critical importance is taken for granted by nearly all of them.

That is about to change.

Within the city are 12 people who are unlike everyone else living here.  They are saboteurs and they are lying in wait.  They may be from the Middle East, members of a radical faction of Islam seeking to strike the Great Satan.  They may be the hired guns of a Latin American drug cartel seeking revenge for U.S. law enforcement that has targeted their business.  They may be home-grown Americans, perhaps eco-saboteurs on a mission to stop unsustainable growth in the Southwest.  Or perhaps they’ve been recruited from among the bitter numbers of those forced into bankruptcy by a life-threatening illness, citizens turned terrorists by the realization that they face a medical death sentence in a nation without a safety net to catch them.  People with a reason for revenge and nothing left to lose.  They could be anyone for any reason.  It doesn’t really matter.  Whatever their goals, the methods by which they aim to achieve them are the same.

They each know what they need to know, they know the plan and they patiently wait.  They watch the weather reports week after week and they wait.

Then one day the forecast tells them the waiting is over.  The event they’ve been waiting for has arrived.  Tomorrow is forecast to reach 115 degrees Fahrenheit.  The day after that will be even hotter.  Nighttime temperatures fall only into the low 90’s.  The torrid heat is predicted to last through the week.

A call goes out and Operation Circuit Breaker goes into action.  Tomorrow they will strike.  Five of them leave the city today, some driving north to the high country of the Mogollon Rim, some out into the western desert.  By evening, each of the five is more than 100 miles from the city.  The distance from which they are able to strike is one of the essential strengths of tomorrow’s attack.

Though they all have a different destination, each has turned off of a highway and onto an infrequently used dirt road.  Most of them will drive a considerable distance on remote back roads before parking the vehicle and hiking into the forest or the desert to camp for the night.

The remaining saboteurs wait in the city.  Their targets are close at hand.  And shouldn’t exist at all, except for the foot dragging of utility companies and regulatory agencies in which the citizenry vests its trust.

The next morning dawns hot in the low desert, even by the hellish standards of a Phoenix summer.  The freeways swell with commuter traffic.  By 9 AM most of them are at work.  So are the saboteurs.

At 9:30 AM the attack begins.  Each of the gunmen still in the city has driven to one of the natural gas-fired power plants or large substations in the metro area.  Facilities with names like Mesquite, Red Hawk, West Phoenix, Harquahala, Gila River, West Wing and Pinnacle Peak.  The list of potential targets is a long one and striking any of them will be highly effective.  Striking five of them will be devastating.

The method of attack is the same at each facility.  The gunman drives up to the security fence, gets out of the vehicle, steadies a high-powered rifle on the hood, sets the scope on one of several large step-up or step-down transformers and fires several shots.  At each facility, most of the transformers can be easily seen through the chain link security fence.  The range in every case is less than 1000 feet, an easy shot with so large a target.  In a matter of seconds, one critical transformer after another is rendered useless.  The attacks occur simultaneously and they take place too quickly for security guards to react.

As bullets rip through transformers, the crackling transmission lines bringing electricity to the city begin to lose power.  Just 15 minutes later the life-blood of Phoenix has evaporated and the blackout is complete.

Operation Circuit Breaker is not finished though.  At 9:30 AM in the remote mountains and deserts north and west of the city, the five gunmen who left yesterday begin their attack.  One by one, they get into position, aim, squeeze the trigger and fire.  Cable after cable is disabled.  Several large lattice towers collapse.  By 10 AM, power connections between Phoenix and the hydro-electric generators at Hoover and Glen Canyon Dams have been severed.  Transmission lines bringing power to the city from the Navajo and Four Corners coal-fired plants are also down.

The most challenging attack is carried out by two gunmen in the blistering desert west of Phoenix.  Their job is to disable three large 500-kilovolt transmission lines carrying power from the Palo Verde nuclear power plant to the West Wing and Rudd substations.  Each of the three lines transmits three phases of electricity and each phase is triple bundled for a total of twenty-seven cables.

Extra high voltage transmission cables come in many sizes and each is known in the trade by the name of a bird.  In this case, the cables are “Chukar” size, with a diameter of more than 1-1/2 inches.  On this sweltering morning they droop toward the ground at maximum sag, presenting an easy target at a range of only 100 feet.

The challenge is that because the Palo Verde nuclear power plant is relatively close to the city, the transmission lines are only about 40 miles long, short by transmission line standards.  This increases the chances that law enforcement may reach the gunmen before the attack is finished.  It also means that the lines are more likely to be within sight of frequently traveled roads and close enough to residential areas that gunfire can be heard.  Operation Circuit Breaker is a well-planned attack and these challenges have been anticipated.  To minimize the time necessary to disable all 27 cables, two gunmen have been assigned for this attack.

Fortunately for them, everyone living within hearing distance is either at work or has been driven indoors by the intense heat.  Their chosen spot is about a mile south of where the lines cross Interstate 10, far enough from the highway that they won’t be seen.  They’ve rehearsed the drill many times and despite the heat, just 40 minutes are required to disable the lines.

The entire Phoenix metro area is now without power.  The timing and scale of the attacks is as unprecedented as were those of 9/11.  Cascading failures and blackouts spread across most of Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada and parts of Utah and California.  

The scene is one of chaos at the grid control centers of Arizona’s two largest electric utilities, Arizona Public Service and Salt River Project. The phones ring constantly as calls come in from the Arizona Department of Homeland Security, the governor’s office, the Arizona Department of Public Safety and utility operators in Las Vegas, Tucson, Yuma, Los Angeles and San Diego.

Grid operators have never seen anything even remotely like this before.  No one knows quite what to do, except to monitor where power has been cut.  As they can see on the monitors, it’s been cut at so many points that there’s no action plan for this eventuality.  Until now such an event has been unthinkable.  Now there’s little point in thinking about it.  The damage has been done and only the slow, patient work of field crews will fix it.  What no one realizes yet is that it will be weeks or perhaps even months before power is fully restored.  This event is a game changer.

Of the 16,000 megawatts of total power available to the two largest utilities serving the metro area, 13,000 have now been disabled for an extended time.

The scene at the Arizona Department of Homeland Security is just as chaotic.  They obviously know that something has caused a power outage, but don’t know the extent of it.  Is it only a minor problem or something bigger like a terrorist attack, a solar flare, maybe a high altitude nuclear explosion?  Something serious has happened and state and federal law enforcement offices are in disarray.  In less than an hour, a handful of saboteurs have created the largest power outage in the nation’s history.

Elsewhere in the city though, there’s little sense of panic yet.  On the contrary, the atmosphere borders on festive at businesses throughout the metro area.  Everyone has a perfect reason to stop working.  Cell phones still work and smart phones still get internet signals.  Little by little a picture begins to emerge and the festive spirit darkens as the sobering news of an attack spreads across the city.

As everyone attempts to call spouses, children, parents, relatives, desperate to make contact with loved ones, cell phone services begin to break down.  Communication and internet services are overloaded and the inability to communicate is quickly amplifying a general sense of panic.  Except in a few places like hospitals, media stations and some communication centers, where emergency generators have roared to life, the oppressive heat bores in slowly, relentlessly.

More and more people decide to leave work, desperate for the air conditioning in their vehicles. 

Soon everyone is having the same thought.  Get out of town.  Collect the family and drive north to higher, cooler country.  For most, it’s more complicated than that though.  Children, pets, elderly family members, medications, overnight essentials must all be gathered up before leaving.  Millions of people are all trying to do this at the same time, adding to the congestion.  The pace of traffic on city streets is frustratingly slow.  Traffic lights don’t work and most people are driving slowly, cautiously.  Everyone’s anxiety is heightened by the realization that the fuel tank is moving toward empty and there’s no place to refill it.

As commuters leave work, the traffic situation on area freeways is even worse.  Exit ramps clog as traffic leaving the freeway is forced to creep through unlighted intersections at the end of each exit ramp.  As exits clog, traffic backs up, then slows and stops, causing tempers to flare.  Drivers approaching on-ramps find them clogged and take alternate routes, but these, too, are agonizingly slow.  Not a cloud can be seen in the featureless blue sky.  The heat is relentless and intensifying.

Those fortunate enough have a short commute to a home with swimming pool find relief there.  They get in the pool, then get out and allow the evaporating water to cool them.  Although it only cools to 25 or 30 degrees below the air temperature of 115, even sporadic cooling to 85 or 90 is a welcome relief.

Many residents of the numerous retirement communities around the city don’t have private pools.  As the hours pass, their homes become uninhabitable ovens.  They gather in community pools, seeking relief from the incessant heat.  Even the relative relief of the pool is physically stressful compared with the air-conditioned comfort they’re accustomed to and some will succumb to heart attack and heat stroke.

Most residents in the city’s low income neighborhoods aren’t so lucky.  For most of them, the blackout is an ordeal.  For the elderly among them, it may be worse than an ordeal.

Those facing the worst times though are the roughly 10,000 elderly and physically frail residents living in the 200 or so nursing homes in the metro area.  For them, this may well be the end.  Not only has the air-conditioning failed, there are no fans to circulate air, no air-conditioned shelters for them to be taken to, no realistic emergency plan for them.

Safe drinking water is now a precious commodity.  In areas with elevated storage tanks, water still flows from faucets.  Emergency radio broadcasts caution that the water supply is severely limited and should only be used for for drinking.  In the growing heat and spreading sense of panic, almost everyone ignores the warnings.  Bathtubs are filled as are sinks, pots, pans, children’s swimming pools, anything that will hold precious water. 

As the heat builds and bores in relentlessly, available supplies of bottled water and soft drinks are consumed within hours.  It isn’t long before the elevated municipal water storage tanks run dry and then nothing happens when faucets are turned on.  The last source of potable water is in chlorinated swimming pools.  Chlorine is volatile though, and now that filtering pumps have quit, pool water gradually becomes polluted by the masses congregating there for relief. 

Polluted or not, it’s the only source of water and many are now driven to drink it.  That, and the lack of water for hand washing after defecating into backed up toilets sitting atop non-functional sewers, become an invitation to gastrointestinal disease.  In the coming hours and days, as they become sick, diarrhea and vomiting will rob them of precious body fluids.  For the elderly especially, it will be a terminal illness.

Electronic communications will last only as long as backup generators have fuel.   Hospitals will face the same critical fuel shortages within a short time as refueling trucks become mired in traffic.  The only available gasoline is what was in vehicle fuel tanks when power was cut, and that source is dwindling. Filling stations require electricity to pump fuel and now there’s no way to safely and effectively transfer highly flammable gasoline into vehicles.

Commuters are now heading home en mass, while at the same time countless others are trying to escape the sun-baked city.  Now there are no staggered work hours to relieve freeway traffic and increasing numbers of drivers are stuck in freeway gridlock.  Freeways become linear population centers.   Drivers turn off engines to save fuel, but within seconds turn them back on again as the heat inside quickly becomes unbearable.  In the stalled and stop-and-go traffic, some vehicles overheat, driving their occupants to congregate in the shade of overpasses.  Anxious to save dwindling fuel, other drivers also abandon their vehicles in traffic lanes to join the growing crowds in the concrete shade.

Without drinking water though, thirst quickly drives them from the freeways into adjacent neighborhoods.  Amid the terrible heat, a growing realization that life-giving water is scarce is spreading a sense of panic across the city.  Desperate for water, the freeway refugees knock on doors, then break into homes searching for something to drink.

Arizona is a gun-happy state and some homeowners meet the refugees with firearms.  Warning shots are fired.  A few shoot to wound or kill.  Grocery stores and restaurants are mobbed and anything drinkable is taken and consumed.  Ice, when it is discovered, is a treasure.  Fights break out over it.  Chaos reins.  And this is only the first day of the blackout.

In a matter of hours, all that was so recently taken for granted has now changed.  Life has been turned upside down.  The rich, the poor, the young and old, everyone is experiencing the ordeal now.  They may as well be living in the capital of Chad or Sudan or some other blistering urban oven in the developing world.  Except that this is worse, much worse, because no one is ready for it.

The four million dwellers of this inferno are coming to realize, most of them for the first time, just how thin the margin of survivability is when water and air-conditioning are cut off.

The State of Arizona Emergency Response and Recovery Plan and the Arizona Department of Health Services Heat Emergency Response Plan are in disarray.  Nothing remotely resembling the quickly devolving situation taking place has been planned for, much less rehearsed on a broad scale.  For all practical purposes, it’s another Katrina.

As evening approaches, the terrible heat begins to wane but still hovers well above 100 degrees, much too hot to allow sleeping.  Thirst is becoming an ever more pressing need.  Almost everyone is desperate to get out of town, but traffic is still snarled on highways leading north out of the city to higher, cooler country.  Radio reports describe grim scenes of vehicles stalling far from shade and of occupants, especially the elderly, dying beside highways before emergency vehicles can make their way through gridlocked roadways to rescue them.  People still at home or in the process of gathering up loved ones are discouraged from even trying to escape.

In the rare instances when emergency responders arrive in time, there’s no where to take the victims.  Area hospitals, among the few air-conditioned buildings left in the city, are jammed with the sick and dying, along with family members desperate to escape the heat.  Emergency beds line the halls and every available space a bed can be squeezed into is full.

By nightfall, more than 1000 victims have succumbed to the killing heat.

The night is a long one, and sleep is fitful in the heat.  Emergency broadcasts urge people to gather up whatever water they still have and leave during the night, neighborhood by neighborhood.  In an attempt to bring a semblance of order to a chaotic situation, police are directing traffic at every major intersection, but progress is slow and in a city without street lights or traffic signals, there’s no way to bring order.

Nightfall brings opportunity for one segment of the population though.  Burglars, meth addicts, anyone after an easy buck begin to realize that with more and more homes abandoned and with the police anchored to traffic control duty, the blackout is a dream come true.  Computers, plasma TV’s, jewelry, anything of value is free for the taking.  Regardless of who owned what before the attack, now it all belongs to the looters. They just break windows and enter.  There’s no alarm to go off, no neighbors to call the police and no police to respond.

When the first glow of the eastern sky signals the return of the killing sun, the night has claimed an additional 2500 people, mostly in nursing homes.  Everywhere in the city, the last vestige of coolness is gone from refrigerators and food is beginning to spoil.  Everyone knows by now that today will be much like yesterday, only worse.  The list of good reasons to leave is a long one and the only reason to stay is to protect one’s home and possessions.  The equation is simple, leave and risk losing prized possessions or stay and risk losing your life.  Nearly everyone opts for the former. 

As the furnace-like heat begins to grow again, people continue leaving in droves.  Even those lucky enough to escape during the night are finding that they can’t drive far enough to get out of the blackout zone.  There are no gas stations at which to refuel, no where to get water, food is gone from grocery stores.  The only saving grace is that for those who manage to drive to higher ground, it’s finally cooler.

Many are heading to Flagstaff, two hours north of the city and 6,000 feet higher.  Overnight it has taken on the appearance of a refugee camp.  Every motel room is full despite the lack of power.  Makeshift camps have sprung up as tens of thousands of low-desert escapees are camped in the forests surrounding the city.  The blackout means there is still no water being pumped though.  With temperatures reaching only into the 90’s, municipal swimming pools aren’t needed for cooling and emergency service personnel are chlorinating the water and handing it out for drinking.

As the days pass, the hellish heat of the low desert finally begins to break.  Back in Phoenix, chaos and death gradually give way to the silence of a ghost town.  Streets are empty except for patrols by law enforcement and national guard troops.  Police have orders to shoot to kill burglars.  Emergency generators have long since run out of fuel.  All flights into and out of the city have been suspended indefinitely.  Freeways are all but empty.  Railroads lie vacant since signal lights and track switches have ceased to work.  

Like ripples on a pond, the effects of the blackout spread across the region and then across the country and beyond.  Fully realizing for the first time the fragility of an infrastructure on which it depends for virtually its every need, the nation is sobered.

The death toll attributable to the blackout will take time to fully assess, but preliminary figures suggest more than 5,000 victims.  That grim toll is certain to rise as more succumb to the delayed effects of dehydration and long exposure to heat.

In the aftermath of the attacks, the predictable stage of finger pointing about who was responsible for the infrastructure security lapses eventually passes and the nation begins to focus on the real question.  What to do now?  The nation has wedded itself to an antiquated electrical generation and transmission model more than a century old.  It soon becomes clear that the options for achieving true energy security will require systemic change.  This isn’t the sort of change that an already developed society can make easily, even if it has the will to do so, but as the public becomes aware of just how vulnerable the system is, it soon becomes apparent that the will is there.

As the weeks go by, inherently vulnerable schemes to criss-cross the country with huge transmission line projects begin to fall from favor.  Truly secure alternative technologies like distributed generation and microgrids now become household terms.

Above all is the growing realization that a new perspective is necessary in regard to how we think about and use electricity.  That realization in turn begins to drive a revolution in energy efficiency that applies to every aspect of electrical consumption.

Matching that revolution is another one in the development and implementation of smart grid technologies that will permit a major portion of electrical generation to enter the grid from sources like rooftop solar panels and fuel cells.

At the same time, political pressure begins to break the stranglehold that utilities and regulatory agencies have on electrical generation and transmission.  These institutions will remain key players in the newly developing system, but their status will be that of partners with a far more involved public.

The changes are sweeping.  The price of electricity skyrockets, the demand for it plummets and the result, amortized over time, is a net reduction in overall expenditures for electricity.  Orders for centralized power plants fall to zero while solar panels begin to blanket every roof.  Hyper-efficient electric vehicles become integrated into the system, their batteries serving as a storage medium for electricity that further stabilizes the power supply.

In step with the rapid advances in electrical efficiency and distributed renewable energy is a profound reduction in the production of greenhouse gases from fossil fuel-fired power plants.  That reduction is far greater than any achievable from the previous attempts to maintain the old centralized model by joining vast solar and wind farms to distant energy markets across lengthy, vulnerable and expensive cross-country transmission lines.

In the years following the tragic attacks, Phoenix rises from the ashes to become the model for a new age of safe, dependable and secure electricity.


© David Omick and Operation Circuit Breaker, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, as well as photos by the author, provided that full and clear credit is given to David Omick and Operation Circuit Breaker with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.