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The Power Goes Out and Never Comes Back: North America without Electricity

Posted By October 4, 2023 No Comments
Kyiv city in a blackout

Kyiv city in blackout after Russian missile attack. Town without power and electricity. — Photo by

Written by: Carter Jack Lewis

The Growing Threats to Our Power Grid

With every technological development comes the risk that an individual, group or nation state will use its power for nefarious purposes. Electricity and the internet fall within this paradigm. Despite the countless advancements that this technology has helped provide to humanity, the flip side highlights Western society’s reliance and perhaps over-reliance on cyber-infrastructure. It is important to understand the nature of these threats, how they could affect Western civil society and how we can combat and prepare contingencies for a worst-case scenario.

The modern world has grown dependent on electrical power, so much so that the idea of living without it seems impossible. As society has become technologically advanced, our vulnerabilities have increased in parallel, even exponentially.

Some of the imminent threats to the power grid include:

  1. Electromagnetic Pulses (EMPs): High-intensity bursts of electromagnetic radiation, travelling at the speed of light, can severely damage electrical circuits, potentially taking down large parts of the grid. These can be a result of high-altitude nuclear detonations, natural occurrences or non-nuclear bombs capable of generating an EMP, which have reportedly been developed and tested by both the United States and Russia.
  2. Cyberattacks: In an age of increasing cyber warfare, global adversaries might target power grids as well as other critical infrastructure using sophisticated malware. The shutdown of the Colonial pipeline in the United States in 2021 is a recent example of a cyberattack on critical infrastructure. Large-scale successful attacks can lead to widespread outages of power and electricity operated critical supply sources.
  3. Infrastructure Failures: Aging infrastructure is susceptible to breakdowns. Without regular maintenance and upgrades, a systemic collapse becomes more plausible.
  4. Solar Activities: Massive solar flares or Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs) from the sun can impact Earth’s magnetic field, inducing electric currents that can damage power lines and transformers.

A Solar Flare.

Understanding an EMP

When activated, an EMP weapon emits a burst of energy, generating a potent electromagnetic field with the capacity to disrupt various electronic devices. This disruption extends to a wide range of equipment, including but not limited to computers, satellites, radios, radar systems and even commonplace devices like traffic lights and modern vehicle electronics. All electronic equipment within the vicinity of an EMP attack can be affected simultaneously.

Society relies on electronic systems driven by components highly susceptible to surges in electric currents and voltage. A significant portion of these systems depends on semiconductors for their functionality. An EMP can cause the failure of semiconductors due to localized overheating. Such failures have the potential to disrupt industrial processes, railway networks, power grids, telecommunications systems and access to essential resources like water supplies and sewage treatment systems.

Commercial computer equipment, used across various sectors, is particularly susceptible to EMP effects. This vulnerability extends to computers employed in data processing (hospital operations and banking, for example), communication systems (radio, television and cell phones) industrial control applications (including traffic signal systems) and embedded within military equipment, such as signal processors, electronic flight controls, and digital engine management systems.

Furthermore, various electronic devices and electrical equipment may also succumb to the detrimental effects of an EMP. Telecommunications equipment, especially receivers, stands out as particularly exposed. This encompasses radar and electronic warfare apparatus, satellites, microwave equipment, as well as UHF, VHF, HF and low-band communication devices. Additionally, vehicles equipped with electronic ignition systems and ignition chips would no longer operate.

Beyond these examples, EMPs can impact other structures and equipment. Collectors of EMP energy include railroad tracks, big antennas, pipes, building wiring and metal fencing. The ground offers some protection, yet most underground facilities have above ground collectors which can channel an EMPs energy to larger facilities, resulting in surges that can lead to the destruction of interconnected links and transformers, turning a localized issue into a geographically greater one almost instantaneously.[1]

Protecting Our Electrical Infrastructure

There exist two fundamental approaches to safeguarding technology from the effects of an EMP. The first technique involves employing metallic shielding, typically crafted from a continuous metal sheet like steel or copper. Remarkably, only a fraction of a millimeter of metal can often suffice to provide adequate safeguarding. However, for this method to be effective the shield must entirely enclose the target item, as any small openings would compromise the protection.

The second approach, known as tailored hardening, presents a more cost-effective alternative. With this method, the focus is on enhancing the resilience of the most vulnerable components and circuits within the system. By redesigning these critical elements to withstand higher electrical currents, the overall system becomes more robust. Tailored hardening has exhibited unexpected failures during testing; however, it is still considered a potential strategy for reducing the vulnerability of existing systems.[2]

The West has the resources and current capabilities to meet this threat head on, and our security organizations are aware of this new frontier of cyber defence. We as citizens must be vigilant and can write to our government representatives voicing our concerns about cybersecurity and the safety of our electrical grid. Additionally, there are steps that each individual can take to prepare themselves and their families in the event of a catastrophic EMP or cyber-attack. Take a moment to consider how your home depends on electricity; what would not work without it?

If the Lights Go Out: A Timeline


Cities plunge into an abyss of uncertainty. The soft glows of screens die out, replaced by an unsettling darkness that feels almost palpable. Condo and office elevators and emergency systems fail leaving some stranded in the dark. Streets once bustling with life are now filled with an eerie silence and blocked with stalled vehicles strewn about.

Lack of Communications: Mobile devices, once our lifelines, are now useless bricks. Information now passes along at the speed of the word of mouth; rumours circulate.

Transit Problems: Planes, trains and automobiles that rely on electronics could fail and in some tragic cases, mid-journey.

Overwhelmed Healthcare Apparatus: Medical centres quickly become hubs for disaster response. Strained frontline workers do their best under difficult circumstances, but without the necessary contingency plans or stockpiles of essential resources – their efforts can only do so much.

Access to money: ATMs, debit and credit cards no longer work.

FIRST WEEKS: The challenges that will begin to arise.

Access to Potable Water: With no running water, people are forced to collect and boil water. Prevention of waterborne illness will be a priority.

Access to Food: The stocks of grocery stores will likely be looted; government disaster stocks and military rations can mitigate this issue, but over time people will be hungrier.

Garbage and Sewage: Systems for waste removal and sewage will also be essential; the lack thereof will hinder any recovery efforts and spread disease.

Social Cohesion: Maintaining social order will be key. It is imperative that government officials such as police, firefighters, EMT, members of the armed forces maintain their posts. Attrition could affect effectiveness and outreach.

Medicinal Shelf Life: Refrigerated medicines such as insulin are at risk, as are power-dependent medical devices such as ventilators, CPAP machines and hemodialysis units.

FIRST MONTHS: Anarchy or Resilience

Depending on your opinions on humanity’s true nature, you may believe in the Realist lens of Thucydides, that we live in an anarchic world order in which, “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”[3] In this self-help world, it is a zero-sum game that we in the West have lost. The spoils of this devastated territory would be divided for its natural resources…sound familiar? However, the other view, that humanity is inherently good, may lend itself to the belief that in a best-case scenario. The event of a EMP or cyberattack affecting an entire region or state– would spur other friendly elements of allies, or unaffected wings of our own military and civilian apparatus and other state allies comprising of less developed regions or countries who are less reliant on their electrical infrastructure to come to our aid.

Canada’s Unique Vulnerabilities

The vast and varied landscape of Canada presents a unique set of challenges when considering the potential ramifications of a prolonged power outage. The country’s reliance on modern amenities, coupled with its extreme weather conditions and dispersed population, make it especially vulnerable in several ways.

Extreme Cold: Many regions of Canada experience bitterly cold winters. A power outage during these months would render electric heaters, furnaces and other essential heating devices useless. This could lead to a spike in hypothermia and other cold-related illnesses, especially among the elderly and those without alternative heating sources.

Urban Dependency: Cities like Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver as well as other urban centers heavily rely on electricity to run their intricate infrastructure systems from public transportation to water treatment plants. Such urban centers could become epicenters of chaos as services grind to a halt and resources deplete rapidly.

Remote Communities: Canada is home to numerous remote communities, particularly in the North, which already grapple with limited access to supplies. A power failure would further isolate these communities making the transportation of essential goods whether by road or air near impossible. Their reliance on gasoline and diesel generators, especially in the absence of consistent daylight during certain months, would make them extremely vulnerable. However, many residents of more rural and remote communities do have more survival skills than an average urbanite.

Communication Blackout: Canada’s vastness means that many communities need electrically powered communication methods to stay connected. Without power, regions would become isolated, exacerbating panic and misinformation.

Agricultural Impact: Regions like the Prairie provinces, which are the breadbasket of Canada, and other agricultural areas rely on electricity to power irrigation systems, maintain storage facilities and more. A prolonged outage could jeopardize both planting and harvesting thus the nation’s food supply, leading to increased scarcity and potential famine conditions. Access to locally grown food would be critical.

Trans-Canada Implications: Canada’s primary highway, the Trans-Canada Highway, would see a dramatic increase in its importance as alternative transportation and communication routes would be compromised. Maintaining some semblance of order and security on this critical artery would be paramount.

Trans Canada Highway near Superior Lake, Ontario, Canada

In Sum:

Recognizing our vulnerabilities is the first step in creating contingency plans that cater to the unique challenges posed by Canada’s diverse environment and societal structure. The next step is the hands of individual citizen and residents to require government and power providers to reinforce the systems while they operate rather than try to replace them after they are destroyed.

  • [1] Washington State Department of Health, EMP Factsheet, 2003
  • [2] Washington State Department of Health, EMP Factsheet, 2003
  • [3] Orwin, Clifford. “CHAPTER 5 The Melian Dialogue and the Fate of Melos”. The Humanity of Thucydides. P.97


The Mackenzie Institute would like to acknowledge and thank the late Peter Pry for his life achievements, leading expertise on the threat of EMPs, and his work with The Mackenzie Institute. Many of the ideas disseminated throughout this article are credited to him.


Glasstone, Samuel, ed., “The Effects of Nuclear Weapons”, USAEC, April 1962.

Orwin, Clifford. “CHAPTER 5 The Melian Dialogue and the Fate of Melos”. The Humanity of Thucydides, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994, pp. 97-117.

Pry, Peter Vincent. Blackout Warfare: Attacking the U.S. Electric Power Grid a Revolution in Military Affairs. EMP Task Force on National and Homeland Security, 2021.

Pry, Peter Vincent. Blackout Warfare: Attacking the U.S. Electric Power Grid a Revolution in Military Affairs. EMP Task Force on National and Homeland Security, 2021.

Pry, Peter Vincent, et al. The Power and the Light: The Congressional EMP Commission’s War to Save America 2001-2020. EMP Task Force on National and Homeland Security, 2020.

“Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP).” Washington State Department of Health, Division of Environmental Health, Office of Radiation Protection, Sept. 2003,