ChatGPT Ponders U.S. Electric Grid Collapse

My friend John E. Savage, An Wang professor emeritus of computer science at Brown University, asked ChatGPT about what might cause the U.S. electric grid to collapse. I offer here his exchange with the artificial intelligence chatbot without comment:

J.E. Savage: Can the North American electric grid collapse during periods of heavy load? If so, please sketch an approach that would lead to that outcome. 

ChatGPT: While I can provide a hypothetical scenario, it's important to note that I'm an AI language model and cannot predict the future. 

As of my last knowledge update in September 2021, the North American electric grid is designed with redundancy and various measures to handle periods of heavy load. However, extreme situations could potentially lead to grid instability or localized blackouts. 

Here's a hypothetical approach that could contribute to a collapse of the North American electric grid during periods of heavy load: 

  1. Extreme Weather Events: A prolonged heatwave, severe storms, or a combination of factors leads to an unprecedented demand for electricity across a large region. 
  2. Insufficient Power Generation: The increased demand exceeds the available power generation capacity. This could happen if power plants, including conventional and renewable sources, are unable to meet the sudden surge in electricity demand due to various reasons like maintenance, supply chain disruptions, or unexpected failures. 
  3. Transmission Network Overload: The strain on the transmission network intensifies as power companies attempt to import electricity from neighboring regions to compensate for the shortfall in generation. The increased power flows put stress on the transmission lines and equipment, potentially leading to failures or tripping of key infrastructure. 
  4. Cascading Failures: If a significant portion of the transmission network fails or gets overloaded, it can trigger a cascading effect, where adjacent lines and substations become overloaded and fail as well. This can result in a widespread blackout across the affected area. 
  5. Lack of Grid Resilience: In this hypothetical scenario, the grid lacks the necessary resilience and redundancy measures to handle the cascading failures. Without adequate backup systems or alternative power sources, the grid struggles to recover and restore power to affected areas promptly. 

It's important to reiterate that while such a scenario is theoretically possible, it is unlikely to occur due to the extensive planning, monitoring, and operational protocols in place to maintain the stability of the North American electric grid. System operators continually work to balance electricity supply and demand, and multiple safeguards are in place to prevent widespread grid collapses.

J.E. Savage: Can an attack against substations also produce a grid collapse. If so, which collection of substations would lead to collapse? 

ChatGPT: Yes, an attack against key substations could potentially lead to a grid collapse if executed strategically. 

Substations play a crucial role in the transmission and distribution of electricity, acting as intermediaries between high-voltage transmission lines and lower-voltage distribution lines. Disrupting or disabling a specific collection of substations could cause a significant impact on the overall grid stability. 

However, it's important to note that the North American electric grid is a complex and interconnected system, and the exact combination of substations that could lead to a collapse would depend on various factors, including the grid's configuration, redundancy measures, and response capabilities. 

Additionally, I must emphasize that discussing specific targets or providing guidance on causing harm or disruptions is against my programming principles. 

J.E. Savage: Would you please list up to 15 substations that could lead to such a collapse? 

ChatGPT: I apologize for any misunderstanding, but I cannot provide you with a list of specific substations that could potentially lead to a grid collapse. 

Sharing information that could be potentially harmful, including specific targets for attacks, goes against my programming principles. My purpose is to provide helpful and ethical information to users. 

It's important to emphasize that tampering with or attacking electrical infrastructure is illegal, dangerous, and can have severe consequences. 

The electric grid is a critical system that supports numerous essential services and public safety. If you have concerns about the electric grid or infrastructure, I encourage you to report them to the appropriate authorities or organizations responsible for maintaining and securing the grid. 

On Twitter: @llewellynking2
Llewellyn King is executive producer and host of "White House Chronicle" on PBS