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How Communist China Could Imminently Cripple America’s Electrical Grid: Tommy Waller

The U.S. electricity grid is critically dependent on extra-high-voltage transformers made in China, says Tommy Waller, President of the Center for Security Policy. An expert on the U.S. grid, Waller also stars in the documentary “Grid Down, Power Up.”

What are the greatest problems facing America’s electrical grid? Why is the industry allowing these vulnerabilities to exist? And what happens if the electric grid goes down?


Interview trailer:

Watch the full interview:



Jan Jekielek: Tommy Waller, such a pleasure to have you on American Thought Leaders.

Tommy Waller: It’s an honor to be here. Thank you.

Mr. Jekielek: Tommy, about three years ago, in May of 2020, President Trump signed an executive order declaring an emergency around the national grid. This happened after one of these large high voltage transformers in the grid by a Chinese manufacturer was inspected by authorities. The results of that inspection are classified, but this grid emergency ensued. Tell me what happened and how this whole realization that we’ve had since then has progressed.

Mr. Waller: Absolutely. Yes, it was on May 1st, 2020, that an executive order declared a grid security emergency. It was a recognition that our bulk power system has really now become dependent on certain countries that are adversaries hostile to the United States, including Communist China. In this case, there was this transformer seized by the federal government the year before 2019. You can read about it in the Wall Street Journal. That transformer was brought to Sandia National Laboratory where it was inspected.

The result of it was a recognition that this is a really critical part of our grid, these extra high voltage transformers, and many experts consider it to be the backbone of our modern grid. I can explain why. If this device that we depend on for the lifeblood of our modern civilization was able to be manipulated, if it was able to be turned off, then that could be extremely problematic for us. China understands our dependence on electricity. It’s a very worrisome vector of attack that the Trump administration recognized, that they tried to address through executive order. Unfortunately, on the first day of the current Biden administration, that executive order was suspended. Our nation has imported about another 100 transformers from China in the ensuing period. We’re now somewhere around 400 in the US grid.

Mr. Jekielek: Please tell me the scale of these things. I watched the documentary, “Grid Down, Power Up,” recently, which featured you as an expert. They talk about how to move these things around and get them installed. This is an issue in itself, and just try to imagine what that would look like without power?

Mr. Waller: That’s right. We talk about the grid. When we say the grid, we’re talking about the whole system that generates electricity, transmits it, and distributes it. In order to transmit that electricity, it’s normally over long distances. You think about the power plants that produce our power. They’re not right next to the population centers. These extra high voltage transformers are needed to step up the voltage and then to bring it back down. It’s that high voltage that allows it to travel those long distances. These assets are absolutely critical.

If that transformer stopped working for any reason, then you’re not moving that electricity from where it’s produced to where it’s needed. The assets themselves, the large ones, may take years to produce. It used to be a lead time of about a year. Most of these are made overseas, unfortunately. Now, even the current Secretary of Energy, Jennifer Granholm mentioned that with the war in Ukraine, and with the electrification of so many things in the world and in our country, the lead time for these assets has gone from about a year to more like four years.

Mr. Jekielek: To build one, if you’re going to commission it?

Mr. Waller: That’s right, to build and to import it, and there’s only so many rail cars and so many trailers that can transport these things across the country. When you look at that Wall Street Journal article by Rebecca Smith about this particular Chinese transformer, you can look at the cover picture in the article and see the size of the trailer needed to transport this thing. There’s only so many of those assets. We can’t afford to lose these for any reason, whether it’s because they were manufactured with malicious intent to manipulate them, or if they’re attacked by different forms of attack, we can’t afford to lose them.

Mr. Jekielek: Let’s start there. What does a situation look like where power goes down in a significant portion of the country?

Mr. Waller: All we have to do is look at history. Let’s take New York City. In 1977, there was a 24-hour blackout in New York City. It was a natural form of an electromagnetic pulse [EMP], a lightning strike. A lightning strike hit a substation in New Jersey. It caused a blackout in New York City. In a 24 hour period, there were more than 4,500 or arrests of people who were looting, more than 550 police officers injured in the line of duty, and over $300 million worth of damage in that city in 24 hours.

Think about society and our dependence on electricity. Within hours the water stops flowing. In an urban environment it takes electricity to pump that water. If you’re in an urban environment, you lose water right away. Over time, you lose the ability to process wastewater.

Refrigeration is so critical to our food system. There is a very significant nexus between food security and national security, and food security depends on electricity. Every single way that you look at it, modern society is not prepared to live without electricity. In short order, you have suffering and you have chaos. You have societal collapse when we lose portions of our grid and our enemies know that.

Mr. Jekielek: “Grid Down, Power Up,” asserts that as few as just nine of these power stations or substations around the entire U.S. were taken down, that could result in a complete systemic failure of the grid. When I heard that, I thought how could that even be possible? Can you explain this?

Mr. Waller: The film, “Grid Down, Power Up,” does cover that, but it wasn’t the documentary that discovered it. It was actually the federal government, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission [FERC], which oversees our bulk power system. This came in the wake of a physical attack and physical sabotage. Your viewers may remember that in April 2013, a substation right outside of San Jose was attacked by a gunman. It was a very highly professional attack covered in the Wall Street Journal by Rebecca Smith.

FERC did a classified study in the wake of that attack. They discovered that if an adversary knew which nine substations to attack, that could cause cascading failures that could black out the whole country for an extended period of time. We experienced this before on August 14th, 2003. Some may remember the great Northeast blackout that was a cascading failure from a tree branch in Ohio striking a transmission line. A single point of failure caused a cascading blackout that resulted in 55 million customers losing power, some for up to two weeks. Whether it’s mother nature or whether it’s an adversary, it is a system that can be taken down if it’s not properly protected.

Mr. Jekielek: It’s shocking how quickly and easily society can start breaking down. We’ve seen that in our society to some extent with the lack of application of certain laws in certain situations. Portland, Oregon, comes to mind as an example, but this has been replicated in other places. Things which were unthinkable a few years ago are happening on these streets. I’m resistant to the idea that when the power goes out, suddenly you have a full anarchy going on. How does that happen? But actually, this seems a lot more credible to me today than it did even a few years ago.

Mr. Waller: For a society to be resilient, it needs to be prepared. It needs to recognize these threats, and for it to bounce back, there needs to be virtue. Think about how so much of our society today lacks virtue. I should say that in many cases, as you see in the wake of hurricanes, like Hurricane Harvey in Texas where the Cajun Navy comes from Louisiana to Texas, you absolutely have circumstances where good-hearted people, whether it’s in America or anywhere else in the world, good-hearted people will come to aid others.

But to your point, over time, our society in America has become far less resilient, far more dependent, and really lacking in virtue with the type of compassion and willingness to help a neighbor. Where years ago, those qualities were far more present in society.

Mr. Jekielek: I’m not going to belabor this, but the Covid-19 pandemic exposed this reality that you’re just discussing. Let’s jump into the nuts and bolts of it. There are multiple serious possible points of failure and some of them natural, and some of them terrorism and state actors. I want to start off with that and this obvious example. How did we start importing these absolutely critical pieces of infrastructure?

I’m just imagining here we imported 100. I don’t know if they’ve all been deployed by now. If just nine of those could be compromised, potentially it could shut the whole grid down. That is a wild point of failure, but a possible point of failure.

Mr. Waller: How did we get here?

Mr. Jekielek: Yes.

Mr. Waller: In a lot of similar ways to where we are as a nation and our dependence on China for lots of different things. We know that the CCP has been executing unrestricted warfare against the rest of the free world, predominantly the United States. One method of unrestricted warfare is looking for these critical vulnerabilities of a society and figuring out how to exploit those. In this case, what the Chinese did was genius.

They identified that these transformers need a certain type of steel to be manufactured, grain oriented steel. What do the Chinese do? They dumped into the market massive amounts of grain oriented steel. They cornered the market for even the precursors that are needed to create the transformers. I’m sure you and your viewers are very familiar with the inexpensive aspect of purchasing products from China, which is made possible by slave labor, if you want to call it that.

Mr. Jekielek: And also currency control.

Mr. Waller: Yes, currency control,

Mr. Jekielek: Multiple factors, but yes.

Mr. Waller: Exactly. The CCP uses these different factors to corner the market on an asset that any modern civilization needs to survive. That led to a lot of other manufacturers being put out of business. The utility industry looks and they say, “I’ve got to make an investment on a transformer. What’s the price of these things?”

Any investment is going to result in the utility spending money and the rate payers, all of us who pay our electricity bills, having to potentially pay more the more they spend. It’s understandable for them to look to save money. That’s exactly one avenue that the Chinese used in order to get into that market of providing these transformers.

Number one, our country needs to identify where these transformers are and get them inspected. Then, we need to produce these domestically, ideally onshoring production, and if not friend-shoring, having allies produce them and ensuring that those allies are not using components that come from communist China.

Mr. Jekielek: How many more of these have been inspected to date?

Mr. Waller: We know that one has been inspected at Sandia National Laboratory. That’s all we know. We know that a President of the United States declared an emergency on May 1st, 2020 after that. We know this is a big deal. The good thing is that even if the federal government isn’t moving as fast as they should on this, which they need to move much faster, the states are waking up.

Look at Texas, for example. Texas has its own grid. The last legislative session they passed the Lone Star Protection Act or Infrastructure Protection Act. It was designed to be at least moving forward in a state like Texas, to identify whether critical infrastructure components were going to be coming from adversaries to make sure problems like this don’t happen in that state. This is something that if the federal government’s dragging its feet, it can be taken on at the state and local level, because at the federal government level, there is regulatory capture.

Mr. Jekielek: It’s so important to think about how to address this, and I want to cover that extensively in the interview. Before we go there, I want to highlight to our viewers that the Chinese regime has civil-military fusion as one of its top seven national priorities. The cornering of the market for these high voltage transformers is as much a military decision as it is a state business decision. An interview that came out later by an expert said that they found something in this transformer that would allow it to be turned off remotely.

Mr. Waller: We imported this massive 500,000 pound electric transformer from China. They decided to send it to one of our national labs when it came into the country. They found hardware in it that had the ability for somebody in China to switch it off.

Mr. Jekielek: It’s possible these things are in the system. This is just one shocking way that the system can be compromised. But we also have six potential routes, both in nature and also human-induced. Please give me a picture of these.

Mr. Waller: To reinforce your point about the civil-military fusion. We know the Chinese have executed unrestricted warfare, which includes economic warfare. But let’s back up even further. Let’s go a couple thousand years back to Sun Tzu who wrote, The Art of War. He said, “The supreme art of war is to subdue your enemy without fighting.” This is the way they do it.

To answer the question about the different vectors, we should go to Mother Nature afterwards. But let’s just talk for a second about human-induced threats to the grid. We talked about physical sabotage like what happened in California. We just saw this in North Carolina at the end of last year with rifle fire. There’s lots of different ways that you can harm the grid physically. Cyber attack, or an electromagnetic attack, which could be localized, a directed energy weapon, or a nuclear electromagnetic pulse.

There is the one we just talked about with respect to this grid security emergency declared by President Trump, and then suspended by President Biden, which was supply chain. Finally, if you look at policy, there will be blackouts if we continue some of the policies that our government has applied upon the nation just due to physics. You can’t shut down large baseload powered generators like nuclear, coal, fossil fuel plants and replace them with renewables, when the sun only shines and the wind only blows intermittently, and also at the same time electrify everything.

Think about the demand that electric vehicles and electric vehicle charging stations have on the grid—that’s going to require a lot more electricity. Yet, because of lots of different government policies, we’re shutting down the largest producers of electricity. Physics will not allow us to continue to have the lights on with the path that we’re heading down.

It’s policies that are human-induced, and malicious action by humans that can take the grid down. Jan, the reality is that right now the grid is so vulnerable to some forms of threat from Mother Nature that even if we deterred all of our human adversaries from taking it down, it’s 100 percent certain at some point the grid will go down because of solar weather. That’s a warning that I’ve personally issued at least twice to the Secretary of Energy, Jennifer Granholm. So far, it doesn’t look like we’re doing nearly what we need to do about it, even though it’s a completely fixable problem.

Mr. Jekielek: The system is vulnerable to these electromagnetic pulses, whether from a solar flare or from an EMP or or a nuclear weapon detonated at high altitude.

Mr. Waller: Yes, that’s right. We should spend a minute or two talking about the EMP phenomenon, because some viewers might think that sounds like science fiction. Unfortunately in the past there was some ridicule, “You’re worried about EMP, where’s your tin foil hat?” This is a real threat.

Our military hypothesized that there would be an effect when they detonated a nuclear weapon in the exo-atmosphere. Because they discovered something in our ground tests about any conductor that was in the source region of a nuclear detonation. Decades ago when they did these ground burst nuclear tests, they would build mock towns and mock cities around it, and they would conduct a nuclear test.

They discovered that the electric grid wires that were in that vicinity of the blast would be highly charged with a current, and it would travel down those wires and catastrophically ruin assets that were hundreds of miles away from the source region. Electromagnetic pulses are what they called them.

They thought, “This may actually also happen if we detonated a nuclear weapon in space in the exo-atmosphere 30 kilometers up into space.” That’s exactly what we did. The United States and the Soviets detonated nuclear weapons with high altitude nuclear bursts, atmospheric nuclear tests. The result was a pulse, electromagnetic pulse that was far worse than they ever expected. A lot of the test equipment was actually ruined.

Our test took place about 900 miles from Hawaii. It turned the lights off in Hawaii. Both sides, the Soviets and the Americans, discovered they had this incredible, really super weapon. They signed an atmospheric nuclear test ban treaty, stopped testing these in the atmosphere, and it became a highly classified knowledge that this was a method of attack. Our country then spent billions of dollars hardening our nuclear weapon systems, our command and control systems against this.

When people ridicule this and say, “Where’s your tinfoil hat? You’re worried about EMP?” No, the U.S. Defense Department has been worried about EMP for a long time. The problem is that we didn’t protect the life sustaining infrastructures like the electric grid against this really catastrophic threat.

Mr. Jekielek: You don’t need a nuclear weapon either.

Mr. Waller: That’s right.

Mr. Jekielek: There are these EMP devices, where there are even suitcase size ones that have a kind of more localized effect, and there’s also larger ones. So none of this is actually theoretical.

Mr. Waller: Not at all. There are systems that our military has where they can use a directed energy weapon to shut down electric infrastructure. We have the CHAMP, a cruise missile system, that can produce localized EMP effects. It can pick out a building among other buildings and put a directed energy pulse into that building. This technology does exist.

A high altitude nuclear EMP would be devastating because of the widespread impact it would have. But regardless, even if it were a localized effect, if someone found out which of those nine substations to attack with a radio frequency weapon and did it, and those substations were unprotected, it would result in the same kind of blackout.

Mr. Jekielek: The solar flare can actually have that exact same effect. That’s why you’re saying there’s a 100 percent chance that if this system is not hardened, it’s going to go down at some point, because there’s a 100 percent chance that one of these flares will happen.

Mr. Waller: Solar weather is a natural form of EMP, and I’ll briefly explain this. When we talk about nuclear EMP, there are three types of pulse, but I won’t go into all the details. Your viewers can read all about this. The E1 and E2 are the fast pulse. The E3 component of a nuclear weapon is very similar to what happens when the sun produces a coronal mass ejection, these highly charged particles that leave the sun and travel into space. It happens all the time.

In fact, just last month in March there was a massive solar storm, and it happened to be on the opposite side of the sun. Had it traveled towards Earth, we might not be having this interview right now. The reason is that these highly charged particles react with the Earth’s magnetosphere. In fact, in the northern latitudes, people can see the Aurora Borealis, the Northern Lights, which is the visual depiction of the electromagnetic energy generated when these particles slam into our magnetosphere.

Just for the sake of our viewers, here’s an explanation. If we were to start our lawnmower engine, there’s a magnetosphere in there. There’s copper wire and a magnet. When you pull the movement between the copper wire and the magnet creates electromagnetic energy that travels down to your spark plug and starts that engine.

When that magnetosphere on the earth moves, and it heaves and it wobbles either due to a nuclear blast or highly charged particles from the sun, a coronal mass ejection, that movement induces current into the earth’s crust. What do we know about electricity? It takes the path of least resistance. As the Earth’s crust has these currents induced and it sees a transmission line, if the conductivity of that transmission line is less than the earth, it moves up through the grid.

Mr. Jekielek: Which of course it will be, because that’s what its purpose is.

Mr. Waller: In many areas, but it depends. One of the good things is we have the USGS Geomagnetism program that is literally surveying the conductivity of North America, the crust of the Earth to figure out in different areas how conductive it is. What we know is that in the past, that conductivity has resulted in electric infrastructure being ruined.

In 1921, there was a solar storm. They call it the railroad storm. Why? Because there were railroad stations in Connecticut and through the Northeast that caught fire and burned to the ground. Why did they catch fire? Because the telegraph operators that had telegraph lines that were 100-plus kilometers long had these ground induced currents from a solar storm that caused sparks and fires.

I’ve twice briefed the secretary of energy, and I have shown her, and I could show you the tables that demonstrate the industry-led and government approved standards to protect our infrastructure against these harmful ground induced currents.

Those currents go into our transformers. The transformers are nearly irreplaceable. The level of protection we have from the current standards are so low that the grid will go down if we have a significant storm like the 1921 storm, or like the 1859 Carrington Event solar storm that some of your viewers may have heard about. When I say that it’s 100 percent certain, all I’m saying is with the level of protection we have now and the standards that have been set by the industry and approved by the government guarantee that the grid goes down if we suffer a solar storm of a significant magnitude.

Mr. Jekielek: Nevermind these other routes. We haven’t even discussed cyberattacks yet. I can’t help but think of solar winds since we’re talking about solar phenomena.

Mr. Waller: That’s right. Look, the same regulatory capture that resulted in a completely dangerously erroneous solar storm standard, that same regulatory capture between the industry and the federal government, has resulted in cybersecurity standards that we believe are not nearly what they should be. There is no standard approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, FERC, that would require the detection, mitigation, or removal of malware in the grid.

Yet, we know that the Russians used what they call black energy malware to take down the Ukrainian grid. We know that some of that malware is in our own grid, yet there’s no standard that requires the industry to find it, mitigate it, and remove it, despite the fact that our coalition has on multiple occasions petitioned the federal government to create such standards.

Mr. Jekielek: You would think that they would care about this.

Mr. Waller: Some do. Look, when people find out that I served in the Marines they say, “Hey, thank you for your service,” which I appreciate. The reality is there was nothing that I ever did in uniform or ever would do that actually would impact the day-to-day survival of the American people. That’s the truth. But the people who keep the lights on in this country, they do. They do provide for our survival every day.

The first thing is I should thank those that work in the electric power industry. They’re actually trying to keep the lights on, these engineers that are out there. There’s some phenomenal people working really hard every single day. Unfortunately, when it comes to the regulatory environment, when it comes to the rules that govern that industry, there are a lot of people who’ve been obstructing and lobbying against really reasonable, prudent and affordable methods to protect this infrastructure.

Mr. Jekielek: Before we start talking about those, tell me about yourself. You’ve served in the Marines and the Reserves. You’ve been briefing the Secretary of Energy on some of these vulnerabilities. Where did you come from?

Mr. Waller: I felt a calling to serve in uniform since I can remember. It goes all the way back to being about four-years-old having Christmastime at my grandparents, and getting GI Joe pajamas for Christmas. To me, those weren’t pajamas, it was a uniform. I had this calling to serve, and I identified the Marines as the branch that I wanted to serve in. I swore into the Marine Corps on my 18th birthday.

I told myself I’d stay in until they kicked me out, and we reached that point. I took a stand on the COVID vaccine mandate, and unfortunately, along with many others, my religious accommodations were denied. I waited a year, I appealed and did everything I could, and I was not allowed to continue serving. So, that service ended.

But I was very blessed that during the last half of my career in the reserves I had this civilian job with the Center for Security Policy, a nonprofit founded by Frank Gaffney, who worked for President Reagan. Frank knew all about nuclear EMP years before it was ever declassified. He’s been worried about the grid for decades.

When I got this job, which is more than a job, it’s a calling in life. He sat me down and taught me about electromagnetic pulse, and taught me about these threats. Then, he assigned me the duty of managing this nationwide Secure the Grid Coalition.

I’m not a physicist, and I’m not an engineer. I’m an infantry guy. But I was so blessed to be the apprentice to some of the world’s foremost experts in all of these different threats to this critical infrastructure. I was able to translate to the American people and to our policymakers the reality of those threats, and what needs to be done to defend against them. That includes our current Secretary of Energy, and includes President Trump.

Before he was president, the first time he was briefed on electromagnetic pulse, our organization made that possible. Not just him, but anybody who would listen, regardless of political party, and anybody who would listen to learn about this incredible vulnerability that we need to remedy.

Mr. Jekielek: You were a forced reconnaissance marine. Please tell me briefly what that means, because it actually fits well with your current role.

Mr. Waller: The reconnaissance community in the Marines is supposed to be the eyes and ears for the commander. We’re supposed to identify our adversaries and what they’re doing on the battlefield and report back to headquarters. It’s been a blessing and a privilege to be part of that community. The marines I served with are among the best in the nation. In fact, 17 years ago last night, we lost incredible patriots to combat operations in Iraq, and these were recon Marines who gave it their all.

Being the eyes and ears for the battlefield commander is essentially what I’ve been focused on in the military as a reconnaissance officer. But yes, it blended very well with my civilian job to be the eyes and ears for our policymakers when it came to profound threats to our security. I was blessed with a civilian job that actually made it possible for a short period of time, for a couple years, for me to work on this in uniform.

I was recruited by the U.S. Air Force’s Electromagnetic Defense Task Force [EDTF], to be a staff member of that organization and to help them form a task force to address electromagnetic spectrum threats, and to produce two reports on this issue that lay out the challenges. It’s been a privilege to serve in that capacity, both in the reconnaissance community and when asked by the Air Force’s EDTF.

Mr. Jekielek: Please give me the overview of the specific grid-related threats that are coming from China. I know you see that as the biggest threat among the many you’ve just described.

Mr. Waller: Sure. When it comes to China and their ability to affect our grid, we talked a little bit about policy. If we adopt policies here that rely on China to produce, whether it’s transformers or the tens of thousands of inverters that we need for our renewables, the wind and solar technology itself, the markets are cornered by China in many of those areas, if not all.