A cyber attack on the electricity grid is being considered as one possible reason for power lost to tens of millions of people in five South American countries this weekend. When the lights went out, so did train transportation, water supply pumps, food refrigeration, voting machines, and more.
Nearly coincidental is a report from the New York Times that the U.S. is becoming more offensive in cyber attacks of the Russian power grid. DHS and FBI issued an alert last year that Russians have been attacking nuclear power plants, water stations, and other critical infrastructure, “Russian government actions (are) targeting U.S. Government entities as well as organizations in the energy, nuclear, commercial facilities, water, aviation, and critical manufacturing sectors.”
Federal Energy Regulatory Commission takes prime responsibility for grid operations in the U.S. including mandatory cyber security reliability standards. The challenge is developing an interconnected smart grid to improving digital efficiencies while preventing cyber attacks.
The SmartGrid is being developed by Department of Energy to fulfill the promise by President Obama in 2009, "It will make our grid more secure and more reliable, saving us some of the $150 billion we lose each year during power outages. It will allow us to more effectively transport renewable energy generated in remote places to large population centers, so that a wind farm in rural South Dakota can power homes in Chicago. And by facilitating the creation of a clean energy economy, building this 21st-century energy infrastructure will help us lay a foundation for lasting growth and prosperity."
I can still recall the 2003 blackout in the Northeastern U.S. which also affected air travel in many countries. Some trees hit powerlines causing the fault on the grid. When this happens, power plants may need to shut down to stop producing electricity as supply must equal demand. You can read about this event and some of the largest that occurred in India (affecting over 500 million people) and other countries on the Wikipedia page.