The National Grid at Risk

The Huffington Post ran a fascinating if rather worrying report this month on the dangers posed to the US National Grid, indeed the national grids of all developed or industrialized countries, by a Solar Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Blast. Such an event could result in more than 100 million Americans suffering a blackout for months or years. No communications, transport, clean water, sewage or waste disposal, finance the list of industries goes on. Recovering from a future severe magnetic storm would cost $1 to $2 trillion per year – ten to twenty times the cost of Katrina.

Before you think that sounds like one of those “once in a thousand years stories that are more popular with ScFi movie-makers than real scientists let us say two things. First, the US government doesn’t think so. It has voted unanimously for surge suppressor technology to be fitted as mandatory by all grid utilities and authorized for the cost to be recovered via an incremental charge on utility bills. The provisions are at the core of the GRID bill, HR-5026, passed by the U.S. House of Representatives this June. As an example of how seriously lawmakers take the issue ask yourself how often do they agree on anything unanimously?

Second, the fact we haven’t been totally paralyzed by a Solar induced EMP before is due to luck not infrequency of occurrence. The two most serious previous geomagnetic storms were in 1859 and 1921 when the electricity system either did not exist or was so localized and of such low voltage that it went largely unaffected. Today the US runs transformers supporting the grid at levels as high as 765kV or 765,000 volts in order to send power over long distances. In China they run at up to 1000kV. The higher the voltage processed by a transformer, the narrower the tolerance for error and the more vulnerable it is to the violent fluctuations induced by GIC’s (geomagnetically induced currents,) caused by a solar EMP.

Having said that we have had recent smaller solar storms that have caused damage. On March 13, 1989, two solar blasts each about a tenth the size of the ones that hit in 1859 and 1921 knocked out the Hydro-Quebec electrical utility, causing it to go from fully operational to complete shutdown in 92 seconds. Millions of customers in Quebec lost power but within nine hours power was restored. Not a disaster due to the small size of the storm but even so a number of nuclear, oil and coal-powered plants as far away as Los Angeles subsequently reported transmission anomalies and one large transformer at a nuclear plant in New Jersey melted.

Another wake-up call came on Halloween, October 31, 2003. The solar flares for what became known as the Halloween 2003 event were much more powerful than the March 1989 storm, but its impact was less severe because it struck mostly at the poles, and so missed populated areas of the US and Canada. Nonetheless, Halloween 2003 did cause a brief blackout in Malmo, Sweden, and also fried fourteen 400kV transformers in southern South Africa. This damage contributed to the ongoing problems South Africa has experienced in subsequent years supplying electricity to its customers. Once a transformer is fried it generally cannot be repaired on site. The copper coils melt and are simply too massive and complex to repair. The whole transformer has to be shipped to a factory and rebuilt. Replacement transformers are currently on a three-year order cycle according to the Post.

Solar storms can be predicted with some degree of accuracy by long term monitoring of solar activity. Guess what, it turns out that the next time solar EMP storms peak in frequency and ferocity will, by scientific consensus, commence in late 2012. And you thought European sovereign debt was a threat?

–Stuart Burns

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