In the latest official confirmation about the acute vulnerability of the U.S. electric grid, the Washington Free Beacon has revealed that a Freedom of Information Act request produced a fact sheet describing a 2012 Federal Emergency Management Agency interagency plan for severe space weather. The FEMA document refers to a 2010 study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) that “an extreme solar storm could leave 130 million people without power for years, and destroy or damage more than 300 hard-to-replace electrical grid transformers.”
According to Dr. William Graham, President Reagan’s Science Advisor and chairman of the congressionally mandated Electromagnetic Pulse Threat Commission, in the wake of widespread and prolonged blackouts, nine out of ten Americans could perish.
Importantly, the level of damage described by FEMA and NOAA could be caused by what is known as a G5 class storm, the last of which hit the earth in 1921. That geomagnetic disturbance (GMD) is estimated to have been roughly one-tenth the power of an 1859 solar storm known as a Carrington Event. Congressional testimony before the House Homeland Security Committee earlier this year established that the likelihood of another Carrington-class solar storm, to say nothing of less powerful ones, striking our planet in the foreseeable future is one-hundred percent.
In fact, on December 5, Robert Rutledge, who directs NOAA’s Space Weather Forecast Office, advised the DuPont Summit – a conference in Washington, D.C. on grid vulnerability and steps needed to mitigate it – that such storms are as certain as earthquakes and hurricanes, and should be planned for accordingly.
NOAA’s 2010 Strategic Plan was performed for the National Research Council and drew upon a study by well-known experts in the field of geo-magnetically induced currents (GIC) and their impact on the grid, Drs. William Radasky and John Kappenman.
FEMA’s fact-sheet notes, however, that unnamed engineers from the electrical industry downplay the severity of predictions in the NOAA Strategic Plan. Unfortunately, the industry has long withheld data on geo-magnetically induced current flows that could shed light on the magnitude of the impact of even normal solar weather on the nation’s bulk power distribution system.
Dr. Kappenman, who is a member of the Secure the Grid Coalition, responded to the Free Beacon report:
The industry itself continues not to make publicly available important information on observations of geo-magnetically-induced current (GIC) and power grid impacts and failures that have occurred for smaller, more frequent storm events that can be used to validate models to examine impacts for rare larger storm events. This is somewhat like airlines withholding critical black box recorder data from the National Transportation Safety Board and Federal Aviation Administration.
The Secure the Grid Coalition is concerned that such a lack of transparency is a product of the U.S. electrical industry’s reluctance to harden its infrastructure against such threats. The practical effect of industry non-disclosure and opposition to providing robust protection to its own assets is to cause important planning scenarios to be watered down. That, in turn, has impeded consideration and adoption of standards meant to mitigate such dangers, as regulators rely on assumptions that do not meet modern scientific standards or independent and widely accepted threat assessments.
The Center for Security Policy sponsors the Secure the Grid and its President, Frank J. Gaffney, Jr., noted:
The evidence continues to accumulate that our most critical of critical infrastructures – the nation’s electric grid – is exceedingly vulnerable not only to certain naturally occurring phenomena, but to a variety of possible enemy actions. The federal government knows we face, accordingly, potentially nation-ending threats.
The House of Representatives recently unanimously approved the Critical Infrastructure Protection Act (H.R. 3410) that would require the Department of Homeland Security to develop a plan for protecting the grid against, among other things, the sorts of devastation a massive solar storm could inflict. In light of the latest revelations from FEMA and NOAA, there is simply no excuse for the Senate failing to assign top priority to approve H.R. 3410, ideally in the remaining days of the lame duck session.
Secure the Grid Coalition members are available for comment on the electric grid’s susceptibility to severe solar weather events and other threats and what needs to be done to protect it against all hazards. More information can be found at www.securethegrid.com.