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Solar Storms/EMP Threats: Will the Utility Heed the Call?

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Solar Storms and Electro-Magnetic Pulse (EMP) disturbances have the potential to paralyze critical technologies throughout the world. These can be as sophisticated as the satellites that control the nation's most classified intelligence to the rudimentary act of turning on the lights. Without proper measures, no industry will remain unaffected by these phenomena. The results of such scenario could be ruinous to the economy and society at large. The increase in magnetic field geo-activity that results from major sun outbursts may not directly threaten the safety of people, but do present the distinct possibility of causing electrical grids to collapse, disrupt GPS systems and damage, or even deorbit satellites.

Facts Speak Louder

The cognizance of this impending menace is manifest within the government and the energy companies at large but, the sense of urgency to mitigate them may not be shared by the stewards of these technologies themselves.

One of Winston Churchill's famous quotes states: "You can always count on Americans to do the right thing-after they've tried everything else."

The vulnerability of the North American electricity infrastructure is startling. However, the nation's utilities do not seem to be collectively prepared yet to counteract the adverse consequences of a strong Solar Storm. Scientific evidence has shown that we are entering the final phase of this magnetic solar cycle, which will result in an increased activity for the coming year, this trend is already evident as the earth gets frequently pounded by substantial solar wind. We expect the maximum level to peak within the next 12 months. Thus, the chance of ravaging blackouts is not a remote scenario on the horizon.

The potential for decimating effects have become progressively visible to the global energy stakeholders. In a world of multiplied cyber-crimes, the energy and defense administrators have grown progressively wary of man-created threats. What some leaders within the industry fail to realize is that the havoc of Solar Storms/EMP are not dependent on what triggers the even i.e. our security efforts should mitigate all risks that can affect the grid, including man-made hazards or from Mother Nature. Energy experts in the US including, several commissions, institutions, agencies, research centers and private entities have recognized the perils to society these phenomena pose. There are active Bills in Congress that have been proposed to deal with this problem including the creation of a new Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Congressional Task Force; what is more the WH has issued an executive order delegating 'authorities and addresses national defense resource policies and programs under the Defense Production Act of 1950, as amended'; under this order, 'the U.S. must have an industrial and technological base capable of meeting national defense requirements and capable of contributing to the technological superiority of its national defense equipment in peacetime and in times of national emergency'.

Why Mitigation is a Must

There is a clear need to take action instead of waiting and hoping our exposure disappears. The implementation of preventative measures is central in averting critical-supply outages, for some apparatus possibly long term, as it has happened in several power plants worldwide, including a nuclear one in Salem, NJ. Traditionally in this context, a multitude of conflicting interests rank high within the establishment. If defensive measures are not taken the possibility of jaw-dropping losses from a prolonged blackout could become a reality. At this juncture, the utility is arguably caught in a predicament. Most firms do not have the perception that they are vulnerable to the turmoil of a strong solar storm; sometimes based on unfounded geographical latitude pretexts. Nonetheless they are not aware of the real hazard the nation's grid is exposed to. This apathetic behavior is shown through the lack of urgency to counteract this harmful phenomenon.

Consensus shows that utilities, justifiably, do not want additional costs or complexities to their operations, particularly in this staggering, albeit recovering economy. Consequently many believe the threat has been overstated to increase attendant businesses; although there may be some validity to the aforementioned, the existence of an imminent threat to the power network warrants direct attention to assure the proper level of security. As the proverbial saying goes, "history repeats itself." In hind sight, the collapse of the financial system in recent years was forthcoming; Katrina too; as it was the case for countless unnecessary debacles in history.

A Fluid Dynamics Lesson

A lesson in fluid dynamics and structural engineering may provide insight to this discussion; let's take an example of hydro dams design criteria. The practice unequivocally sets the ten-millenary river flood as the design base for earthen dams; the millenary one applies to concrete dams. Here is where statistics and perception do not and should not interfere. No constructor or agency would ever make considerations to how the local people perceive the river's behavior to be; the knowledge of local ancestral beliefs remains concealed within the local society. Nor would they seek elicitation in order to find out the exposure such population believes to have to these catastrophic events. Hitherto typical/historical data has been proven to be only a reference to a much more elaborated approximation process, the actual design flow has been the result of a comprehensive multidisciplinary analysis leading to the 'best estimate' for the millenary value. There have been a number of exceptions to such good practice which many a time led to great devastation's. The seismic analogy is similar and relevant too. In the case of critical electricity infrastructures, analysts do not even have a grasp for the magnitude of the upper limit of magnetic fluctuations; it does not exist, by far, the inherent safety guidelines and robustness associated with the aforementioned engineering endeavors; hence a substantial GMD/EMP hardening of existing plant is now required to achieve a holistic levelized risk to the fundamental infrastructures of society.

Going Through the Motions

The stakes of this proposition have reached the top ranks of government; as such, we may see that oversight and regulation may be taking shape in the near future. The semantics of a new regulation could come in many forms such as, 'Cyber protection Act', 'Grid Act, 'Shield Act' umbrella or even from the Defense realm. With this outlook in recent years, companies have been proactive in order to avert the possibility of new government regulations. Indeed the industry has appeared to be diligent and cooperative, chiefly within electricity NGO structures. In this context, preventative situational awareness has been the preferred approach. However, the use of operational guidelines including comprehensive predictions and alerts can prove to be very onerous to an organization. Despite these efforts, the consensus amongst experts warns that this procedure will not suffice in case of powerful GMD events. As an analogy, situational awareness may not amount to much more than an expensive evacuation drill. Furthermore, it is believed that all this preening may be cosmetic or the common practice of 'going through the motions' to avoid or delay the feared administrative action. Additionally, this path does not address the essential problematic consequences of a sizeable GMD episode; electric energy providers still remain unaccountable (not necessarily the case in countries of the industrialized world) for the dreadful societal liabilities stemming from blackouts; these may be internalized as un-supplied energy costs and it can represent a pecuniary manifold of their current exposure in the US; this is now limited to the private supply-side loss of revenue plus own-equipment damage. Nevertheless the critical question remains concerning the responsibilities for the lack of effective preparedness leading to such a huge power-network originated event. A 'demand-side' disaster could cripple the United States' recovering economy. The nature of an ever growing unbundled power system with hundreds of different players adds to the complexity of this problem. To structure this tough predicament a number of factors should be considered. As previously stated, operational guidelines may be in fact nothing but a waste of grid resources i.e. the costs to implement vastly outweigh the benefits received; however this straightforward math has never been duly scrutinized. What makes this strategy even less attractive stems from the fact that such high costs can bear quite an inequitable burden among the different energy market players.

Doable Solutions Available

To this extent, the installation of equipment-friendly mitigation devices, in combination with sensible/moderate operational procedures, may prove to be a substantially more cost-effective way to avoid a serious system failure than either means alone. In addition, there are pulses of progress with a positive development and hope: as an example, a small/simple resistor concept has been proven to perform remarkably well as a GMD countermeasure by prominent power-grid research engineers. Actually this breakthrough has already been recommended to Government by top security advisers. This approach can be compared in functionality to the surge suppressors incorporated to most home electronic/electric gadgets; these protectors, as it turns out, are inconsequential in cost or size, physically almost undetectable; yet they are adequate to cope with the harmful external disturbances which could damage those units. With this application, the intricate physics of such disturbances and their probability of occurrence become significantly less relevant. While companies will find this feature most appealing, that may not be the case for special interests seeking endless R&D funds to probe further into the nature and context of the phenomena rather than looking for a power engineering solution.

In any case, the advent of government regulation is one concrete scenario that would make the industry to change. Stiffer requisites, including a definite proof of action after each protocol alert could be coming forth. Equally, a new regulatory environment poses uncertainty over the possibility of a price hike for the procurement of some of the hardening technologies. This stake should not be taken lightly by utility planners. The economics of early adoption could prove to be a worthwhile hedge against any price escalation caused by a demand upward shift due to perceived government regulations. Either way, a major decision, regardless of rate-pass-through quantifications, must be made in both scenarios. Another not minor risk might arise from the fallout of a disruptive event with serious repercussions, prompting consideration to a sort of retributive social-liability normative upon the power establishment, as is the case in a growing number of developed countries.

Closing Remarks

It can be concluded that, currently, there is inexpensive highly-engineered hardware available to protect key grid apparatus from both solar and EMP perils. Whether or not the utility will seize the opportunity and genuinely heed the call remains unclear. The threat acuity has not been widely established. There have not been any tangible incentives for early adoption, or real penalties for inaction; the societal responsibility from a grave system collapse seems to remain in limbo.

As a closing remark we may go back to Churchill's famous quote; yet the questions ought to be about what the right thing is; but most importantly, whether we can afford the 'everything else'.

Co-authored with Alberto Ramirez Orquin

Vanessa Ramirez's picture

Thank Vanessa for the Post!

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