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Lawrence E. Joseph

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The Solar 'Katrina' Storm That Could Take Our Power Grid Out For Years

Posted: 07/15/10 07:28 AM ET

John Kappenman, 55, an obscure electrical engineer from Duluth, Minnesota, is determined to save civilization from the mother of all blackouts. If he succeeds, the daily life of billions around the world will continue undisrupted. But if he fails, we may well suffer on a scale that makes even World Wars seem trivial in comparison.

Over the past thirty years, Kappenman has accumulated a vast and compelling body of evidence indicating that sooner or later a major blast of EMP (electromagnetic pulse) from the Sun, a space weather Katrina, will knock out the electrical power grid and bring society to its knees.

"Historically large storms have a potential to cause power grid blackouts and transformer damage of unprecedented proportions. An event that could incapacitate the network for a long time could be one of the largest natural disasters we could face," he declares. A bluff, friendly man, half science nerd, half overgrown farm boy, Kappenman insists that solar EMP blasts the size of those that occurred in 1859 (before society was electrified) and 1921(before the power grid had developed to the point where it played any significant role) would today result in large-scale blackouts lasting for months or years.

Kappenman was a major contributor to the landmark report, Severe Space Weather Events: Understanding Societal and Economic Impacts, published by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in December, 2008. Founded by Abraham Lincoln during the height of the Civil War, the NAS is the closest thing there is to a Supreme Court of scientific opinion for the United States, and much of the rest of the world.

"Electric power is modern society's cornerstone technology, the technology on which virtually all other infrastructures and services depend... Collateral effects of a longer-term outage [such as would almost certainly result from a massive space weather event] would likely include, for example, disruption of the transportation, communication, banking, and finance systems, and government services; the breakdown of the distribution of potable water owing to pump failure and the loss of perishable foods and medications because of lack of refrigeration. The resulting loss of services for a significant period of time in even one region of the country could affect the entire nation and have international impact as well," says the NAS report.

As examined extensively in my book, AFTERMATH, (Broadway/Random House, July, 2010) more than 100 million Americans could be affected by this blackout for months or years. Recovering from a future severe magnetic storm would cost $1 to $2 trillion per year-- ten to twenty times the cost of Katrina. Of course, the damage would be immeasurably worse if such a massive, protracted catastrophe were to touch off social unrest sufficient to undermine the agencies and institutions in charge of the reconstruction effort.

Unlike most doom prophecies, this one has potential for a happy ending. As examined further on, there is a comparatively quick and economical way to defend against solar EMP. " Sunblock for the grid" recommendations are at the core of the GRID bill, HR-5026, passed UNANIMOUSLY by the U.S. House of Representatives this June. No mean feat in today's poisonously partisan climate. But the true day of reckoning will probably come later on this summer in the United States Senate, where things are not looking very good at all.

The World's Largest Lightning Rod

The world's power grids, of which the United States has the most extensive, have in essence become giant antennas for space weather blasts. Just as a lightning rod attracts any lightning bolts that might otherwise strike a roof, the power grid, which is designed specifically to be extremely efficient at conducting electricity, attracts space weather bolts. Problem is that, unlike lightning rods, the power grid is gravely vulnerable to such shocks.

So how would a solar blast keep your toilet from flushing? By disrupting the power grid system at its weakest point: the transformer. Transformers receive power from high voltage transmission lines which in turn receive their power from substations directly connected to the main power plant, be it coal, oil, gas, hydroelectric or nuclear. High voltage transmission lines, the ones held up by those big Y-shaped metal trellis structures that can be seen stretching along the highway, carry the current as far as 300 miles. The farther the distance, the higher the voltage required, just as more water pressure would be required to produce a steady, reliable stream of water out of a long hose than out of a short one. (Volts are essentially units of pressure, while amps are units of volume. The simplest analogy is to water: volts would measure how hard the water rushes out of the hose, amps would measure how much water is flowing.) The power from the transmission lines is fed into the transformers, whose job is to then step it down from the level of hundreds of thousands of volts to tens of thousands of volts, then split the current into several directions via a device known as a "bus." The bus sends the electricity through the network of power lines one sees everywhere held up by utility poles. Transformers in communities then drop the voltage down to levels used in homes and businesses, so the flow of electricity requires transformers at many points in the network and if transformers are damaged, then no electricity can flow.The power lines feed into businesses and homes, most of which rely on electric pumps to supply the water necessary to flush one's toilet, unless, of course, the electricity has been shorted out.

Transformers in the United States operate at levels as high as 765kV or 765,000 volts in the United States and up to 1000kV in China. Transformers in Europe typically use lower voltages, in the 400KV range. At one point, the Swedish electrical utility was considering upgrading to 800KV but protests from groups concerned about the human health impacts of the new ultra-high voltage lines put the kibosh on that. Right for the wrong reason, one might observe. The higher the voltage processed by a transformer, the narrower the tolerance for error and the more vulnerable it is, therefore, to the extra electrical jolt that would come from the GIC's (geomagnetically induced currents,) caused by solar EMP.

According to Kappenman's research, a repeat of the geomagnetic storm that occurred in 1859 or 1921 would see the copper windings and leads of the 350 or so of the highest voltage transformers in the United States melt and burn out. These transformers connect nearly one third of the entire US power grid infrastructure, damage levels of unimaginable proportions from any other threat. Transformers weigh over 100 tons apiece and usually cannot be repaired in the field, and because of their size they cannot be flown in from overseas factories where they are now made. In fact, most transformers damaged by space weather incidents cannot be repaired at all, and need to replaced with new units. Currently, the worldwide waiting list for transformers is about three years, and about half of those made fail either in test or prematurely while in service.

"We've been stacking risk multipliers on top of risk multipliers. The scientific community has developed a false sense of security regarding the power industry. We've got to preserve our capability and prevent wide spread catastrophic damage to this vital infrastructure!" declares Kappenman.

So why haven't we been zapped yet? There was no power grid to zap to speak of until 1950's. Before then, each city had its own generators, but there was no significant swapping of power from one city to the next. Today, megawatt loads zip instantaneously around the North American grid. The growth of what is known as open access transmission, whereby larger and larger amounts of energy are whizzed around the grid to meet consumer demand, makes it all the likelier that a sudden and unexpected injection of GIC electrical energy could blow out the system. Stressing the power grid with heavier and heavier loads, while good for profits and energy savings, does seem like tempting fate, given the looming danger of solar EMP assaults.

Sleeping through the Wake-up Calls

"We have already slept through at least one wake-up call, the geomagnetic storm of 1989," Kappenman contends.

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. On the computer simulation, the blast looks like giant red, toothy mouths taking bites out of the top of the Northern Hemisphere. Millions of customers in Quebec lost power but within nine hours power was restored. No big deal in the grand scheme of things. True, a number of nuclear, oil and coal-powered plants as far away as Los Angeles subsequently reported transmission anomalies, but nothing blew up, although one large transformer at a Nuclear plant in New Jersey melted.

Another wake-up call came on Halloween, October 31, 2003. Kappenman was testifying before the Environment subcommittee of the House of Representatives Science Committee on the impact of the blackout of August 14, 2003 and potential impacts for severe space weather. The August 2003 blackout, not space weather related, is believed to have cost between $4 billion and $10 billion in repairs and collateral economic damage. As luck would have it, the day of Kappenman's testimony turned out also to be a day of a powerful solar storm, known in space weather circles as Halloween 2003.

"During breaks in the Committee meeting, I was frantically sending out email advisories about the storm," Kappenman recalls.

The solar flares for the Halloween 2003 event was much more powerful than the March 1989 storm, but its impact was less severe because it struck mostly at the poles, and did not swoop down as far south into populated areas. Nonetheless, Halloween 2003 did cause a brief blackout in Malmo, Sweden, and also fried fourteen 400 KV transformers in southern South Africa. In part because of the difficulty in recovering from the Halloween 2003 transformer burnout, South Africa has since had enormous problems supplying electricity to its customers, to the point where basic commerce and security have been impaired.

Kappenman's Halloween 2003 testimony regarding solar EMP did result in his receiving partial funding by the US Congressional Electromagnetic Pulse Commission, though the commission lost its funding in late 2008. Since then, Kappenman has struggled financially, depending on the odd consulting assignment, and grateful that his wife, Lisa, earns enough to support them and their seven year-old son.

"I would say the odds are against us," he acknowledged when we first met in April, 2009. Then he choked up a bit. "It's the social breakdown... During Hurricane Andrew, which only affected several counties in Florida, the worst hit areas, without any electricity or anything, the National Guard, all they could do was leave jugs of fresh water at intersections and hope people would come take them... In the case of space weather the impact areas would cover major portions of the US at the same time, Oil and water pumping would cease, natural gas, too. There would be no ability to refuel a vehicle... rail transport, no ability to supply meaningful support from neighboring unaffected regions, because those regions would be extremely remote. No one keeps fuel at their factories any more, just-in-time manufacturing took care of that. You can't just restart a nuclear power plant. For one thing, you need the operators to show up."

Sunblock for the Grid

It turns out that the grid can be protected from solar EMP devastation by outfitting it with surge suppressors, much like the ones that protect our computers and plasma televisions at home. In a nutshell, solar EMP blasts hit the Earth and discharge massive electrical currents into the planet's surface, some of which current surges back up and into the grid. Surge suppressors placed between the surface and the transformer would protect the transformer from the space weather-induced electrical currents coming up from the ground.

Each surge suppressor would be about the size of a washing machine, and would cost $40,000-$50,000 apiece; with some 5,000 transformers in the North American grid, that works out to $250 million or so, according to Kappenman's reckoning. Let's say this estimate is overly optimistic and that the inevitable cost overruns occur. Even if the final price tag for protecting the power grid from space weather attacks ends up being more in the $500 million range, that's less than 0.3% of what it cost to bail out AIG for gambling on toxic mortgages, or 1.0% of what Bernie Madoff is said to have bilked from his investors. Given that electrical industry revenues in the United States totaled approximately $368.5 billion in 2008, according to the Department of Energy's Energy Information Administration, a one-time space weather security surcharge of less than 0.2% should amply fund the surge suppressor project. With around 115 million households in the United States, this surcharge would work out to less than $5 per.

Money is not the problem. Indeed, resistance to the surge suppressor program is less about budget than the culture of the power industry, an antiquated crazy quilt of public and private companies, commissions and authorities, regulated state by state, though often serving multi-state consumer bases, with technical specifications vetted by a variety of different professional organizations. The reason for this mishmash is that the North American power grid was not constructed as such, but rather is composed of local and regional power systems that have coalesced into a grid over the past century.

The real impediment, one might observe, is the resistor built into the psyche of the electrical utility industry, which spends only between 0.3% and 2% of its revenues, depending on the estimate, on research and development. This meager proportion puts it almost dead last compared to other major American industries, less than the pet food industry according to Wired.com magazine. Computer and pharmaceutical manufacturers reinvest 10% or more of their revenues or more in R&D.

The utility industry's objections to implementing a space weather defense program are thus more inertial than economic. Why go to all the trouble of preventing a space weather blackout when no (serious) one has ever happened, at least not in the United States? Then, there's the commonsense reluctance to complicate a system that has thus far functioned so admirably. Inserting surge suppressors would also require installing high speed switching circuits to bypass the transformers when necessary, yet another "moving part" that could potentially break down. Aggravating matters further is the inescapable fact that the more complex the network, the less control grid operators have over it.

"We have had no recognition of this potential space weather problem in our power grid network design codes, though we do take into consideration many other environmental factors such as wind, ice, lightning and seismic disturbances," says Kappenman, who draws an analogy between securing the power grid in this manner and adding seismic retrofits to buildings before the hazards of earthquakes were fully understood.

Once installed, the surge protector system should be capable of preventing at least 70%-75% of space weather-related power grid failures in the event we were hit by the equivalent of the great geomagnetic storms of 1859 and 1921. Such protection would mean the difference between major inconvenience and societal collapse. In 2008, the surge suppressor program was recommended to Congress by Electromagnetic Pulse Commission which, as noted, has since lost its funding.

The House-Senate Compromise

But Kappenman never gave up. After thousands of hours of lobbying, presenting and cajoling, mostly at his own expense, Kappenman's plan caught fire in spring, 2010, when it was understood less as a matter of federal regulation than as essential to national security. The fantastic news is that the House of Representatives bill, HR-5026, known as The GRID Act, was approved unanimously by the full House when it came to the floor on June 9, 2010. The bill enables the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to mandate protection of the power grid from both man-made and solar EMP. Utilities are authorized to recoup such costs by adding a minor surcharge to their bills.

The not-so-fantastic news is that the corresponding Senate measure, S-1462, known as the ACELA, American Clean Energy Leadership Act, is a vast, highly controversial amalgam of energy-related initiatives, essentially the Obama administration's energy bill. However, the Senate bill currently makes no mention of protecting the grid from EMP, only from cyber-attacks.

Kappenman, raised Roman Catholic and still bearing respect for his religion's moral teachings, does not confide in me the content of his prayers. I'd have to suspect, though, that he'd be thankful if the House-Senate compromise included the Senate bill's jurisdiction over the entire power grid, and the House bill's language protecting the grid from solar and man-made EMP, he would drop to his knees and thank the good Lord above.

Whatever legislation passes must do so before the fall elections and a new Congress takes over in the January, 2011. Otherwise the process has to start all over again. But what's the rush? It turns out that the next red zone, the next time solar EMP storms peak in frequency and ferocity will, by scientific consensus, commence in late 2012. Mayan prophets and New Age doomsayers harkening to that perhaps fateful year would not be surprised to further learn that the current solar cycle climaxing in 2012 bears an uncanny resemblance to the one that produced the 1859 mega-blast, a repeat of which would almost certainly destroy our way of life for years, perhaps decades, to come. On the marked similarity between the 1859 and 2012 solar cycles, even Kappenman, who generally puts no stock in 2012-related oojie-boojie, agrees.

Mayhem aside for a moment, wouldn't we kick ourselves all the way to hell if the power grid did go down, and along with it, our society, for lack of surge suppressors, a simple, affordable, un-grandiose, quick-fix?

AFTERMATH: A Guide to Preparing for and Surviving Apocalypse 2012 will be published by Broadway/Random House on July 13, 2010.