February 3

Concern grows over possibility of a massive power surge

The idea that the country is on a collision course with a dangerous electromagnetic surge has been drawing a wider audience and regulators have begun scrambling to put a plan in place.

By Evan Halper
Mcclatchey News Service

(Continued from page 1)

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Lloyd’s is uncertain whether the impact of a solar-storm-induced magnetic pulse would be cataclysmic. But its worst-case scenario would truly be: 20 million to 40 million Americans losing electricity for as long as a year or two, “resulting in major and widespread social unrest, riots and theft.”

A year and a half ago, America came close – at least in astronomical terms - to finding out what could happen. In July 2012, a massive ejection from a solar storm headed toward Earth. The storm was the size of Carrington’s. It missed Earth’s orbital position by seven days.

That was a wake-up call, said Daniel Baker, director of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

At a San Francisco meeting of the American Geophysical Union in December, Baker proposed the government take the data collected from the 2012 event and use it to create a kind of geomagnetic “war games” to simulate the effects of a huge solar flare, “rather than waiting to be clobbered by a direct hit.”

Congress has taken note, as has the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which has asked utilities to assess their vulnerabilities and come up with plans.

Many in Congress want to go further, pushing measures to force utilities to update their systems. Congressional investigators have warned that in a major crisis, the “mutual assistance agreements” under which utilities help each other in disasters would fall apart.

Supporters of the legislation, which passed the House in 2010 but died in the Senate, have suggested requiring utilities to keep more spare transformers and other equipment on hand. They also want utilities to install “blocking capacitors” and other devices to shield key equipment.

In Quebec, the government invested $1.2 billion installing such devices after the 1989 blackout. The cost to U.S. utilities would be substantially more, given the size and complexity of the American power grid.

Across the border in Maine, lawmakers who grew impatient waiting for Congress to pass a bill have gone ahead with their own measure requiring utility action. Other states are pondering similar bills.

Utilities have resisted such major investments, opting instead for a strategy focused on shifting power loads to soften the blow to the grid in the event of an extreme solar storm.

In Congress, the effort has drawn unusual bipartisan backing, including many tea party Republicans as well as liberals such as Rep. Henry A. Waxman, D-Calif., whose staff co-wrote a report concluding that power companies are unprepared.

“This has become a strange alliance,” said Peter Pry, a former CIA analyst at the forefront of lobbying efforts to “harden” the grid.

“I am a tea party Republican who does not like big government. But people like me who are genetically anti-government are nonetheless trying to expand its regulatory powers to do something about this.”

The tea party interest stems largely from the efforts of people including Gingrich, Bartlett and former CIA Director James Woolsey, who have spent years warning of the danger, not of a solar flare but of a similar electromagnetic pulse caused by a terrorist.

In theory, a terrorist group with a nuclear weapon could unleash a high-altitude explosion that would create a pulse large enough to mimic the impact of a massive solar storm.

“An attack of this sort is much easier than most nuclear attacks people talk about,” Woolsey said at the same conference where Murtagh spoke. “People say, ‘The North Koreans, Iranians, whoever, are not crazy. There would be retaliation. Let’s forget about this.’ I don’t think so.”

Others have their doubts.

“The capacity we have to model out the effects of this kind of attack is very limited,” said Jeffrey Lewis, a nonproliferation scholar at the Monterey institute of International Studies. “People are saying these outlandish things that are not related to data. You get skeptical of them really quick.”

Lewis believes the doomsday scenarios are being peddled in the interest of other agendas, such as promoting missile defense systems and early strikes on Iran and North Korea.

As that debate plays out, Bartlett, the former congressman, is holding out hope that Congress or the states will ultimately force utilities to do more. In the meantime, he offers this advice: Get over to Sam’s Club.

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