By F. Michael Maloof
WASHINGTON – A regulatory authority representing the electric power industry claims that solar storms expected over the next two years will not have damaging effects on the nation’s electric grid, even though federal agencies have warned an intense storm could destroy transformers and cause the network to collapse.
The North American Electric Reliability Corporation, or NERC, which is supposed to help the federal government regulate the electric power industry, has issued a report that minimizes the impact of even an intense solar storm which emits an electromagnetic pulse, or EMP.
Scientists have warned such an event could disrupt America’s electrical grid system, telecommunications and most systems which have unprotected electronics as components.
Such electrical systems and electronic components on which there is a high dependency are included in a complex array of infrastructures that support the country’s operations, including electrical grid systems; telecommunications, including mobile phones; banking and finance; medical and emergency services; petroleum and natural gas infrastructures; transportation from cars and railroads to aircraft; and food and water infrastructure.
The concern is that the impact on one infrastructure will have a cascading effect on the other infrastructures, even though they may not be affected directly.
The NERC report is titled “2012 Special Reliability Assessment Interim Report: Effects of Geomagnetic Disturbances on the Bulk Power System.” It was issued in late February.
However, referring to the NERC study as “junk science,” Peter Pry, who is executive director of the Task Force on National and Homeland Security, said it denies the catastrophic threat to the electric grid from geomagnetic storms.
The National Aeronautic and Space Administration recently confirmed to WND that there will be an increasing intensity of solar storms between 2012 and 2014 after an 11-year hiatus.
Such solar storms are called solar maximums in which the pulse from such a maximum solar flare could produce several hundred sunspots on any given day, lasting for up to a month or so.
Sunspots are dark areas on the sun’s surface that contain strong magnetic fields that are constantly shifting. According to NASA, a moderate-sized sunspot is about as large as the Earth and can come and go over a period of days or weeks.
The solar flares temporarily alter Earth’s upper atmosphere, creating disruptions with signal transmissions from Global Positioning Satellites.
They also induce electrical fluctuations at ground level that then can blow out electrical transformers in power grids. Any disruption to the civilian infrastructure also can have an effect on U.S. military systems because of their heavy reliance on the commercial grid system. Some estimates put that reliance at 99 percent, according to recent U.S. Army data.
The NERC report, however, said that not even a rare geomagnetic super storm like the 1859 Carrington Event which experts say was the most intense to date would cause widespread damage to big transformers and catastrophic collapse of the national electric grid for a protracted period.
Yet, just the opposite conclusion has been reached by numerous official U.S. government studies, including those from NASA and a government-backed NAS study which was undertaken by scientific experts and national laboratories.
In effect, the NERC study’s conclusions are at odds with reports by the 2008 EMP Commission, the U.S. Department of Energy, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and test results from the U.S. national laboratories at Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore, Sandia and Oak Ridge.
These reports concluded that a great geomagnetic storm like the 1859 Carrington Event and even lesser events like the 1921 solar storm could damage or destroy hundreds of transformers and potentially cause the collapse of the national electric grid system for four to 10 years.
In turn, Pry, said such a catastrophe could cause potentially “millions of Americans to perish from starvation and societal collapse.”
Pry pointed out that the NERC’s latest findings are in conflict with its contribution to a report it co-authored with the Department of Energy just two years ago. That study had concluded that a great geomagnetic storm could destroy transformers and cause a protracted nationwide blackout, with catastrophic consequences for the survival of the American people.
Pry attributes the change in NERC outlook to its new chief executive officer, Gerry Cauley, who “suspiciously testified last year to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee offering exactly the same optimistic narrative” as reflected in the latest NERC study that “geomagnetic storms cannot threaten transformers, the operation of the electric grid or the survival of the American people.”
Pry also pointed out that the latest NERC study also conflicts with a February 21 report from the British Parliament’s Defense Committee which had just completed its own independent investigation and released an official report warning about geomagnetic storms.
The UK parliamentary committee also raised concerns about nuclear and non-nuclear electromagnetic pulse attacks which similarly could cause the collapse of the UK electric grid. The parliamentary committee, which is equivalent to the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, urged greater protection of the grid from geomagnetic storms and other electromagnetic pulse threats.
“So now America’s most important NATO ally, Britain, and its scientific and technical community, agrees with the U.S. studies warning about the catastrophic threat posed by geo-storms and urging hardening of the electric grid,” Pry said. “NERC stands alone against this international consensus.”
Pry pointed out that even participants on NERC’s own Geomagnetic Disturbance Task Force, or GMDTF, that wrote the report condemned the report, saying it was designed to misinform policymakers so that the electric power industry can evade new government regulation requiring industry to invest in hardening the national electric grid from geomagnetic storms.
These participants pointed to a number of omissions and misrepresentations.
- The NERC report only focused on geomagnetic storms despite protests from GMDTF participants. They also wanted the report to include the effects from nuclear and non-nuclear electromagnetic pulse threats for which there is more experience and empirical evidence that could “incontrovertibly cause” the collapse of the national electric grid.
- Over the objections from GMDTF participants, the NERC report deferred to the opinion of industry transformer designers to assess the vulnerability of transformers to geomagnetic storms. The assessment did not include the opinion of electromagnetic pulse experts.
- The NERC refused to include data proving the vulnerability of transformers to geomagnetic storms, excluding actual cases where transformers are known to have been damaged by them. It tried to re-write history and explain past cases of damage to transformers from geomagnetic storms as resulting from other causes. The NERC also refused to collect new data known to exist of instances of transformer damage caused by geomagnetic storms.
- Prior to publishing its report, the NERC didn’t follow required federal law or its own regulations in circulating the draft beforehand or investigate data and studies that contradicted its own conclusions. According to GMDTF participants, the NERC report instead was written in secret and not made available for critical review. Despite a protest letter from the GMDTF participants that warned of the report’s problems that would throw its findings into question, the NERC still went ahead with its publication.
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The Task Force on National and Homeland Security of which Pry is executive director had written a 10-page detailed paper that referred to specific issues with the NERC report. In addition to those concerns with the NERC report already mentioned, the Task Force paper pointed out that it had issued comments to an earlier NERC draft, the final of which was significantly revised but kept secret. The NERC never responded to the Task Force’s comments.
The Task Force learned of the significant changes from bootleg copies which were provided by those GMDTF participants who had serious problems with the NERC report.
The Task Force pointed out that it isn’t just the failures that will occur instantaneously or simultaneously in the event of a geomagnetic storm but that the “failures will occur faster than replacement units can be manufactured and installed” to replace the failed transformers.
Experts say that the effects of an electromagnetic pulse from a solar storm could knock out a significant number of transformers not only in the United States but around the world if the geomagnetic storm is strong enough. In such an event, electric power loss could continue for a period of years, and possibly decades.
Compounding the problem is that there is no inventory of transformers on hand, since they have to be custom-made. In addition, transformers today are made overseas.
“Transformer designers are not as competent as EMP experts to assess how natural EMP from a geo-storm may damage transformers directly, or cause other grid damage and cascading failures that may lead indirectly to transformer damage,” Pry said.
“No expert on EMP or geomagnetic storms participated in writing the final NERC report,” Pry added. “Critics say that relying on the transformer industry to assess the safety of transformers is much like relying on the zeppelin industry to assess the public safety of zeppelin travel prior to the Hindenberg disaster.”
F. Michael Maloof, staff writer for WND’s G2Bulletin, is a former senior security policy analyst in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. He can be contacted at [email protected]