WASHINGTON – The White House, along with the Department of Energy’s Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability, say that some 679 widespread power outages over the past 10 years have been due to the effects of severe weather on the U.S. electrical grid system.
The White House report, titled the “Economic Benefits of Increasing Electric Grid Resilience to Weather Outages,” said the cost of outages take various forms such as lost output and wages, spoiled inventory, delayed production, inconvenience and damage to the electric grid.
But left unaddressed is the potential impact that an electromagnetic pulse event would have.
In a just-published 28-page report, the White House said that severe weather has been the leading cause of power outages in the United States between 2003 and 2012, costing the U.S. economy up to $33 billion.
The report pointed out that the resilience of the U.S. electric grid system is integral to protection against severe weather.
“Continued investment in grid modernization and resilience will mitigate these costs over time – saving the economy billions of dollars and reducing the hardship experienced by millions of Americans when extreme weather strikes,” the report said.
The report said that DOE has received some $4.5 billion to invest in modern grid technology which it said had increased the resilience and reliability of the grid in the face of severe weather.
In referring to severe weather as the major cause of grid failures, however, the report made no mention of the potential for an EMP event and what impact that would have on the grid.
The EMP threat was first made known by the congressionally mandated EMP Commission which issued an in-depth report on the catastrophic results of an EMP event, whether natural or man-made, on the U.S. electrical grid system and all of the other critical infrastructures that depend on it.
In addition, the former director for the Central Intelligence Agency, James Woolsey, has voiced similar warnings.
As co-chairman of a special EMP panel, along with former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Woolsey has specifically warned that North Korea which already has a nuclear weapon could launch from a freighter a rocket armed with a “super-EMP” nuclear weapon and explode it at a high-altitude along the most populated portion of the U.S., the Boston-to-Washington, D.C. corridor.
Woolsey has warned that North Korean nuclear devices are assessed to be in the kiloton rather than megaton range, designed to emit more gamma rays to produce a more power EMP effect.
A burst from a “super-EMP” would have a more debilitating impact on unprotected electronics, including the vulnerable U.S. national grid system.
Gamma rays are a form of electromagnetic energy that emits a high-intensity burst caused by the rapid acceleration of charged particles.
They can be so powerful and supercharged that they can knock out or completely fry any unprotected electronics, electrical systems and automated control systems that run our critical infrastructures.
Woolsey said that the national grid, which underlies the nation’s critical infrastructures, has little or no protection.
The former CIA director said that the U.S. in all has 18 critical infrastructures, 17 of which depend on one key infrastructure, the electric grid system.
He said that while the national grid underlies those critical infrastructures that include food and water delivery, transportation, financial services, telecommunications and emergency services, there is little or no protection of the grid.
“Not a single thought is being given to security of the grid,” Woolsey said. “The country is not well-served by the way in which the grid is protected and who protects it.”
Dr. Peter Vincent Pry, former CIA analyst who was staff director of the EMP Commission and is now executive director of the congressional advisory Task Force on National and Homeland Security, said the loss of the grid would trigger cascading failures of all the critical infrastructures on which society depends, even if a portion were knocked out.
A “super-EMP” nuclear bomb, Pry said, is lighter than the regular nuclear weapons and is designed to emit greater amounts of gamma rays – a form of electromagnetic energy – that is the most destructive of the types of EMP events which include lightning and solar flares.
Former Ambassador Henry Cooper, who headed the office of the Strategic Defense Initiative under President George H.W. Bush, has warned that North Korea and Iran could launch missiles over the South Pole, to hit the U.S., but anti-missile defense systems are not oriented for an attack from that direction.
The sun is in its 11-year solar storm maximum, and experts warn it could result in an EMP event from a direct hit from a massive solar flare.
Not only does the report leave EMP unaddressed, the DHS does not even include an EMP as one of its 15 planning scenarios that outline procedures to be followed in the event of a national emergency such as floods and terrorism.
The report did not specify what modernization of the grid has taken place, such as hardening to prevent an EMP.
An inquiry to the DOE about the lack of EMP as a concern to the national electrical grid system in the study went unanswered.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration, as well as the National Academy of Sciences, say that the U.S. will realize the most intense period of a solar storm maximum for the rest of this year and well into the next.
NASA and NAS estimate that a direct hit from a solar flare just on the United States could cause an estimated $2 trillion in the first year, take up to four to 10 years to recover and “affect” upwards of 228 million people, a huge portion of the U.S. population.
In effect, millions across American would be subjected to starvation and death as a result of an EMP causing the collapse of the U.S. electrical grid system, which is needed to maintain the other life-sustaining critical infrastructures on which the society depends for survival.
A direct hit from a solar flare – some of which can be some 20 times the size of the Earth – also could affect some 350 large transformers that convey electricity across the nation. Those transformers are massive, expensive, custom-made and, under normal circumstances, take years for delivery, since they are only produced overseas.
In addition to the U.S. electrical grid system, the cascading effect of an EMP event would affect such critical infrastructures as telecommunications, transportation, food and water delivery, banking and financial systems, oil and natural gas pipelines and emergency services.
All rely completely today not only on the electrical grid but also electronic components and automated control systems – all of which would be knocked out or fried if left unprotected.
Experts estimate that the cost to mitigate the impact of either a natural or man-made EMP event would be some $20 billion, but the issue of applying such money to remedy the problem has become embroiled over politics and the issue of the source for funding.
The problem is complicated by the fact that the grid is privately owned by for-profit utility companies. Since public utilities are natural monopolies, government agencies regulate electric utilities and operating practices. State agencies regulate the rates charged by local utilities while both federal and state governments oversee the operation of generating facilities and transmission systems.
The transmission grid consists of eight regions and is overseen by the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, or NERC, subject to oversight of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC.
However, furious debate is on over who will pay the cost to harden the grid.
The NERC believes that the vulnerable national electrical grid system can withstand lightning and believes it would survive a direct hit from a solar flare, with some interruption, but not the catastrophic result that previous congressional studies, scientists and experts say could occur from an EMP as a result of a direct solar flare hitting the Earth.