WASHINGTON – A vulnerability test by the electric-power industry of the national electrical grid shows the system would fail during certain catastrophes – and would fail even if only some of the impacts of certain catastrophes were experienced.
That is the sobering message from a preliminary readout of the results of a vulnerability test called Grid Ex II.
It revealed that even though the test was done under circumstances that didn’t represent the full impact of what would occur in the event of a grid blackout – caused either by a cyber or electromagnetic pulse attack – the system failed.
The North American Electric Power Reliability Corporation, or NERC, led the nationwide exercise to examine just how vulnerable the nation’s electric power grid would be under a limited nationwide cyber or EMP attack.
The test, regarded by experts as presenting less of an impact than a real EMP, comes as the sun is about to “flip” its own magnetic poles at the peak of its expected 11-year cycle.
The sun flips the polarity of its magnetic north and south, causing huge intergalactic geomagnetic storms which can affect the earth’s grid and communications including satellites.
The sun’s 11-year cycle started peaking a few months ago, and will continue through 2014, according to NASA scientists.
Todd Hoeksema, director of the Wilcox Solar Observatory at Stanford University, said the polarity change builds up throughout the 11-year cycle, and the sun’s magnetic field goes to zero before coming back with the opposite polarity.
It is during that time that flares sometimes are huge, and if one hit the earth directly, it could deliver a life-changing EMP blast.
“Something big is about to happen on the sun,” according to an August 2013 NASA statement. At the time, Hoeksema said the big event, the solar flip, was three to four months away – placing that time in a November-December 2013 time-frame.
When that happens, cosmic rays (which are high-energy particles) accelerate to nearly the speed of light by supernova explosions and other violent events in the galaxy that could have a major impact on the electrical grid if earth sustained a direct hit.
As space scientists watch the effects of the solar flip, that is, the reversal of its magnetic polarity, the utilities in the U.S. undertook the limited test of the grid called Grid Ex II.
While the final results won’t be known until they are published months from now, experts said the impact scenario created by the drill fell far short of what would occur in the event of a real EMP – which would greatly diminish or even knock out the grid and life-sustaining critical infrastructures that rely on the grid to function.
The two-day Grid Ex II exercise revealed what Matthew Weld in a Nov. 14 New York Times article said put tens of millions of Americans in simulated darkness, with hundreds of transmission lines and transformers declared damaged or destroyed and “the engineers … rushing to assess computers that were, for the purposes of the drill, tearing their system apart.”
The fragility of the national grid was illustrated in real life in 2003 by a cascading power grid failure from Ohio throughout the northeastern United States and into Canada.
It left 50 million people without power for at least 30 hours, and up to four days in a number of cases. And it showed real-life conditions of an entire region being without water, food, transportation and other life-sustaining critical infrastructure necessities. It also showed how dysfunctional the national grid regulation was, revealing that no central authority was in charge of operations of hundreds of power companies.
That remains the case even now.
Efforts have been made in the past three sessions of Congress to give the Federal Electric Regulatory Commission, or FERC, authority over the hundreds of power companies to regulate integrated operations of the grid.
During that time, legislation such as the SHIELD Act has been introduced and passed with overwhelming support in the House, but failed to pass the Senate.
Last June, Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., along with 24 co-sponsors, introduced the Secure High-voltage Infrastructure for Electricity from Lethal Damage Act, HR 2417.
It would give FERC the authority to protect the reliability of either the bulk power system or the defense critical electric infrastructure whenever the president issues a determination identifying an imminent grid security threat.
“The electric power lobby has managed to block passage of these bills, now proposed in the third congress in a row,” said former Ambassador Henry Cooper, director of the Strategic Defense Initiative under President George H. W. Bush and now one of the leaders of the newly formed EMP Coalition.
“In particular, the NERC has irresponsibly denied the reality of existential threats such as from natural or man-made electromagnetic pulse (EMP) events,” Cooper said.
“Such activities as NERC’s Grid Ex II exercise are academically interesting, but actually do little to deal with this serious threat, now well known for over a decade, including by our enemies and terrorists,” he said.
Cooper said that time is being wasted by such piecemeal exercises as Grid Ex II every other year which, he said, seems to be NERC’s anticipated pattern.
He pointed out that this most recent exercise included the use of telecommunications.
“Maybe the next one – e.g., two years from now – will examine what happens without communications, sure to be lost in an EMP event – or even (in) a competent terrorist cyber-attack.”
Cooper insisted there are “affordable fixes” for the national electric power grid’s vulnerability, and added: “Cost should not be an issue. Current estimates are that several hundred million dollars may be needed to harden the key elements of the electric power grid to EMP, to protect perhaps a trillion dollar investment … and more importantly the lives of several hundred million Americans.”