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Sun Storms Threaten Power Grid; Power Companies, Congress Fail to Prepare

The Sun is our friend: vitamin D, solar power, and photosynthesis, the basis of life as we know it.

But Black Hills science writer Stan Gibilisco points out that the Sun is dangerous. He's not talking about wrinkles; he's talking about coronal mass ejections:

Quick correction: the solar storm to which Gibilisco refers was reported on this month, but it appears to have taken place in July 2012.

I'd call coronal mass ejections star farts—NASA refers to them as "giant bubbles of gas... ejected from the Sun"—but that appellation might trivialize the civilization-busting power of such storms. International insurer Lloyd's takes coronal mass ejections seriously; so should we all. Gibilisco thinks we ought to harden our electronic infrastructure to prevent a coronal mass ejection from shutting down GPS, satellites, the Internet, and the national power grid for weeks or months:

Among other preparations, we could brace for coronal mass ejections by stockpiling large power transformers to replace those that a strong solar storm would fry. Large power transformers cost $2.5 million to $7 million to manufacture, plus maybe 30% overhead to ship and install. Multiply by 2100, and you have a cost of $15 billion. That's no small expenditure... but during the last decade, were spending that much defending American interests in Iraq every 21 days.

But the electric utilities don't have a CME-response stockpile of large power transformers, because free-market competition stops them from preparing for disaster:

A major problem with protecting the national power grid is that it consists of 2100 high voltage transformers run by an assortment of 5000 or so independent entities. One speaker (Dr. Michael Gregg) estimated that it would require a relatively few million dollars to protect some valuable components of the electric power system. However, following these remarks, it came to light during the discussion session that such a measure has lacked support owing to legal and business constraints by these 5000 entities in competition with one another. It probably goes without saying that politicians are not going to enter that fray. Nor would they be willing to budget the much greater expense of acquiring and storing backup high voltage transformers. The threat to nuclear power plants (see: Are nuclear reactors vulnerable to solar storms?) was hardly mentioned [Steve Tracton, "Are We Ready for Potentially Disastrous Impacts of Space Weather?" Washington Post: Capital Weather Gang, 2012.07.11].

Our failure thus far to respond to Gibilisco's call for sensible solar storm preparation is one of the impacts of partisan gridlock and anti-science sentiment in Congress. Dust-ups about EPA efforts to regulate carbon emissions have tangled passage of the NASA budget. Members of Congress don't go on Fox to rail against the Sun, because science-based warnings that the Sun will wreck modern civilization don't raise nearly as much campaign money as Limbaugh-parroting cries that Candidate X is a Barack Obama Marxist waging war on coal.

If the next big coronal mass ejection hits the earth, who made the most profit on utility stocks and who raised the most campaign donations will instantly become irrelevant. Power companies and Congress need to think a bit more on the cosmic scale and protect our modern civilization from the threats Old Sol throws at us.


  1. jerry 2014.07.27

    Good stuff to know and a good report from Stan on this. Why wouldn't we do this, is also beyond a simple mind like I possess. As I recognize this about myself, I will do as the President and now as Charlie Crist has said in that they would differ that to the scientists that are in the know. I think we all know what they would say, harden the infrastructure. Speaking of that, I think we should invest a whole lot more into the rest of the infrastructure as well.

  2. Testor15 2014.07.27

    Stan and Cory, you seem to ignore the faith of our Christian leaders. They intend to cause a major set of disasters so their God can come and take over the land of Israel... Or something like that.

    If we do not plan for disasters we won't have one, right?

  3. Tim 2014.07.27

    They won't do anything that stands in the way of tomorrows profit, they don't have the ability to see past that. Then when it does happen, they whine, cry, beg the government they hate so much for help then blame Obama because he didn't do enough.

  4. mike from iowa 2014.07.27

    Didn't we experience a massive black or brown out when dumbass dubya scruled the roost and wasn't there a big concern about fixing the grid back then?

  5. Lynn 2014.07.27

    Stan, I've read a little about this and from what I interpret that even in 2012 was a serious near miss and I stress very near miss! Our power grid is so vulnerable that it would take years to restore power and we as a country would be plunged back into the 19th century.

    We in our modern world rely so much on electricity with city water pressure driven by electric pumps to refrigeration for foods.

    There were past articles mentioning that rather than terrorists nuking NYC or some major city they could launch a nuclear tipped missile from a freighter off our coastline to detonate above the US which would have far worse consequences for us.

    This is an obvious national security concern and we already had an incident in California where snipers shot up a power station quickly and then disappeared

  6. mike from iowa 2014.07.27

    The Newster must have finally gotten religion.

  7. caheidelberger Post author | 2014.07.27

    Lynn, do you remember the 1987 ABC miniseries Amerika? Kris Kristofferson, Robert Urich? The Russians took over the U.S. thanks to a nuclear attack, but they used the strategy you note: detonate nuclear weapons in orbit, far enough away not to do physical damage or cause radioactive fallout, but enough to fry all the electronics in the country. Danny Ocean's team used the same electromagnetic pulse to knock out Las Vegas's electricity in Ocean's Eleven. I know i"m citing movies, but this stuff is real.

    Mike, you are correct that some past outages have spurred discussion of upgrading and hardening our electrical system. But as the Tracton 2012 article quoted above notes, when the reporters move on to the next breaking-news cycle and the policymakers get down to brass tacks, they realize taking action costs money, and the big-money interests don't want to do it. Short-term capitalist impulses get in the way of long-term preparedness.

  8. Deb Geelsdottir 2014.07.27

    How beneficial is it to bury all electrical lines?

    More generally, what is involved in "hardening" the electric grid? Any power grids?

  9. Stan Gibilisco 2014.07.27

    If you can stand to look at my face for another four minutes, I apologize for the time error and issue another warning:

    Our free-for-all enterprise system exhibits similar weakness in regards to the development of new antibiotics to combat superbugs. Just ain't enough short-term profit in it.

    My Republican colleagues need to get more than religion, Mike. They need to wake up to the difference between spending and investment.

    Come to think of it, so do the Democrats ...

  10. Stan Gibilisco 2014.07.27

    Take the money we throw away fighting the "war on drugs" and throw it into utility-grid upgrades and antibiotic development.

    Then take the money that's left over and invest it in education or the arts or some such. Or maybe even give it back to the taxpayers ...

  11. Stan Gibilisco 2014.07.27

    But the free-for-all enterprise emperors have too much invested in the status quo to do anything of that sort.

    The sun, meanwhile, and the bacteria among us, have no such investment concerns.

  12. caheidelberger Post author | 2014.07.27

    Deb, if I'm understanding the problem correctly (and I will defer to Stan's deeper scientific knowledge), the solar storm problem won't affect power lines much. Another authors says the big problem is the transformers.

    I'm having trouble finding definitive answers on whether burying power lines helps prevent damage from EMP, since there's all sorts of apocalypto-end-timey survivalist stuff out there (nothing personal, preppers; I'd just like some academic authorities). If the underground power lines are still connected to the grid, they can still carry surges below ground. Burying power lines would provide benefits every year by avoiding terrestrial storm damage.

    A Congressional Research Service report in 2004 said that shielding electronics with Faraday cages, surge protectors, and other technology would add 10% to their cost.

  13. Deb Geelsdottir 2014.07.27

    Thanks Cory.

    Transformers can't be buried? Or is that more expensive than those Faraday things? (Whatever they are.)

  14. caheidelberger Post author | 2014.07.27

    Bury the transformers? Possibly. Off the Grid News says two feet of dirt can protect electronics, but transformers are a lot bigger than preppers' laptops. And the problem is that those transformers need to be shielded from exposed wires that could carry the electrical surges into the transformers' guts... am I getting that right, Stan?

  15. Lynn 2014.07.27

    Cory I don't remember seeing Amerika but did see Oceans eleven when they stole and used that EMP generator.

    When I was in high school during the Cold War and did a term paper project on Electromagnetic Pulse and how it would most likely be one of the first things to happen to us if we went to war with the Soviet Union and it was actually shown in the old classic cold war movie "The Day After".

    North Korea or another rogue state could do it but their country would be toast afterwards and we would be hand pumping gasoline, riding bicycles and horses for a year or few years if nothing changes as Stan pointed out those entities who are in charge has resisted making upgrades.

    I'm not a survivalist but realize just how vulnerable our power grid is that we take for granted and how severe the consequences will be. Think New Orleans immediately after Hurricane Katrina but on a national scale with the economy tanking and everyone worried about the basic necessities to survive being safe and clean water, sanitation, food and shelter depending on what time of year it is.

    This needs to be a national priority grouped in with infrastructure and how our electricity is distributed.

  16. Tim 2014.07.27

    I fail to understand what burying the transformers will do, they are still connected to the grid and besides, transformers put off a lot of heat, you will have to cool them somehow. I don't fully understand how EMP works, but I see the damage regular surges do every day, putting the transformers underground without surge protection will do nothing.

  17. Stan Gibilisco 2014.07.27

    Tim is basically correct. We can do a lot to protect against localized damage from storms (such as the one last October here) by burying power lines, but in the event of a hemispheric EMP event, burying stuff at the municipal level won't do much. We'd have to bury everything.

    Surge protection hardware exists and can be installed at transformers, substations, and at intervals along spans of high-tension power lines. It's not terribly expensive either. Certainly cheaper than waiting for the disaster to wipe out lots of far more costly hardware.

    I made another video about all this stuff, and if you want to get past the ham radio part, you can start at the 4:00 point (four minutes in) and endure a rather technical lecture from the Prime Elder of the Magnates of Malarkey (another six minutes).

    All that said, I sure am glad that I have that little Honda EU-2000i generator here. During "Winter Storm Atlas" we had a local power outage because of a tree down, and for three days that little generator kept some lights on and all my computers to boot, which, God knows, I could not wipe my ass without.

    Burying the lines would have prevented that inconvenience, but I will have to wipe my ass a few million times before the city of Lead does that.

  18. mike from iowa 2014.07.27

    I remember an article from a leading men's magazine about a half-baked plan from conservatives(Hitler Weasel Bush was put in charge) that decided enough of America's wealthy and politicians could survive a Soviet first strike to start our country all over again. I think they had the island of Diego Garcia in mind as a starting point. This was back when most Americans didn't know that Congress had a nuclear powered bunker in Washington DC that was supposed to be nuke proof and only for the pols and families and a few weralthy friends. Anybody else remember this?

  19. Stan Gibilisco 2014.07.27

    I remember it. I am sure the President and the top government officials still have such a bunker. If they don't, they're fools.

    And now, this comment's real tranya! (Trekkies will understand.)

    Not much chance of it happening here. But Larry Kurtz, where might it happen? You ought to know if anybody does ...

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