F. Michael Maloof,
April 23, 2012
WASHINGTON – As scientists warn of an impending solar storm between now and 2014 that could collapse the national power grid, thrusting millions into darkness instantly, a debate has flared up between utilities and the federal government on the severity of such an event.
NASA and the National Academy of Sciences previously confirmed to G2Bulletin that an electromagnetic pulse event from an intense solar storm could occur any time between now and 2014.
They say it could have the effect of frying electronics and knocking out transformers in the national electric grid system.
Already, there are separate published reports of massive solar storms of plasma – some as large as the Earth itself – flaring off of the sun’s surface and shooting out into space, with some recently having come close enough to Earth to affect worldwide communications and alter the flights of commercial aircraft near the North Pole.
But in February, the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, which represents the power industry, issued a stunning report asserting that a worst-case geomagnetic “super storm” like the 1859 Carrington Event likely wouldn’t damage most power grid transformers. Instead, it would cause voltage instability and possibly result in blackouts lasting only a few hours or days, but not months and years.
NERC’s assertion, however, is at serious variance with the 2008 congressional EMP Commission, the 2008 National Academy of Sciences report; a 2010 Federal Energy Regulatory Commission report; the 2012 report by the Defense Committee of the British Parliament, and others.
Even the British scientists who contributed to the parliament report came to their own independent assessment that a great geomagnetic storm would cause widespread damage to power grid transformers and result in a protracted blackout lasting months, or even years, with catastrophic consequences for society.
Despite NERC’s assertion that there wouldn’t be widespread damage to the nation’s power grid transformers in the event of an intense solar storm, the FERC, which regulates interstate electricity and other energy sales but has no authority now over local utilities to harden their grid sites, says that as many as 130 million Americans could have problems for years.
NERC asserts that any blackout would last hours or days, at most.
“The FERC report relied on a four-part quantitative model of geomagnetic disturbance effects on the U.S. power grid to develop conclusions and recommendations, while the NERC report relied on meetings of industry employees in lieu of data collection or event investigation,” according to Peter Vincent Pry, who heads the congressional quasi-legislative Task Force on National and Homeland Security. Pry also was staff director to the EMP Commission.
Pry said that the Task Force had issued its own report comparing the scientific methodology used in the industry-sponsored NERC report with that used in 2010 FERC report.
He pointed out that the NERC report was the product of a so-called Geomagnetic Disturbance Task Force with membership consisting only of representatives from electricity generation and transmission companies.
“In contrast to the FERC report, no expert on geomagnetic storms and natural electromagnetic pulse effects participated in actual drafting of the NERC report,” Pry said.
He added that the FERC report used a “proven computer model” to predict specific geographic areas expected to experience power grid collapse during a major geomagnetic disturbance.
“The NERC report discussed how such models might be developed in the future,” Pry said.
Pry was particularly critical of the “extraordinary and unsupported claim” in the NERC report that a likely collapse of the power grid would prevent transformer overheating and damage. Pry said that the FERC asserts that internal heating as a likely mechanism of transformer damage is based on prior actual geomagnetic disturbance events.
U.S. transformers on the average are more than 30 years old and are susceptible to internal heating, according to FERC experts. Other federal studies have revealed that the transformers have to be custom-made for local utilities and are constructed only overseas.
In addition, utilities do not keep around spare transformers due to their expense. The NERC report, however, does not discuss the age of the nation’s transformers.
Nevertheless, there is ample evidence in the possession of the FERC revealing the damage to transformers from previous geomagnetic storms. For example, there was serious transformer damage to the Salem nuclear power plant in New Jersey in the aftermath of the same geomagnetic storm that caused the March 1989 Hydro-Quebec blackout. According to Pry, the NERC had removed any similar pictures from the published version of its report.
Even the Electric Infrastructure Security Council similarly has found fault with the NERC report. The EISC helps coordinate U.S. and international infrastructure protection against electromagnetic threats, whether natural or man-made.
Where the NERC report minimized the effect of a geomagnetic disturbance the EISC was highly critical of the NERC’s conclusions.
“Upon careful review of the report, we were unable to find any supporting material for such a definitive claim, which appears to be a significant departure from all previous report drafts and, indeed, from all previous U.S. government studies,” the EISC analysis said.
“We were disturbed to find that relevant data that could conflict with this conclusion has apparently been removed from the report, including photographs and other evidence of GMD transformer damage that appeared in previous report drafts,” EISC said.
“Since the report’s definitive, positive claim could discourage efforts to protect the U.S. from possible severe GMD-related grid damage, it must, of course, be backed up by extensive transformer data collection, review and corresponding detailed electrical and thermal modeling,” EISC added. “While such data collection and analysis were identified as urgent needs in the deliberations of the task force, this effort has not yet taken place, or even initiated, to our knowledge. In fact, the above, definitive assertion in the (NERC) report is likely to discourage any such effort….Nothing cited in the report supports the claim that voltage instability is ‘most likely.'”
EISC even went further and said of the NERC report that there is no known evidence that voltage instability would be a worst case scenario. In addition, the EISC analysis said, there is no evidence of grid “self-protection” that was noticed in previous GMD events.
“New concerns, heightened by the approaching solar maximum, over the possible recurrence of another great geomagnetic storm, like the 1859 Carrington Event or the 1921 Railroad Storm, have produced threat assessments by multiple government agencies, including some of the world’s best scientists and engineers,” Pry said.
Pry said that the effect of the NERC report actually could contribute to a possible failure to harden the U.S. grid against a severe geomagnetic storm.
“The electric grid alone is not at risk,” Pry warned.
“Everything in our modern society depends, directly or indirectly, upon electricity, including all the other critical infrastructures – communications, transportation, banking and finance, food and water – that sustain modern civilization and the lives of 300 million Americans,” he said.
“If a great geomagnetic storm proves to be catastrophic, as all previous U.S. government studies have warned would be the case, the NERC could be responsible for contributing to an unprecedented national catastrophe,” Pry added.
Pry will be joined by others who have been asked by FERC to testify at a technical panel on April 30 at its Washington, D.C. office “to do battle,” as Pry puts it, with NERC CEO Gerry Cauley and his staff on the merits of the NERC report.
This article was posted: Monday, April 23, 2012 at 3:17 am