End of Civilization as We Know It

A solar storm, similar to the one in 1859, known as the Carrington Event, could cause the grid to fail, cutting off electricity across the northern United States, from Boston to Seattle, for at least a year.

At least 200 million people would be without food and water, together with all the other essentials made possible by electricity. Cities, like New York, wouldn’t be able to control a population suddenly thrust into the dark for months on end, where many would be starving and desperate for survival.

It can’t be overemphasized that this would be a civilization destroying event.

A congressional committee has studied the effect of an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) caused by a nuclear attack that would have the same effect on the grid as a large solar storm.

In April of this year, a terrorist attack on the Metcalf substation in Silicon Valley demonstrated the vulnerability of the grid to physical attack. Over 100 rounds were fired at the substation, causing 17 transformers to fail, but the failure was contained to the one substation.

This attack has brought the issue of grid safety to the fore and there is concern that the Metcalf attack was a prelude to a larger attack in an effort to bring down the grid.

High Voltage Transmission Lines, Photo by D. Dears
High Voltage Transmission Lines, Photo by D. Dears

 

My 2012 article, Geomagnetic Storm, described the Carrington Event and the threat to the grid.  When the Carrington Event occurred in 1859 there was no grid, and only the telegraph system was affected.

A report by Homeland Security said, “GICs (Ground Induced Currents) can overload the grid, causing severe voltage regulation problems and, potentially, widespread power outages. Moreover, GICs can cause intense internal heating in extra-high-voltage transformers, putting them at risk of failure or even permanent damage.” And, there are “300 EHV transformers in the United States” that are at risk.

Two recent solar storms, less than half the size of the Carrington Event, i.e. roughly 40%, occurred in 1921 and in 1989. The 1989 event caused the grid in Quebec, Canada to fail.

The primary threat from a Carrington Event is to the 300 EHV transformers that form the backbone of the high voltage transmission system on the grid. A report by the Wall Street Journal indicated that there were 2,000 high voltage transformers at risk from a terrorist attack1.

These EHV transformers can take nearly a year to build, and there are very few facilities that have the capability to build transformers of this size in the United States.

Protecting EHV transformers, or building spares to have on hand when there is a failure, is of utmost importance.

The House of Representatives held hearings on this issue on June 18, 2013.

H.R. 2417 establishes a process for determining the technical fixes required to protect the grid, and for their implementation.

H.R. 2417 states: “[establishing] reliability standards adequate to protect the bulk-power system from any reasonably foreseeable geomagnetic storm or electromagnetic pulse event.”

H.R. 2417 also provides for the “adequate availability of spare transformers.”

While no legislation can foresee every possible physical threat from terrorists, H.R. 2417 provides the process for identifying how to protect the grid from the effects of terrorist attack. While the attack on a lone substation in California didn’t bring down the grid, a series of such attacks, or the dynamiting of HV transmission towers, would create electrical disturbances that could cause the grid to fail.

This legislation can protect the United States from terrorist attack, and from a solar storm the size of the Carrington Event.

Without this legislation, civilization as we know it could end in the United States.

Certain factors will affect the extent of the damage from either a terrorist attack or a Carrington Event. Part 2, will discuss these factors.

 

Notes:

 

  1. The February 18, 2014 Wall Street Journal provided a comprehensive evaluation of the Metcalf shooting, including a quotation describing the extreme danger to the grid. Judge Jeanine Pirro also provided a comprehensive review of the Metcalf shooting on her TV program.

 

 

 

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