More protection needed to guard grid from electromagnetic storm threat

gao-Electromagnetic risks are out there and more needs to be done to protect grid
Credit: Reuters

Electromagnetic risks are out there and more needs to be done to protect grid

The United States isn’t as deeply unprepared for electromagnetic threats – either from space or man-made -- as it was a few years ago but a lot of work remains and awareness of the danger needs to be amped-up if the country wants to truly protect the electric grid.

That was the general conclusion from a report by the watchdogs at the Government Accountability Office this that looked at federal efforts to address electromagnetic risks to the electric grid.

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“The threat posed by an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) [from a nuclear device detonation] or solar weather burst of high-power electromagnetic radiation could have a debilitating impact on the nation's critical electrical infrastructure, as well as other key assets that depend on electricity. These events could lead to power outages over broad geographic areas for extended durations,” the GAO stated.

“Given the potentially significant impacts that an EMP attack would have on the electric grid and the potential cost of additional protective measures to mitigate against electromagnetic impacts, federal entities could better coordinate to identify and implement key EMP risk management activities. Such activities, including collaborative identification and support of research and development priorities, may help close some of the gaps identified regarding EMP events and provide the groundwork necessary for a more robust research-based evaluation of additional protective efforts,” the GAO stated.

While there is no one federal entity charged with developing EMP safeguards, the Department of Homeland Security has overall US infrastructure protection duties and has accepted that space weather and power grid failure are significant risk events, the GAO stated. While DHS officials have determined the great risk EMP presents to the security of the nation, better collection of risks, including additional leveraging of information available from stakeholders, could help to further inform DHS assessment of these risks, the GAO stated.

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Other issues should be addressed as well, the GAO said. DHS and the Department of Energy, in conjunction with industry, have not established a coordinated approach to identifying and implementing key risk management activities to address EMP risks. Such activities include identifying and prioritizing key research and development efforts, and evaluating potential mitigation options, including the cost-effectiveness of specific protective equipment.

Enhanced coordination to determine key research priorities could help address some identified research gaps and may help alleviate concerns voiced by industry regarding the costs and potential adverse consequences on grid reliability that may be caused by implementation of such equipment.

Among its recommendation to improve EMP protections, the GAO advocated that the Secretary of Homeland Security designate roles and responsibilities within the department for addressing electromagnetic risks and communicate these to federal and industry partners. In addition, to enhance federal efforts to assess electromagnetic risks and help determine protection priorities, we also recommend that the Secretary of Homeland Security direct the Under Secretary for National Protection and Programs Directorate and the Assistant Secretary for the IP to work with other federal and industry partners to collect and analyze key inputs on threat, vulnerability, and consequence related to electromagnetic risks, the GAO stated.

In their response the GAO, DHS and DOE concurred with each of the recommendations made to their respective departments and described actions underway or planned to address them, including applicable timeframes for completion.

Since 2008, DHS, the Department of Energy (DOE), and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) have taken actions such as establishing industry standards and federal guidelines, and completing EMP-related research reports.

In its report the GAO also listed some of the major historical geomagnetic disturbances and their impact:

  • 1859: Carrington Event

ü  One-in-100-year storm

ü  Approx. 5,000 nT/min

ü  [One of the most meaningful measures of the severity of impulsive geomagnetic field disturbances is the magnitude of the geomagnetic field change per minute, measured in nanoteslas per minute (nT/min).]

ü  Telegraph wires shorted out in the United States and Europe, causing numerous fires

  • 1921: New York Railroad Superstorm

ü  One-in-100-year storm

ü  Approx. 5,000 nT/min

ü  Telegraph fires in Sweden, damage to signal and switching system at New York Central Railroad.

  • 1972: Space Age Solar Superstorm

ü  One-in-30-year storm

ü  Approx. 2,200 nT/min

ü  Knocked out long-distance telephone communication across Illinois. Caused AT&T to redesign its power system for transatlantic cables.

  • 1989: Superstorm

ü  Approx. 900 nT/minb

ü  Resulted in a shutdown of the Quebec power grid; six million people without power for 9 hours.

  • 2003: Halloween Solar Storms

ü  Approx. 480 nT/min

ü  Caused a blackout of short duration in Southern Sweden and the loss of 15 extra-high-voltage transformers in South Africa.

  • 2012: Solar Superstorm of July 2012

ü  Comparable to Carrington Event

ü  Hit but did not seriously damage STEREO-A satellite; missed the earth.

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