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Sun Damage

Geomagnetic storms and the limits of human experience.

Fortnightly - June 2012

On April 30, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) held a technical conference to review scientific claims and policy arguments about geomagnetic disturbances, known as GMD—how some say that a once-in-a-century solar storm could induce a power surge on the interstate grid so destructive as to cook and fry as many 300 extra-high-voltage transformers, plunging much of the nation into a blackout lasting months or even years. Some researchers even harbor fears that GMDs could end life as we know it.

This doomsday scenario came from the National Academy of Scientists, in a study completed in 2008. As noted by Scott Pugh of U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security (DHS), that study included a worst-case estimate that roughly one-third of the country could lose power for several years if a solar storm should strike Earth with the intensity of a famous event that occurred in 1921, a storm more severe than any since then, and which ranks second in severity in modern human history, behind the so-called Carrington Event of 1859.

Another study, issued in 2010 under the joint sponsorship of FERC, DOE, and Homeland Security, raised similar alarms in 2010. That project included a six-part report by California’s Metatech Corp. (Meta-R-319, through Meta-R-324), prepared for the Oak Ridge National Lab, under the direction of Ben McConnell of ORNL’s Power and Energy Systems Group.

But earlier this year, on February 29, the North American Electric Reliability Corp. (NERC), through its GMD Task Force, released an “interim study” aimed at putting folks more at ease.

In effect, that report found reason to discount worries over a multi-year blackout that could follow equipment damage from a massive solar storm. Instead, according to NERC, the geomagnetically induced currents (GIC) resulting from a severe solar storm would more likely lead initially to widespread voltage collapse, bringing the grid down within a matter of seconds, and sparking immediate, or near-immediate region-wide blackouts.

And that collapse actually would take transformers off-line—before they could suffer any serious harm. With all the key equipment still intact and capable of functioning, grid operators could begin blackstart operations, and recover service within hours, or at least within a few days.

To save the grid, we let it die.

Junk Science

Peter Pry, executive director of the privately funded Task Force on National and Homeland Security, testified at the conference that NERC’s findings ran counter to virtually all other known government-sponsored studies:

“All independently arrive at the scientific consensus that a great geomagnetic storm could cause widespread damage to power grid transformers.”

Pry dispensed with any pretext of academic courtesy:

“The NERC report is not serious science. It is junk science, political science intended to derail legislation now before Congress [H.R. 668] to protect the national electric grid from geostorms and other threats.

“We hope [it] will be retracted or ignored.”

Also disgruntled was John Kappenman, the electrical engineer, now with Storm Analysis Consultants, who had helped write the Metatech/FERC/ORNL reports on geomagnetic

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