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Sun Damage

Geomagnetic storms and the limits of human experience.

Fortnightly - June 2012

storm effects—the same Kappenman who appears prominently in the lead feature on solar super storms in this month’s National Geographic, alongside his famous and oft-cited quote: “We’re playing Russian Roulette with the sun.”

Kappenman even went so far in his prepared written testimony as to suggest that NERC had rigged the report by purposefully ignoring contrary data and by allowing a small cohort to co-opt the findings, thus ignoring concerns of other task force members:

“The real question,” he wrote, “is how did a small group of NERC authors, after pulling the draft task force report away from the full task force, reach discrete, definitive, positive conclusions in the few weeks they had to rewrite the draft, in seclusion.”

Kappenman insisted that data was available—data that he said the NERC task force report ignored—that would have allowed for “detailed forensic analysis” of smaller, recently occurring solar storms, and also for analysis to help understand what earlier, more severe storms might have done if today’s extensive grid had existed back when the storm actually occurred. For example, as Kappenman asserted in his written testimony, the March 1989 solar storm that brought down the Quebec grid also caused “loss-of-life” damages to 36 percent of the EHV transformers of Allegheny Power, the only U.S. electric utility that openly reported transformer impacts from that event.

With “hundreds” of different designs represented in the current U.S. transformer fleet, he wrote, NERC couldn’t possibly have reached any definitive conclusion without considering extensive data on all models.

“And yet,” he added, “the NERC report includes a well-publicized, very specific assertion: that the U.S. fleet is, essentially, not seriously vulnerable.”

Pry went further, insisting it wasn’t too early to take concrete steps:

“We certainly don’t know everything we need to know now, but we know enough already so that we can set standards now, and then improve them as we go along.”

Gerry Cauley, NERC’s president and CEO, demurred:

“It’s very difficult to frame a standard at this point, where I can put out an answer … that will address this risk.”

Caught in the middle were the FERC commissioner Cheryl LaFleur and staffer Joseph McClelland, who led the conference.

Reminding the audience of the huge losses ascribed to the 2003 Northeast blackout, which saw parts of Ontario suffer continued rolling blackouts for more than a week before full power was restored, McClelland asked for ideas on possible preventative measures.

“The cost was $4 to $10 billion,” he said. “How much mitigation could you buy for that?”

LaFleur tried to steer the conference away from recriminations, and back toward NERC’s bread and butter: process and standard-setting.

“When, she asked, “can we start on potentially assessing the vulnerability of the existing inventory on a systematic basis?

“Much of this just sounds to me like it cries out for national standards.”

Yet NERC seemed largely unmoved.

Regarding McClelland’s suggestion to try some cheap mitigation strategies, NERC’s Cauley answered:

“Thanks, Joe. You know I’m not opposed to blockers or the capacitors …

“But for the 30 years I’ve been looking at the power