America's Grid Upgrades Should Include Fixing EMP Vulnerability

America's Grid Upgrades Should Include Fixing EMP Vulnerability
AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File

America’s electric grid is on the cusp of a much-needed overhaul. And that should include fixing one of the most potentially serious risks that the grid faces: long-term shutdowns from electromagnetic pulse (EMP) events. These could occur from solar storms or high-altitude nuclear bomb detonations. 

EMP is a classic low-likelihood, high-impact crisis. But the fix can be made, particularly to the most important sections of the grid, at a reasonable price. Just as the U.S. Department of Defense has taken actions to address EMP to protect critical military assets, so too should the civilian electric grid be protected.

Senator Ron Johnson, Chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, is among those calling for greater awareness – and action. At a

September 27 forum at The Heritage Foundation, Senator Johnson discussed more than two decades of prominent EMP studies and actual electrical disruptions during atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons. He bluntly concluded, “We have been forewarned.”

Senator Johnson added that Congress should pony up and that it would cost “single digit billions” to address critical EMP vulnerabilities. NASA has warned that a major EMP solar storm like the 1859 Carrington Event has a 12 percent chance of occurring in the next decade. The National Academy of Sciences has estimated the damage could exceed $2 trillion, 20 times the cost of Hurricane Katrina.

In July, the U.S. Energy Information Administration reported that grid spending was at $51 billion annually, largely driven by capital investments. And higher investments seem likely, and are certainly needed, soon.

According to a 2015 U.S. Department of Energy report, 70% of power transformers are 25 years of age or older, 60% of circuit breakers are 30 years or older and 70% of transmission lines are 25 years or older. Large portions of America’s electric grid are more than 50 years old.

 In addition to wear and tear, factors driving grid revitalization include:

  • The rise of renewable energy and related expansion of bi-directional energy flows
  • Smart meters and the related growth of the Internet of Things
  • The advent of smart cities
  • Changes in distribution models, with less need for bulk transfer
  • The rise of microgrids
  • Preventative steps against cyberattacks

 Dr. George Baker makes a compelling case for addressing EMP now given the ongoing overhaul to the grid. A member of the Congressional EMP Commission who also addressed EMP threats at crucial defense installations during his years at the Department of Defense, Dr. Baker recommends the following.

Identify key locations that could be disabled and prioritize protecting them. Though it keeps the information highly confidential, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission knows where these locations are. Just as major substations in the bulk power system need to be fortified against cyber attacks and potential physical sabotage, so too should EMP preventative measures be implemented.

Name an EMP czar. While many different agencies in the federal government have studied and been concerned with EMP for decades, there is no central office or authority to address EMP matters. An executive should be appointed who will report to the National Security Council about EMP policy and prevention activities so that efforts are coordinated and effective. 

Make changes while the grid is undergoing broad technological improvements. The civilian sector can adopt hardening standards for EMP based on what the U.S. Department of Defense has declassified. Doing this work amid ongoing grid overhaul, Dr. Baker points out, will cost about one-tenth what it otherwise would.

Dr. Baker also encourages looking at the option of microgrids for the most critical services infrastructure, such as water and waste treatment facilities, emergency services and hospitals. The broader growth of microgrids also presents an opportunity to address EMP at the front-end of construction, at far lower costs than would be the case with retro-fitting.

It is also essential to conduct more tests to protect large bulk transformers and generation stations. The U.S. Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory should have the lead on this work, working closely with transformer manufacturers and other universities and research organizations.

Groups like the Edison Electric Institute have also pointed out that stockpiling equipment, including transformers, can address many reliability challenges. This includes those stemming from EMP.

The serious risks from EMP should no longer be ignored. And there is no time like the present to begin addressing them.

Paul Steidler is a Senior Fellow with the Lexington Institute, a public policy think tank based in Arlington, Virginia.


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