People paid to worry about the North American power grid regard geomagnetic storms as “high impact, low-frequency” events, spawning the inevitable acronym: HILF. Low frequency, in that a geomagnetic storm as intense as May 1921, at 5,000 nano-Teslas/minute, or the 1859 Carrington Event, best guess: 7,500 nano-Teslas/minute, might not happen in our lifetimes, the lifetimes of our children, or even our grand children. If signature traces in Arctic ice core samples are correct, these are ‘500 year events.’ When it comes to deciding where to put that preventative maintenance dollar, storm-proofing Oklahoma elementary schools against EF 5 tornadoes seems a far more practical spend than the hardening of electrical grids against a half-theoretical event that might not even happen in 500 years.
What pulls planners up short is the high impact part: the utter god-awfulness of a power grid that crashes and which then can’t boot itself up. There is a self-referential dependency: fixing a dysfunctional power grid requires it to be functional, as key aspects of the manufacturing of transformers need electricity.
Nor can one expect the cavalry to ride in anytime soon, as the vast geographic reach of geomagnetic storms means that one strong enough to take down the North American grid may very likely take down Eurasian grids as well – entire hemispheres could wind up in the toilet, and we only have two hemispheres. That and the statistical variableness to it all: the Carrington 1859 and May 1921 storms, nominally two ‘500 year events’ were, in fact, separated by only sixty-two years.
Where does the buck stop?
People paid to worry about the North American power-grid generally have a relationship with The North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) based in Atlanta, GA.
It’s predecessor organization formed in 1968 in response to the 1965 Northeast US blackout. A consortium of power generating and distribution companies, NERC initially had no governmental or regulatory authority; it researched and promoted best practices for bulk electrical generation and distribution and member organizations funded its operations through dues. Compliance with NERC policies and best practices were voluntary.
That role changed in 2006, in the aftermath of the worse-on-record August 14, 2003 blackout. With the passage of the Energy Policy Act of 2005, NERC was re-established as a non-governmental, self-regulatory organization by the U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), a part of the Department of Energy, which granted NERC the legal authority to enforce reliability standards with all U.S. users, owners, and operators of the bulk power system, and made compliance with those standards mandatory and enforceable. With this, non-compliance could incur fines up to a million dollars per day for each identified infraction. Outside this core of enforceable standards, NERC continues to issue voluntary best practices, some of which, over time, become enforceable standards. Insofar as the North American power grid, then, the buck stops with NERC.
In June 2010, NERC published its summary report, High Impact, Low Frequency Risk To The North American Bulk Power System. In this report, NERC classed geomagnetic storms with three other HILF events:
- Pandemic Illness – a super 1918 Influenza pandemic of such severity that there will be too few well people to adequately check the electric power grid, which could destabilize and fatally crash.
- Coordinated Cyber Attack – Since power grid command and control is largely computer based, its computers can be bought down either deliberately, or as an unintended consequence of intrusion.
- High Altitude Electromagnetic Pulse – The scenario most often quoted entails a hostile exploding a nuclear weapon high in the atmosphere not for its destructiveness, but for its sharp, high intensity electromagnetic pulse that would fry all kinds of unshielded electronics, disabling an otherwise unscathed infrastructure.
With this report, NERC established a particular leitmotif about HILF events: they are all, more-or-less, particular outward manifestations of general core deficiencies. Identifying and solving these core deficiencies, therefore, gets a bigger bang for bucks spent. Dollars always are and always will be in limited supply, NERC reasons, so, when possible identify and fix the core deficiencies and the outward manifestations will, to a great degree, solve themselves.
With this and a follow-on report published in June, 2011, NERC more-or-less allied itself with the first of two schools of thought:
- The ‘Incremental’ School: “Yes Virginia, There Are Problems, but Nothing that Can’t be Incrementally Fixed. All Fixes Add Up, And – Furthermore – Most Fixes Address Multiple HILFs” Insofar as the electric grid goes, this school holds that it is what it is, and no one in this school contemplates fundamental changes in how electrical grids might be reconstructed. Rather, they see solutions in a series of carefully vetted refinements. As an industry consortium of power generating and distribution companies, it is not hard to see why NERC finds comfort in this particular school of thought.
- But there also is a “Fundamentally Flawed” School: “No Virgina, All Electric Circuits with Capacitive and Inductive Elements Can Go Chaotic. Could be That You Can (Try To) Reduce Risk Through Various Refinements – Though You Can Never Be Sure If You’ve Actually Done So. No Amount Of Money Can Ever Eliminate Grid Instability.” Insofar as the electric grid goes, it is inherently unstable and basic physics says that it will always be so. This gadfly school tends to people employed in areas outside the power generation and distribution communities; often they are academics in the engineering and scientific disciplines.
The back-and-forth between these schools can get heated. NERC tends to find academics too – well, academic – for practical, boots-on-the-ground problem-solving. Furthermore, NERC finds the Dooms Day verbiage of the academic ‘chattering classes’ counterproductive, supplanting calm analysis with unnecessary hysteria.
On the other hand, those in the “Fundamentally Flawed” school worry about power-industry hubris. Their research indicates that electrical grids are inherently unstable, and while it is manifestly self-evident that the power industry, through a century of working experience, has located and exploited certain “islands of stability,” it is in the nature of geomagnetic storms to disrupt grids at very fundamental levels, pushing distribution networks off such islands and into reefs of chaos, and so long as electrical generating and distribution systems harness wire, coils and capacitors, this will always be so. This point of view finds its genesis in the 1982 work of Nancy Koppel and Robert Washburn, who found chaotic instability in bench-top ‘power-grids’ with as few as three generators. These were grids stripped down to the bare essentials, and – at this seemingly uncomplicated level – were chaotically unstable.
Fortunately, while sometimes acrimonious, this is not a polarized debate. No one is serving out “My way or the highway” ultimatums. Players in one school contribute to the works of the other school, and participants, it seems, can disagree without being disagreeable. At present, NERC, a conservative industry consortium that proceeds with deliberate caution, sits at the desk with the “Buck stops here.” placard, and shares the room with a somewhat more restive bunch that cannot, comfortably, turn its back on fundamental physics.
The two schools have a common ground – Neither owns the purse strings. That belongs to a more peripheral community called Congress, which, in this season of sequestered budgeting, may or may not be worrying about geomagnetic storms.
More on money in the next post.