EMP Risk Ignored by Transmission Planners

FERC approved financing for major, high-voltage transmission projects in and around Maryland without assessing EMP risk.

EMP stands for “electromagnetic pulse.” An EMP event could be caused by a nuclear weapon or solar flares.

Long transmission lines are especially vulnerable to EMP events which can destroy high-voltage transformers that are difficult to replace which means that entire regions could be left without power for months.  The likelihood of an EMP event is low, but its consequences are very high (societal collapse?) so the risk is worth assessing.

How do we know that FERC ignored EMP risk when it approved financing for PATH, MAPP and TrAIL?  Consider the testimony of Joseph McClelland,  Director of FERC’s Office of Electric Reliability, before the House Subcommittee on Energy and Environment on October 27, 2009:

FERC staff has no data on how well the bulk power system is protected against an EMP event, and the existing reliability standards do not address EMP vulnerabilities. (Page 10.)

If it had the data, what could FERC do about it?

…the Commission currently does not have any specific authority to order owners and operators of the transmission grid, generation facilities and other electric facilities to protect their facilities from EMP-related events, other than the general authority to order NERC to develop a reliability standard addressing EMP. (Page 10.)

Maybe we are ignoring EMP risk because it’s too much of a hassle to figure out?

Protecting the electric generation, transmission and distribution systems from severe damage due to an EMP-related event wouldinvolve vulnerability assessments at every level of electric infrastructure.  In addition… the reliable operation of the electric grid requires other infrastructure systems, such as communications, natural gas pipelines and transportation, which would also be affected by such an attack or event. (Page 10.)

Even while we are ignoring it, the potential impact of EMP risk grows daily.  The chairman of the EMP Commission testified in 2008 before the House Armed Services Committee:

Our vulnerability is increasing daily as our use of and dependence on electronics continues to grow in both our civil and military sectors. (Page 3.)

The EMP Commission surveyed the federal governments efforts and was not reassured:

The Commission’s view is that the Federal Government does not today have sufficient human and physical assets for reliably assessing and managing EMP threats. (Page 6.)

As we have recently entered a new solar cycle, the risk of solar flares will rise.  Mr. McClelland explained:

In 1859, a major solar storm occurred, causing auroral displays and significant shifts of the Earth’s magnetic fields.  As a result, telegraphs were rendered useless and several telegraph stations burned down.  The impacts of that storm were muted because semiconductor technology did not exist at the time. (Page 9.)

NASA is predicting fewer sunspots than usual, however:

“Even a below-average cycle is capable of producing severe space weather,” points out Biesecker. “The great geomagnetic storm of 1859, for instance, occurred during a solar cycle of about the same size we’re predicting for 2013.”

Solar storms half the strength of 1859 are expected every fifty years.

The power grid is particularly vulnerable to solar storms, as transformers are electrically grounded to the Earth and susceptible to damage from geomagnetically induced currents.  The damage or destruction of numerous transformers across the country would result in reduced grid functionality and even prolonged power outages. (Page 10.)

Does it make sense to increase our reliance on high-voltage transmission lines and transformers before we understand EMP risk?

When will we have the answers we need?

To further explore the vulnerability of the electric grid due to EMP-related events as well as potential mitigation of those events, FERC staff, along with the Department of Energy and the Department of Homeland Security, has recently initiated a joint study with Oak Ridge National Laboratory (Oak Ridge) and subcontractor Metatech….Oak Ridge began work on the contract on October 1, 2009 and is expected to complete it by March, 2010. (Page 10.)

Fortunately, PATH appears to be stalled for the time being, even without consideration of EMP risk.  If the backers of PATH were somehow to maneuver the project into FERC’s untested transmission siting procedure, then EMP risk would probably still be ignored.  FERC Order 689, which spells out the information the applicant must provide, does not address this issue.

Would a frank assessment of this risk stand in the way of projects like PATH?  Dealing with EMP risk would probably increase the cost of such projects and raise further questions about whether long-distance, high-voltage lines, on balance, help or hurt reliability.   As Patricia Hoffman pointed out in her testimony:

New transformers can be electromagnetic pulse (EMP)-hardened for a very small fraction of the cost of the non-hardened item, e.g. one percent to three percent of cost, if hardening is done at the time the unit is designed and manufactured.  In contrast, retrofitting existing functional components is potentially an order of magnitude more.

EMP risk is one more factor that would tip the scales in favor of distributed generation and energy efficiency.


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One response to “EMP Risk Ignored by Transmission Planners

  1. Pingback: Power Grid Risks Exposed « Maryland Energy Report

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