Quite a few years ago I wrote a piece arguing that the single most likely scenario for most of us having to deal with long term electrical shortages doesn’t involve gridcrash scenarios, but the growth of poverty and utility shut offs. I suggested that people should be prepared to deal with electrical outages in large part simply because of the economic consequences of our situation. It isn’t that I didn’t believe anything could shut down the electric grid, I simply felt that realistically, the probabilities of more than short-term outages in the near term were pretty small.
In news that falls more in the astrophysicist’s department than my own (hat tip to him for pointing this out to me), however, it turns out that at least one expert in Space Weather places the probability of a Carrington-style solar storm that could knock out transformers on a large scale at much, much higher than I’d ever considered – a one in eight chance by 2020. Ok, I was wrong – maybe you should be worried about gridcrash.
Given that NASA and other previous analysts have suggested that such an event could knock out electricity in regions for four to ten YEARS, that’s a number to think about. I keep fire and health and flood insurance against probabilities that are not that likely, and I bet many of you do too.
What’s new about the current data, btw, isn’t that this is a possibility – people have known about this for years and there have been a number of major reports. What’s different is the new estimation of probabilities, which, if correct, is extraordinarily high.
The possible impact of a major solar storm of this type range from knocked out satellite service and really cool auroras to losing power for extended periods, and as the 2008 NRC report on the subject said:
“A longer-term outage would likely include, for example, disruption of the transportation, communication, banking, and finance systems, and government services; the breakdown of the distribution of potable water owing to pump failure; and the loss of perishable foods and medications because of lack of refrigeration,” the NRC report said.
Now that’s the worst case scenario and it is worth noting that the Space Weather research article does NOT claim a 1 in 8 chance of this happening. Still, I think it goes on the list of things that people should think about. The good thing about general preparedness is that it makes you ready for anything – but too many of us individually, as communities and as a nation remain unprepared for a lot of stuff.
That’s being facilitated by at least one Electrical Industry Regulatory group, which is back on the typical response of anyone who might have to spend some money to prepare for a plausible danger – deny, deny, deny:
The North American Electric Reliability Corporation, or NERC, which is supposed to help the federal government regulate the electric power industry, has issued a report that minimizes the impact of even an intense solar storm which emits an electromagnetic pulse, or EMP.
My favorite strategy of denial (over the objections of many, including NASA, NAS, the US Department of Energy and more…) is this one:
Over the objections from GMDTF participants, the NERC report deferred to the opinion of industry transformer designers to assess the vulnerability of transformers to geomagnetic storms. The assessment did not include the opinion of electromagnetic pulse experts.
Why, after years of following peak energy does this sound so very familiar?
To my mind, all of this is just one more reason why we need to be very careful about how dependent we are on vulnerable fossil fueled infrastructure, and why the precautionary principle needs to be part of our thinking. But then, we knew this already.