To date, however, U.S. utility companies have not widely deployed current blocking devices on the live grid. “They’ve only done things, like moving to higher and higher operating voltages” — for cheaper transmission — “that greatly amplify their vulnerability to these storms,” Kappenman tells me.
Tom Berger, former director of the US government’s Space Weather Prediction Center, also expressed doubts about network operators. “When I talk to them, they tell me they understand space weather and they’re ready,” he says. But Berger’s confidence waned after the February 2021 collapse of the Texas power grid, which killed hundreds of people, left millions of homes and businesses without heat and caused an estimated $200 billion in damage. This crisis was brought on by nothing more exotic than a severe cold snap. “We heard the same thing,” Berger says. “’We understand winter; this is not a problem.'”
I contacted 12 of the largest utility companies in the country, asking them for information on the specific measures taken to mitigate the damage caused by a major geomagnetic event. American Electric Power, the nation’s largest transmission grid, was the only company to share concrete steps, which it said include regularly upgrading equipment, redirecting power during a storm and quickly replacing power. equipment after an event. Two other companies, Consolidated Edison and Exelon, claim to have fitted their systems with geomagnetic surveillance sensors and instructed their operators in unspecified “procedures”. Florida Power & Light declined to comment meaningfully, citing security risks. The other eight did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
At this point, curious minds may wonder if utility companies are even required to plan for geomagnetic storms. The answer is complicated, in a uniquely American way. In 2005, when George W. Bush, a former oil executive, occupied the Oval Office, Congress passed the Energy Policy Act, which included a goodie bag for the oil and gas industry. It took away much of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s power to regulate the utility industry. Reliability standards are now developed and enforced by the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, a trade association that represents the interests of these same companies.
Some find NERC reliability standards laughable. (Two interviewees laughed audibly when asked about them.) Kappenman objected to the first set of standards, proposed in 2015, on the grounds that they were too lenient – they only required not that utilities prepare for a storm on par with 1859 or 1921 Berger also disputed, but for a different reason: the standards made no mention of how long the storm would last. The ground effects of the Carrington event lasted four or five consecutive days; a transformer designed to withstand 10 seconds of current is very different from a transformer ready for 120 hours.
Under pressure from the federal government, NERC enacted tougher standards in 2019. In a lengthy written statement, Rachel Sherrard, spokeswoman for the group, pointed out that US utilities now face an event twice as stronger than the 1989 Quebec storm. (Comparison with an older storm like Carrington, she noted, “is difficult because high-fidelity historical measurement data is not available.”) Although the new standards require that utilities fix vulnerabilities in their systems, companies themselves determine the right approach – and the timeline.
If utilities remain unmotivated, humanity’s ability to weather a major geomagnetic storm will largely depend on our ability to replace damaged transformers. A 2020 survey by the US Department of Commerce found that the country imports more than 80% of its large transformers and their components. Under normal conditions of supply and demand, completion times for these structures can reach two years. “People outside of the industry don’t understand how hard these things are to make,” Kappenman says. Insiders know that you should only buy a transformer if the factory that made it is at least 10 years old. “It takes that long to resolve issues,” he says. In times of solar crisis, foreign governments — even geopolitical allies — can limit exports of vital electrical equipment, Kappenman notes. Some spare parts programs have sprung up over the past decade that allow participants to pool their resources in various disaster scenarios. The size and location of these spares, however, are unknown to federal authorities, as industry will not tell them.
One day, regulators may be able to map the power grid, even protect it from storms (provided a big grid doesn’t wipe it out first). Engineers can launch a network of satellites that gives us days to batten down the hatches. Governments can find a way to set up backup transformers in a snap. And there will be the sun – the inconceivable, inextinguishable furnace at the center of our solar system which destroys as indiscriminately as it creates. Life on this little speck depends entirely on the mercy of a cosmic nuclear power with an itchy finger. No human triumph will ever change that. (But we should buy the capacitors anyway. Soon, please.)
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