Two Large Solar Prominences Erupt On Sun

It’s the stuff of sci-fi movies: a nuclear explosion far overhead or a massive solar flare knocks out electricity for a large chunk, or even all, of the US. But electromagnetic pulses and geomagnetic disturbances, such as large solar flares and storms can, in fact, impact grid functioning. And Maine has become the first state to sign protection against those threats into law.

“On June 11, 2013, the State of Maine passed the first legislation in the nation to protect the electric grid against electromagnetic pulse (EMP) and geomagnetic disturbance (GMD),” writes Maine State Representative Andrea Boland in an online discussion hosted by The law mandates that the Maine Public Utilities Commission examine vulnerabilities in transmission infrastructure, identify potential mitigation measures, and actively monitor Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation efforts to develop GMD- and EMP-related reliability standards.

Maine has gotten the ball rolling for state-level legislation. But questions remain about how to protect the broader grid, including, but not limited to, whether the US needs a consistent national standard. Experts from various fields – military, policy, academia and more – weighed in. You can read the full discussion here.

Should the US Have a National Standard?

Yes, to help avoid a cascading effect resulting from a small-scale outage:

“A regional or national response is required, because if other grids go dark they can cascade to others as we saw in the Ohio-pawned failure on August 14, 1993 that brought down the grid of eight states and parts of Canada.” – Scott Sklar, President, The Stella Group

Yes, but a national standard doesn’t go far enough:

“Maine remains vulnerable to disruptions from Canada even if it has a plan in place. we ought to widen the conversation about how to prepare to include more jurisdictions and not assume that one jurisdiction acting independently can protect residents from adverse consequences.” – Christopher Sands, Senior Fellow, Hudson Institute

Why a National Standard is the Wrong Approach:

Because ‘Congress is Broken’:

“You are dreaming to think anything is going to happen nationally, unless the states get it started.  As David Gergen reiterated at the NCSL [National Conference of State Legislatures] closing luncheon, ‘Congress is broken.  It’s up to the states.'” – Andrea Boland, Maine State Representative

States should seek out the advantage of securing their own grids:

“While in theory it would be desirable to have federal standards to protect the entire bulk power system, it would be imprudent not to encourage states and regional balancing authorities to protect their grids within a regional context.”

“If Maine or other states demand a higher level of grid reliability, without waiting for federal solutions still over the horizon, these states may be at competitive advantage in attracting large data centers and other enterprises that require high levels of grid reliability for backup power systems.” – William Harris, Secretary and Board Member, Foundation for Resilient Societies

Smaller-scale changes can have outsized impacts:

“Somewhere between 40-60% of the economic damage could be avoided by protecting 10% of the more important infrastructure.”

“If every community and local institution would make roughly 20% of their own power and could store and use it locally in the event of a prolonged grid outage, then that community or institution could work through and survive a long-term electric grid collapse not to mention be capable of helping their neighbors.” – Charles Manto, Chief Executive of IAN, LLC, and EMP SIG Chair of InfraGard National

Decentralization can reduce risk:

“Centralization and interconnectedness creates massive singular points of failure throughout the grid network which precipitate cascading outages, as demonstrated by 2003 blackout. Decentralization, by protecting individual states, will greatly reduce the risk posed by EMP and natural disasters. This can be accomplished as the grid is modernized and decentralized. Incorporating smaller power sources (renewable energy sources as well) closer to end-users helps greatly.” – George Baker, Professor Emeritus, James Madison University

Are EMPs and GMPs a Worthwhile Target for Bolstering Defenses?

Other threats to the grid should take priority:

“The biggest disruptive threat we face to our national and local power grids is cyber attack–particularly a Stuxnet-like malware assault via personal computers and thumb drives that can jump the air gap into SCADA.  Below this I would rank large-scale natural disaster such as a New Madrid earthquake, and then would follow EMP/GMD and targeted sabotage/terrorism.

“It is an axiom of military strategy that if one defends everything, one defends nothing.  Spreading finite resources too thin in an attempt to cover all possible threats makes them too weak to be effective.  A sound strategy concentrates protective resources at critical nodes where costs and benefits are disproportionate.  An effective defense also recognizes that some things may have to be sacrificed for overall survival.  Rather than a cost-prohibitive attempt to fortify the entire national power grid against all threats, I would advocate for a strategy of targeted fortification of selected, high-value portions of the grid, and strengthening them against the common symptoms of an attack rather against a specific cause.” – Ike Kiefer, Captain, US Navy (retired)

There’s no way to negotiate with solar storms:

“As a state legislator, my colleagues need to focus on clear and present dangers that are critical to us.  The sun is not anything with which we can negotiate, and in Maine we’re particularly vulnerable to it due to our northerly latitude, geology, and proxmity to ocean waters.  We are also near enough to New York, for instance, to be “collateral damage” from an EMP attack there.” – Andrea Boland, Maine State Representative