Dodging the Physical Solar Assault

Washington, D.C., March 23, 2014 – Legendary 20th Century baseball executive Branch Rickey famously said, “Luck is the residue of design.” It’s a wise observation.

But sometimes luck is just that. Science Daily reports this month that on July 23, 2102, an enormous solar storm – resulting from two nearly simultaneous explosions on the sun, called “coronal mass ejections” – headed toward the earth. “Luckily,” said the account, “Earth was on the other side of the sun at the time. Had the outburst hit Earth, however, it would have rivaled the largest magnetic storm to strike Earth in recorded history, possibly wreaking havoc with the electrical grid, satellites and GPS.”

According to researchers from the University of California at Berkeley and in China, had the radiation from the massive solar explosions come nine days earlier, the results could have been an event greater than the 1859 Carrington event, the largest solar assault on the Earth known to date (any earlier would have been largely irrelevant given the state of technology at the time). That 19th Century event caused little damage, bringing down telegraph networks and disrupting some communications as a result.

That was then. This is now: an intensely-interconnected, intimately electricity-tied worldwide economy. A paper in the March 18 issue of the science journal Nature Communications described the July 2012 event, detected by NASA’s STEREO satellite. “Had it hit Earth, it probably would have been like the big one in 1859, but the effect today, with our modern technologies, would have been tremendous,” said co-author Janet Luhmann at Berkeley.

Imagine: Massive shutdowns on the Northern Hemisphere grid, grounded transformers utterly destroyed; telecommunications gone silent; pumping of water, gasoline, and natural gas halted over wide areas; refrigeration failing, destroying major food supplies. It’s a terrifying picture.

POWER has written about this prospect in award-winning articles, dating back to early 2011. Since then, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has ordered the North American Electric Reliability Corp. and the nation’s electric utilities to come up with plans to protect the nation’s grid against geomagnetic storms.

In the meantime, other grid threats, including cyber-attacks and physical assaults, have garnered headlines and FERC attention recently. The solar storm threat has not vanished from the industry’s radar, but other images now appear to be brighter.

Prioritizing threats to the grid is a tough intellectual game. Physical and cyber threats are easier to grasp. On the other hand, the threat of a natural disaster – a massive solar storm – could be more devastating and pose more difficult recovery prospects, perhaps months in duration. The price tag could be in the trillions of dollars.

I’m not advocating any particular policy here. I would not presume to tell FERC or NERC or the industry in general where to focus their efforts and their resources. Cyber, physical, and natural attacks on the electric grid are all “black swan” events: low probability and high consequences. Physical and cyber- attacks are more probable. Solar storms likely have much higher consequences. Not an easy equation.

I do want to make the observation that luck happens – good and bad. To riff off Branch Rickey’s aphorism: Good luck may be the residue of design and bad luck the residue of neglect.