To date, however, U.S. utilities have not widely deployed current-blocking devices into live grids. “They’re just doing things like moving to higher and higher operating voltages” — for cheaper transmission — “which greatly amplifies their vulnerability to these storms,” Kapenman told me.
Tom Berger, former director of the U.S. government’s Space Weather Forecasting Center, also expressed doubts about grid operators. “When I talked to them, they told me they knew about space weather and they were ready,” he said. But Berger’s confidence began to wane after the February 2021 collapse of the Texas power grid killed hundreds, left millions of homes and businesses without heat and cost about $200 billion. The crisis was triggered by a major cold snap. “We heard the same thing,” Berger said. “‘We understand winter; no problem.'”
I contacted 12 of the country’s largest utilities to request information on specific measures taken to mitigate damage from major geomagnetic events. U.S. Electric Power, the nation’s largest transmission network, was the only company to share specific measures it said included regular hardware upgrades, redirecting current flow during storms and quickly replacing equipment after an event. Two other companies, Consolidated Edison and Exelon, claim to have equipped their systems with geomagnetic monitoring sensors and instructed their operators in unspecified “programs.” Florida Power & Light declined to comment meaningfully, citing security risks. Eight others did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
At this point, the curious may wonder if utilities even need to plan for geomagnetic storms. The answer is complex, in a uniquely American way. When former oil executive George W. Bush occupied the Oval Office in 2005, Congress passed the Energy Policy Act, which included a bag of giveaways to the oil and gas industry. It removes much of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s authority to regulate the utility industry. Reliability standards are now developed and enforced by the North American Electric Reliability Corporation – an industry association representing the interests of these companies.
Some people think NERC’s reliability standards are ridiculous. (Both respondents laughed when asked about them.) Cappenman objected to the first set of standards proposed in 2015, arguing that they were too lax—they didn’t require utilities to match 1859 or 1921 Prepare for storms on a par. Berger also raises the question, but for a different reason: The standard doesn’t mention storm duration. The ground effect of the Carrington event continued for four or five days; a transformer that can withstand 10 seconds of current is very different from one that can withstand 120 hours of current.
Under pressure from the federal government, NERC instituted stricter standards in 2019. In a lengthy written statement, Rachel Sherrard, a spokeswoman for the group, stressed that U.S. utilities are now expected to respond to an event twice as strong as the 1989 Quebec storm. (Compared to older storms like Carrington, she notes, “challenging because high-fidelity historical measurements are not available.”) While the new standard requires utilities to fix holes in their systems, the companies themselves determine The right way – and the timeline.
Humanity’s ability to withstand major geomagnetic storms will largely depend on our ability to replace damaged transformers if utilities remain unpowered. A 2020 survey by the U.S. Department of Commerce found that more than 80 percent of the country’s large transformers and their components are imported. Under normal supply and demand conditions, lead times for these structures can reach two years. “People outside the industry don’t understand how difficult it is to make these things,” Kappenman said. People in the industry know not to buy a transformer unless the factory that makes it is at least 10 years old. “It will take a long time to solve these problems,” he said. Kappenman noted that in times of solar crisis, foreign governments — even geopolitical allies — may restrict exports of vital electrical equipment. A number of spare parts programs have emerged over the past decade, allowing participants to pool resources in various disaster scenarios. However, federal authorities don’t know the size and location of these spare parts — because the industry won’t tell them.
One day, regulators may try to map the grid, and even make it weatherproof (provided the big grid doesn’t wipe it out first). Engineers may launch an array of satellites, giving us a few days to close the hatch. The government may find ways to build emergency transformers in a pinch. The sun will be there—the incredible, immortal crucible at the center of our solar system, which will destroy it indiscriminately. Life on this little particle depends entirely on the mercy of cosmic nuclear energy with itchy trigger fingers. No human victory will change that. (But we should still buy capacitors. Please ASAP.)
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