Potential threats to grid are aired at hearing
A “ferocious” coronal mass ejection that narrowly missed Earth in July 2012 would have caused massive power blackouts, disabled everything that uses electricity, knocked out municipal water supplies, and cost trillions of dollars, according to Daniel Baker, a professor of planetary and space physics at the University of Colorado, Boulder. The billion-ton cloud of magnetized plasma streaming from that solar eruption passed through Earth’s orbit in about 15 hours—among the fastest-moving solar blasts ever recorded.
A solar storm as epic as the one in 1859 known as the Carrington Event, which caused telegraph lines to spark and created auroral displays as close the equator as Cuba, would today wreak at least $2 trillion in damage—20 times greater than Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Baker said. The 2012 solar storm was two to three times as massive as the 1859 event, he said, and had it occurred one week earlier, the world “would still be picking up the pieces.”
The occurrence of another such “superstorm” is not a question of if, but when, he warned.
Baker was one of several witnesses who admonished members of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee on 10 September about the range of natural and manmade threats to the US electricity grid. Manmade concerns include an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) from a nuclear weapon detonated high in the atmosphere, and terrorist sabotage—whether by cyberattack, through intentional magnetic interference, or with guns or other weapons. The latter threat was brought home in 2013, when unknown attackers carried out an assault on a substation in Metcalf, California, firing more than 100 rounds at transformers and causing $15 million in damage.
Much of the concern over the grid’s physical vulnerability centers on a relatively small number of high-voltage transformers, which weigh hundreds of tons and are typically made to order with lead times of more than one year. A recent Congressional Research Service report noted that high-voltage units constitute less than 3% of all US transformers, but carry 60–70% of the nation’s electricity.