Saturday, November 12, 2011

solar flares as 2012 panic

Here is Post an email I sent back in April to technically serious people, about
the fear that solar flares (or more nefarious) things could "end civilization as we know it." The bottom line is that the risk is quite real, and I basically agree with the Republican Congressman who reviews all the big threats... and views this as the biggest in the near term. It is also a threat easily reduced... but through sheer bureaucratic inertia and silliness we really could get ourselves killed this way.

Details follow.


The Energy Infrastructure Security Summit (EISS) held on Monday and Tuesday was
unusually information-rich and informative. I owe you some quick summary.

Congressman Trent Franks (R-Texas), the host began by noting that the committee he serves on gets
briefed on ALL of the scariest threats confronting the US, half in classified briefings.
He regards the impact of EMP on the power grid as the most important and scariest
of all of them, and considers it his top priority. He is not alone. Congresswoman
Yvette Clarke (D-NY) solidly agreed, and acted like co-host of the meeting. They noted that their bill
last year passed the House UNANIMOUSLY (!), and died in the Senate by only one vote, due
to jurisdictional issues rather than substance.

Months ago, I expressed some concern about the numbers I had heard from the National Academy of Sciences 9NAS)
report on this issue -- like $1-2 trillion worth of damage in case we have another "one in a century" event.

Knowing more now than I did then -- I **MOSTLY** understated the challenge and the need and possibility for immediate action,
but I really did overstate one of the key variables, which I need to correct.

One of the obvious questions is: "What is the probability of a solar storm in the 2012-2015 time period so intense
that it would fit what NAS assumes for $1-2 trillion of damage, if we do not harden the grid?"

A few months back, I cited a space weather workshop where opinion was divided by about 50-50. But at this summit,
they presented the raw data and primary analysis. (The head of NOAA spoke, and then introduced Thomas Bogdan,
Director of their Space Weather Prediction Center -- just one of the speakers who gave important data and affirmed the seriousness
of the problem. By the way, Avi Schnurr, the EISS coordinator, said that a complete video record
will be available within about six weeks on their web site.) They discussed the 1859 "Carrington event" and the large 1921
solar storm, as reference points. Just by naked eyeball of the various graphs, and by putting together what they said,
I would now guess something like a 20% probability of an event like 1921 and 10% of an event like Carrington
in the 2012-2015 cycle. And that is certainly very crude. A more serious estimate would be possible... but I don't
think we have one yet. (I heard just one guy with more confidence, but holes in his logic.) In fact, one of the
major action items is some improvement in the solar weather information. I was intrigued by the idea of how NASA's
new STEREO solar observing satellites might be used to get a better fix on some
of these general probabilities -- which is different from providing fast warning to earth; both are desirable.

It was clear at the meeting, as in prior discussions here, that different people are violently attached to different definitions of what
"EMP" actually means. The Congressional EMP Commission basically defined it as any large electromagnetic surge,
natural or man-made, which threatens our society. Others define it only as man-made, as weapons.
Personally, I would like to follow the Commissions usage, because it seems to me that the words "electromagnetic pulse"
are pretty explicit.

A key question is: what does it take to harden the grid to an acceptable degree against all three kinds of EMP threat --
the kinds of surges called "E1" (superfast), "E2" (like lightning) and "E3" (less intense but more prolonged, as with solar storms)?
And there is also an issue that there may be less warning with some threats than with others.

Some speakers on the second day appeared to say that we should harden the grid only against solar storms and lightning
(E2 and E3 with advanced warning), since the grid is part of the civilian economy, and man-made threats are under
the jurisdiction of DOD and DHS, and perhaps not really so serious. But other talks convinced me that the man-made threats
are also a serious concern. Congresswoman Clarke applauded the speaker who compared the power grid to the interstate highway system,
and pointed out how Eisenhower made sure it was efficient for its civilian purpose but also had a few additional low-cost features
of great importance to national security in certain scenarios. A speaker from Advanced Fusion Systems (AFS not a nuclear fusion company!)
noted the principle of Pareto optimality -- how we get much more protection overall if we efficiently combine our concerns. In this
case combining means hardening against E1, E2 AND E3 ... and thinking hard about the warning and operator training issues.

The present default game plan is that NERC will develop new reliability standards which include hardening the grid,
which FERC will certify, with lots of inputs from EPRI, represented at this meeting by John Houston of Centerpoint Energy.
He and Kapperman (of the recent EMP Commission) and AFS were the only speakers, as best I recall, that got into real EE
details, which will be essential to keep this from degenerating into another stakeholder's bait and switch operation (a phenomenon
which has become all to prevalent here in DC, in my personal view, in what I have seen.). (Reminder: nothing I post here
is the official viewpoint of NSF or anyone else.) Two key people -- Congresswoman Clarke and Peter Pry (former CIA
guy and Bartlett staffer, behind a lot of the Congressional interest) -- expressed great concerns about the delays
which still might occur if there is not some additional determination and technical oversight of some kind.

Kapperman may well be behind the estimate that $100-200 million and "existing technology" are enough to harden at least the 200-300
biggest high voltage transformers. (That's maybe about 40% of the problem, but it would make a huge difference in trying to restart
if one of these events occurred.) The "existing technology" is a way of combining familiar circuit elements, described in detail in the
Commission report, for which they gave out copies on DVD. Kapperman said that the key hardware will actually become available off the shelf
in a ready-to-go package from Advanced Fusion Systems (which sounds like a company founded to start implementing the Commission recommendations)
going into manufacturing, available circa December of this year. Houston stressed the need for testing. It sounds as if the most
important really physical action needed now is to begin the tests which would provide enough confidence to start deploying this stuff
(per "retrofit") on the grid as soon as possible. The Congressfolk and Commissioner LaFleur from FERC (the official FERC leader
on this issue and reliability in general) all stressed that they want a useful degree of hardening to begin as soon as possible, without waiting
for "the last data point" or for the perfect solution.

Of course, I do hope that a stream is created to develop the best technology possible for the whole spectrum here,
but it seems clear that we should not allow that to delay what is most urgent here. Parallel tracks of effort are called for.

So that's pretty much the story, at this level. I haven't really studied the thousands of pages of material, and there is certainly
a lot I still have to learn about this stuff -- but at least the pdf is refined and convolved compared with what it was here just
a few months back.

Just for your amusement -- James Woolsey was also one of the important speakers, and there were a number of interesting converstaions in the
hallways with various kinds of intel folks. Circa 20 nations were represented -- most visibly the UK, represented for example
by the MP in charge of THEIR defense select committee. The head of the Swedish grid deplored how few people understand just how
urgent and critical this issue is. There was a talk by the CEO of EnergySec, which works with electric utilities on cybersecurity,
who agreed with most of the speakers that EMP is a bigger threat to the grid than cybersecurity issues, at least if we look ahead a year
or more. Of course, he and many others would support an "all hazards" approach which also includes cybersecurity -- but that's what
the House tried last year, which they had to cut back on because of turf wars.

No comments:

Post a Comment