Utilities should take lead before solar, EMP event takes out grid

The U.S. utility industry needs to step up and address the vulnerability of the transmission system, said John Houston, chairman of the EPRI Power, Delivery and Utilization Council, and vice president of transmission and substation operations for CenterPoint Energy (NYSE:CNP).

Houston, speaking at EEI’s Transmission, Distribution & Metering conference in Dallas Oct. 10, outlined the threat of geomagnetic disturbances caused by either natural or man-made events, namely a solar coronal mass ejection or a electromagnetic pulse (EMP) weapon.

The transmission portion of EEI’s conference hosted two separate presentations, including Houston’s, on the dangers of geomagnetic induced currents (GICs) to the transmission grid, perhaps indicating a growing awareness of the potential problem.

Rather than legislate a response to the dangers posed by such events, Houston said, the utility industry should take a proactive lead.

The Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) and the Community Coordinated Modeling Center (CCMC) at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) are key players in studying the effects of space weather effects on the grid, said Antti Pulkkinen, a scientist for the CCMC, during a separate presentation.

The North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) last year created a geomagnetic disturbance task force, and there is legislation proposed by Congress, namely the SHIELD Act (H.R. 668), which would give FERC authority to set requirements for EMP and GIC, Houston noted.  

“This is not the time for writing standards and going through a NERC process to create the compulsion for us to do something,” Houston said. “This is time for our industry to step up and understand the problem and propose solutions without having the hammer of NERC or FERC on top of us.”

The utility industry, after all, is best equipped to come up with solutions for civilian infrastructure, he said. He estimated that for solar effects on the system, it could take between $1bn and $5bn to implement infrastructure-hardening solutions, far less than it would take in a reactive scenario.

“We have a technical problem that affects our infrastructure that’s either promulgated by the sun or by bad actors who intend us no good,” he said. If a terrorist really wants to bring a country to its knees, he said, attacking its infrastructure is the way to go. 

For its own part, CenterPoint is building a new control center that will be EMP-hardened because the current control center “has some vulnerabilities,” Houston said.

“A coronal mass injection would possibly render our electric grid wiped out, and damage our transformers,” Houston said. Studies suggest the U.S. grid would lose 350-500 EHV transformers, which would leave the system “significantly degraded,” even if local grids were able to be operational, he said.

It could take 10 years to replace 300 transformers, he estimated.

“There is an opportunity for us to determine either transformers are not at risk, or that a portion of them are, and whether we should provide blocking technology to prevent damage, because that is technically feasible,” he said.

Studies of a potential event are underway, but as they are in research and development mode, the effects have not been thoroughly quantified, Pulkkinen said.

“GIC are a major concern and the potential for a catastrophic impact is being investigated,” Pulkkinen said.

There have been a few significant solar events in recent human history, but the most notable is the Carrington Event of 1859, which disabled the telegraph system, in some instances killing telegraph operators, Houston said. In 1989, a solar storm took out the entire Hydro-Quebec power grid.

Asked what a worst-case scenario today would be, Pulkinnen said, “I’m afraid not there’s not enough data to tell what that would do.”

The Edison Electric Institute has a program that was formulated to deal with a focused terrorist attack on U.S. infrastructure, and there are agreements with 61 utilities across the United States to share transformers to enable utilities to act and recover, Houston noted. “That is a great start for what we need to do,” he said.

He asked that EEI implement a step program to deal with transformers, to demonstrate to NERC, FERC and Congresss that the industry understands the concerns and will step up to solve the problem.

He added that the focus for the industry should be on giving special attention to the vulnerability of civilian infrastructure as a matter of emergency preparedness.

During the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Power hearing on FERC Order 1000 Oct. 13, Department of Energy Senior Advisor on Transmission Lauren Azar said the transmission system has points of vulnerability, and pointed to the recent San Diego blackout in Calfornia, which is under investigation. The blackout was potentially the result of one person’s mistake, she acknowledged.

“He was not intending harm,” she noted.  

About Rosy Lum 525 Articles
Rosy Lum, Analyst for TransmissionHub, has been covering the U.S. energy industry since 2007. She began her career in energy journalism at SNL Financial, for which she established a New York news desk. She covered topics ranging from energy finance and renewable policies and incentives, to master limited partnerships and ETFs. Thereafter, she honed her energy and utility focus at the Financial Times' dealReporter, where she covered and broke oil and gas and utility mergers and acquisitions.