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EMPs and the threat to energy services

October 10, 2012

By Drs. Robert & Sonia Vogl
President and Vice President, Illinois Renewable Energy Association

In 1982, the book Brittle Power, written by Amory and Hunter Lovins, alerted the public to the many ways our existing energy system was highly vulnerable to both natural and political disasters. The size and complexity of our system was seen as the major source of its vulnerability. Our vulnerability increased dramatically since 1982 because of the growth in energy consumption and as technological progress has increased our dependence on a stable electrical supply.

The Lovinses described the existing energy system as reliable, but not resilient. Conventional systems are built to withstand predictable and calculable technical failures, as we cannot envision all possible failures. Some possible failures are ignored because of economic considerations.

One potential vulnerability is that of a 1.5-megaton nuclear bomb being exploded over Kansas City, which would release an EMP (electromagnetic pulse) of sufficient size to wipe out the electrical service to most of the United States. An atomic bomb of that size was exploded about 250 miles above the mid-Pacific Ocean in an atmospheric nuclear weapons test. It knocked out streetlights, phones and other electrical services in parts of Hawaii 800 miles away.

Electromagnetic pulses can also come from solar flares, which cause similar damage to the grid. In March 1989, a geomagnetic storm knocked out the Hydro-Quebec electric grid, depriving millions of customers of electrical service for nine hours.

Other geomagnetic storms have knocked out electrical service in other parts of the world. The largest of these events are only one-sixth the size of the largest known Carrington event of 1859. It disrupted telegraph service on four continents, knocking operators unconscious, igniting fires and disorienting ships dependent on compasses.

The weak point in the electric power grid is the transformers. They serve to step down or transform the 750 kilovolts of AC power shipped through the major power lines to 120- and 240-volt levels used in our businesses and homes. The sudden injection of direct current into transformers can melt their copper wiring and fuse them into a solid mass. The largest and most vulnerable transformers take time to manufacture and replace, and could leave us without electrical service for at least a year or more.

Grid service could be maintained if the transformers within it were protected by surge suppressors at a minimal cost of $1 billion. Such an investment has yet to be made partly because of the uncertainty of when an electromagnetic pulse of sufficient size would disrupt grid service for an extended period of time.

The Lovinses in 1982 were calling for decentralized and localized sources of renewable energy as a means to reduce our energy vulnerabilities and increase the resilience of our energy services. If someone has invested in a renewable energy system and remains grid connected to be able to sell power to the grid and use the grid as a back-up to their renewable system, their system could be damaged if a major-sized solar flare caused widespread damage to the grid.

A personal or small-scale solution to our energy vulnerability is to go off grid. Encasing an inverter in a metal box would deflect potentially harmful solar CFs and ensure the continued operation of the solar electrical system.

Drs. Robert and Sonia Vogl are founders and officers of the Illinois Renewable Energy Association (IREA) and coordinate the annual Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair. E-mail sonia@essex1.com.

From the Oct. 10-16, 2012, issue

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