Climate change is an “existential” crisis facing the world — at least according to news headlines. But there’s another looming crisis of the existential variety, that few reporters ever cover.
This is unfortunate. If you are a news reporter, or a communicator about public policy in almost any capacity, you should should be giving this issue regular attention.
Before I get to the substance of it, let’s do a quick guessing game. Here are some potential civilization-ending catastrophes. Which existential crisis do you think I’m referring to?
- Nuclear war started by North Korea, Iran, another country, or even terrorists.
- Diseases such as Ebola, MRSA, Zika, etc., or even lab-created pathogens.
- Species extinctions, and death of the oceans from plastic pollution.
- Financial industry collapse leading to worldwide depression.
- An asteroid collision with earth that blasts us back to the stone age.
- Malware that invades all our computers and paralyzes our economy.
- A giant volcano that blots out the sun for months or years and causes mass starvation.
- None of the above; it is something else.
OK, got an answer?
The crisis I have in mind is the last one on the list, something else. Pay attention now. If you haven’t guessed it, you need some education about this.
The most underrated potential civilization-disrupting crisis is an eruption of extra energy from the sun’s surface, known to scientists as a geo-magnetic disturbance, or solar storm.2 One is likely to happen soon. It may turn off our lights for a year or more. If so, there will be chaos, anarchy, and yes, famine. It could be localized to one continent or region, or could be world-wide. 3
We could protect ourselves, but we don’t. We aren’t prepared, and virtually nobody is doing anything about it. It’s a scandal. This is a major failure of our institutions: government, big corporations, the press. If you have a role in any of those institutions, this is your wake-up call.
The last big solar storm ocurred in 1859. Scientists call it the Carrington event. The aurora borealis became visible throughout North America and all the way south to Panama.
While electricity was not widely used at that time, the storm reportedly induced sparks along telegraph wires — shocking operators and rendering the telegraph network inoperable on those two days in North America, Europe, and even parts of Australia and Asia. 4
Here’s the trouble: a similar storm today would burn out the big transformers at the heart of our electric grid. These are each custom machines, and it takes a year or so of planning and manufacturing to deliver a replacement. USA has about 2,400 of these big daddy-o’s.5 We should have backups for every unit, but we mostly don’t. In USA we don’t even have enough suppliers to build the few we install each year; the majority are imported. And worldwide production capacity is less than 100 units a year.6 So if these burn all at once in the next solar storm, say goodbye to electricity for a good long time. What would be left by the end of that, God only knows. The poorest subsistence farmers in the poorest countries might end up better off than all the rest of us — they know how to survive without electricity!
We had a tiny preview in 1989 when a baby solar storm hit eastern Canada.
[It] collapsed the Hydro-Quebec power grid in less than two minutes. … resulting in the loss of electric power to more than six million people for nine hours…. Two transformers were damaged due to voltage overloads. The storm also caused permanent damage to a generator step-up transformer at a nuclear station in New Jersey… necessitating its removal from service.7
That storm was just a teaser. Scientists think a big one hits every 150 years or so.8 Let’s see, 1859 was how long ago?
Hydro-Quebec learned a lesson at least. They spent $1 billion or so procuring reserve parts for their next solar storm, and strengthening their grid.9 In USA and maybe most of the world, we are in the midst of doing apparently little or nothing about this danger.
Reporters should be asking our government and corporate leaders how they are preparing for this. And forming committees to study the issue is not a good answer. Our scientists know enough now to give us the needed advice: Get ready.
I searched the websites of major American electric industry trade organizations to see what they are doing about the problem. Here is what I found. These organizations have nothing to say about what their members are doing to prepare:10
- Edison Electric Institute (eei.org) – association representing U.S. investor-owned electric companies.
- American Public Power Association (publicpower.org) – represents public (government-owned) power utilities.
- National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (electric.coop) – represents nearly 900 electric cooperatives.
- The Electric Power Supply Association (epsa.org) – represents U.S. competitive (wholesale) power suppliers.
These two industry organizations at least acknowledge the problem:
- North American Electric Reliability Corporation (nerc.com).
- Electric Power Research Institute (epri.com).
But at both, real action seems stymied. The most I found happening is research projects. 11
A consortium of U.S. utilities called Grid Assurance was set up in 2018 for purposes of pooling and sharing transformer backup equipment.12 That would be helpful in the case of isolated or regional failures, but insufficient in the case of a continent-wide disruption.
So what should we do in a concrete sense? In USA, the president could invoke the Defense Production Act, and compel manufacturers of related electrical equipment to redirect their capabilities to making the needed transformer backups. Or perhaps somebody has another solution on the drawing board, ready to go.
Every other country faces a similar potential crisis, of course. As an American, I don’t know how to advise them in relation to the inner workings of their industries and governments. Perhaps if we in USA exhibit some leadership on this issue, others around the world will notice and follow suit.
A recent research study evaluated the market for big transformers in USA. Its conclusion:
“The U.S. is not prepared in the event of a major Solar Storm… to quickly restore the electric grid, due to its inability to replace High and Extra High Voltage transformers. These transformers are the most critical component of the U.S. electrical infrastructure…. in the event of a major Solar Storm… the U.S. will not be able to restore its electric grid for months to years, and only at an enormous cost. 13
This needs much more attention on social media, in the traditional press, and on the part of worried citizens speaking up. We need to get moving.
- Photo credit: “Solar Storm over Twin Lakes” by Keith Williams (kdee64). Used under license CC BY-NC 2.0.
- For a primer: “What Damage Could Be Caused by a Massive Solar Storm?” Joseph Stromberg, Smithsonian Magazine, 22 Feb. 2013.
- p.4, Solar Storm Risk To the North American Electric Grid. Report by Lloyd’s and Atmospheric and Environmental Research, Inc., 2013. This report is concerned primarily with insurance industry losses due to business-interruption insurance claims, so it probably underplays risks to the wider society.
- Lloyds, p. 6-7
- 345kV and above. Amadee David Bender, High And Extra High Voltage Transformers–the Most Critical U.S. Electrical Infrastructure Component–Risk And Impact Of Solar Storms & EMP Attacks–U.S. Market, Installed Base And Suppliers: 2015-2020 Analysis And Forecasts.
- “Geo-Magnetic Disturbances (GMD): Monitoring, Mitigation, and Next Steps. A Literature Review and Summary of the April 2011 NERC GMD Workshop.” Draft Report Oct. 2011, North American Electric Reliability Corporation. p.60.
- Lloyd’s op. cit. p. 7.
- “On the probability of occurrence of extreme space weather events“, Pete Riley, Space Weather, American Geophysical Union, v.10, 2012.
- “Geo-Magnetic Disturbances… op. cit., p.5.”
- Likewise I suggest you try searching the website of your favorite local electric utility for the phrases “solar storm” or “geo-magnetic disturbance” (with or without the dash).
- “Geo-Magnetic Disturbances…” op. cit., p.16;
“EPRI Collaborative Research Aims to Protect Society from a Worst-Case Scenario Solar Storm“, EPRI Journal, May/June 2018 No. 3 | 38
- Bender op. cit.