Augmented Reality: An electromagnetic pulse can take down North America's electricity grid.
This article appeared in the The World If section of the July 13, 2017 Economist print edition under the headline "A flash in the sky"
ON MARCH 13th 1989 a surge of energy from the sun, from a “coronal mass
ejection”, had a startling impact on Canada. Within 92 seconds, the
resulting geomagnetic storm took down Quebec’s electricity grid for nine
hours. It could have been worse. On July 23rd 2012 particles from a
much larger solar ejection blew across the orbital path of Earth,
missing it by days. Had it hit America, the resulting geomagnetic storm
would have destroyed perhaps a quarter of high-voltage transformers,
according to Storm Analysis Consultants in Duluth, Minnesota. Future
geomagnetic storms are inevitable.
And that is not the only threat to the grid. A transformer-wrecking
electromagnetic pulse (EMP) would be produced by a nuclear bomb,
designed to maximise its yield of gamma rays, if detonated high up, be
it tethered to a big cluster of weather balloons or carried on a
satellite or missile. A midrange missile tested by North Korea on April
29th 2017 exploded 71 kilometres (44 miles) up, well above the 40km or
so needed to generate an EMP.
Imagine a nuclear blast occurring somewhere above eastern Nebraska.
Radiating outwards, the EMP fries electronics in southern Canada and
almost all of the United States save Alaska and Hawaii, both safe below
the horizon. It permanently damages the grid’s multimillion-dollar
high-voltage transformers. Many are old (their average age is about 40).
Some burst into flame, further damaging substations.
America runs on roughly 2,500 large transformers, most with unique
designs. But only 500 or so can be built per year around the world. It
typically takes a year or more to receive an ordered transformer, and
that is when cranes work and lorries and locomotives can be fuelled up.
Some transformers exceed 400 tonnes.
After the surge, telecom
switches and internet routers are dead. Air-traffic control is down.
Within a day, some shoppers in supermarkets turn to looting (many,
unable to use credit and debit cards, cannot pay even if they wanted
to). After two days, market shelves are bare. On the third day, backup
diesel generators begin to sputter out. Though fuel cannot be pumped,
siphoning from vehicles, authorised by martial law, keeps most prisons,
police stations and hospitals running for another week.
With many troops overseas or tasked with deterring land grabs from
opportunist foreign powers, there is only one American “peacekeeper”
soldier for every 360 or so civilians. Pillaging accelerates. This leads
many with needed skills to stay home to protect their families. Many of
the rock climbers who help overwhelmed fire departments free tens of
thousands from lifts begin to give up on day four despite the
heart-wrenching banging that continues to echo through some elevator
Utilities can neither treat nor pump water or sewage.
Raids on homes thought to have water become frequent and often bloody.
Militias soon form to defend or seize control of swimming pools and
other water sources. Streams and shovelled-out pits provide water in
some areas, but sooner or later rain sweeps in faeces-ridden mud. Deaths
from cholera and other diseases multiply.
As relief ships arrive, food, water filters and fuel are offloaded by
hand amid chaos, but demand cannot be met even in port cities, much
less inland. Where food can be grown without pumped irrigation, rural
militias cluster into “aggie alliances” not keen to share with the
hordes streaming out of cities. Some aggie alliances hole up in newly
abandoned prisons, the better to defend scavenged crops and farm
animals. The value of cash collapses along with faith in government.
death rate picks up. Eventually, months later, about three quarters of
the benighted area has power for at least ten hours a day. It would have
been worse had 41 countries not dismantled transformers for reassembly
in North America. (The most generous donors have to accept rolling
blackouts.) Martial law ends six months after the original energy surge.
Roughly 350,000 Canadians and 7m Americans have died.
A similar nightmare could happen in any rich country—grids outside
America are vulnerable too. Such scenarios necessarily dip into
“uncharted territory for an industrialised society”, as Thomas Popik,
head of the Foundation for Resilient Societies, a think-tank in New
Hampshire, puts it. But shorter blackouts suggest that things can get
bad fast. Just three hours after Chile’s grid-collapsing earthquake on
February 27th 2010, even relatively wealthy people began looting stuff
they did not need. With electricity gone, normal rules had suddenly
vanished and “out of control” emotions took over, says Roberto
Machiavello, then rear-admiral and top martial-law official in Chile’s
Without soldiers at hospitals, Admiral Machiavello says, doctors would
have stayed at home. Less than a week after Hurricane Katrina struck New
Orleans in 2005, many police officers opted to protect their families
rather than work. Chris Ipsen, spokesman for the Emergency Management
Department of Los Angeles, estimates that, with the grid down, Angelenos
would be foodless in less than ten days. In poor areas, he reckons,
groups would quickly form and say, “Hey, let’s go over to the mansions
in Bel Air.”
In the aftermath of Haiti’s earthquake in January 2010, cholera alone
killed at least 10,000. Jacques Boncy, head of Haiti’s National
Laboratory of Public Health, reckons that, in three months of blackout
in America, faecal contamination of water would kill several million.
That might be optimistic. The EMP Commission, an expert group set up by
America’s Congress to study the threat, reckoned in 2008 that the first
year of societal breakdown could finish off two-thirds of Americans.
country’s electricity grid can be knocked out in other ways. One is
cyber-attack. Hackers cut power to 230,000 Ukrainians in December
2015—but only for hours. Long-term damage from cyber-assaults is
unlikely, says Kenneth Geers, a security expert who studied the attack.
What about terrorism? Shooting up transformers at just nine critical
substations could bring down America’s grid for months, according to an
analysis performed in 2013 by the Department of Energy’s Federal Energy
Regulatory Commission (FERC), says its then-chairman, Jon Wellinghoff.
Others think more transformers would need to be taken out. At any rate,
information on which substations are critical is secret. In 2013 gunmen
knocked out 17 of 21 transformers at a substation in San Jose. It was
not a critical one.
The sun probably poses a greater risk of a sustained outage than hackers
or saboteurs. That is one reason the EMP Commission reconvened in
January 2017. Kit that protects transformers from EMP also saves them
from geomagnetic storms, though the reverse is not true. George Baker, a
staffer on the commission and a former boss of EMP research at the
Pentagon’s Defence Threat Reduction Agency, says that critical military
systems have been EMP-proofed. But other agencies, he says, have done
“precious little” to safeguard civilian infrastructure. The commission
will issue an updated report in September. It will be as grim as the
assessment in 2008, he says.
The expense of installing surge-blockers and other EMP-proofing kit
on America’s big transformers is debated. The EMP Commission’s report in
2008 reckoned $3.95bn or less would do it. Others advance higher
figures. But a complete collapse of the grid could probably be prevented
by protecting several hundred critical transformers for perhaps $1m
Yet not much is being done. Barack Obama ordered EMP
protection for White House systems, but FERC, the utilities regulator,
has not required EMP-proofing. Nor has the Department of Homeland
Security (DHS) pushed for a solution or even included EMP in official
planning scenarios. (The Pentagon should handle that, DHS officials say;
the Pentagon notes that civilian infrastructure is the DHS’s
responsibility.) As for exactly what safeguards are or are not needed,
the utilities themselves are best equipped to decide, says Brandon
Wales, the DHS’s head of infrastructure analysis.
But the utilities’ industry group, the North American Electric
Reliability Corporation (NERC), argues that, because EMP is a matter of
national security, it is the government’s job. NERC may anyway be in no
rush. It took a decade to devise a vegetation-management plan after, in
2003, an Ohio power line sagged into branches and cut power to 50m
north-easterners at a cost of roughly $6bn. NERC has repeatedly and
successfully lobbied Congress to prevent legislation that would require
EMP-proofing. That is something America, and the world, could one day
This is NOT the future we want. Distributed generation with universal energy modules is the answer.
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