Here comes the sun – to end civilization

To date, however, US utilities have not deployed power-blocking devices on the live grid on a large scale. “They’ve just done things like ever-increasing operating voltages” — for cheaper transmission — “that greatly increase their vulnerability to these storms,” ​​Kappenman says.

Tom Berger, former director of the US government’s Space Weather Prediction Center, also expressed doubts about grid operators. “When I talk to them, they tell me that they understand space weather and that they are ready,” he says. But Berger’s confidence waned after the Texas power grid collapse in February 2021, which killed hundreds, left millions of homes and businesses without heating and caused about $200 billion in damage. That crisis was caused by nothing more exotic than a great cold snap. “We heard the same thing,” Berger says. “’We understand winter; It is not a problem.'”

I contacted 12 of the country’s largest utilities and asked for information about specific steps being taken to mitigate damage from a major geomagnetic event. American Electric Power, the nation’s largest transmission network, was the only company to share concrete measures such as regularly upgrading hardware, diverting power during a storm, and quickly replacing equipment after an event. Two other companies, Consolidated Edison and Exelon, claim to have fitted their systems with geomagnetic surveillance sensors and instructed their operators in unspecified “procedures.” Florida Power & Light declined to comment meaningfully, citing security concerns. The other eight did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

At this point, curious minds may wonder if utilities are even required to plan geomagnetic storms. The answer is complicated, in a uniquely American way. In 2005, when George W. Bush, a former oil executive, occupied the Oval Office, Congress passed the Energy Policy Act, which included a grab bag of giveaways to the oil and gas industry. It revoked much of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s power to regulate the utility sector. Reliability standards are now developed and enforced by the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, a trade association that represents the interests of those same companies.

Some find the NERC reliability standards laughable. (Two interviewees laughed audibly when asked about them.) Kappenman objected to the first set of standards, proposed in 2015, because they were too lenient — they didn’t require utilities to prepare for a storm similar to 1859 or 1921 Berger also objected, but for a different reason: The standards made no mention of storm duration. The ground effects of the Carrington event lasted for four or five consecutive days; a transformer that is built to withstand current for 10 seconds is very different from a transformer that is ready for 120 hours.

Under pressure from the federal government, NERC introduced stricter standards in 2019. In a lengthy written statement, Rachel Sherrard, a spokeswoman for the group, stressed that U.S. utilities are now expected to experience an event twice as strong as the Quebec storm in 1989. (Comparison to an old storm as Carrington, she noted, “is challenging because high-reliability historical metrics are not available.”) While the new standards require tools to fix vulnerabilities in their systems, the companies themselves are setting the right approach — and the timeline.

If utilities are left unmotivated, humanity’s ability to withstand a major geomagnetic storm will depend in large part on our ability to replace damaged transformers. A 2020 survey by the United States Department of Commerce found that the country imported more than 80 percent of its major transformers and their components. Under normal supply and demand conditions, lead times for these structures can be up to two years. “People outside the industry don’t understand how hard it is to produce these things,” says Kappenman. Insiders know not to buy a transformer unless the factory that made it is at least 10 years old. “It takes so long to work out the kinks,” he says. At a time of solar crisis, foreign governments — even geopolitical allies — can curb the export of essential electrical equipment, notes Kappenman. Over the past decade, a few spare parts programs have sprung up that allow participants to pool resources in various disaster scenarios. However, the size and location of these spare parts are unknown to federal authorities because the industry will not tell them.

One day, regulators will manage to map the power grid, even stormproof (provided a big one doesn’t wipe it out first). Engineers can launch a satellite array that will give us days to close the shutters. Governments can come up with a way to get emergency transformers up and running in no time. And there will be the sun – the unimaginable, unquenchable furnace at the center of our solar system that destroys as randomly as it creates. Life on this tiny splinter depends entirely on the grace of a cosmic nuclear force with an itchy trigger finger. No human triumph will ever change that. (But we still need to buy the capacitors. Soon please.)

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