THE MAGAZINE

Sun Cycle Threatens Electric Grid

By Matthew Harwood

Another relatively cost-effective option for utilities is installing surge arresters on extreme high-voltage transformers, says Peter Pry, president of EMPact America. Pry worked on the congressionally authorized Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Attack. With surge arresters, “If the energy is coming in in a way that it shouldn’t be, the sensor will [detect] it and shut [the transformer] down,” thereby saving it, he explains.

The good news is that these technologies are available, says Kappenman. He estimates that it would cost $1 billion to harden all high-voltage transformers in the United States. That’s cheap compared to what it costs to recover from even a small disruption. For instance, the August 2003 Blackout that enveloped parts of the Midwest and Northeast cost between $4 billion and $10 billion, according to the Department of Energy.

Another solution would be for utilities to begin stockpiling high-voltage transformers. Then, if a critical transformer failed, another one could take its place in the grid. But EHV transformers are costly and America no longer manufactures them. All are imported and can take almost 3 years to be manufactured and delivered at a price tag of about $10 million, according to Kappenman.

The long-term solution is requiring GIC standards for new transformers. “The problem is the power industry has never had a design code that takes this threat into consideration,” Kappenman says.

Critics want Congress to step in with mandates, but NERC’s Lauby says it’s unrealistic to expect utilities to spend billions of dollars on transformer hardening and system upgrades without hard evidence that a giant geomagnetic storm will spell doom. “Industry needs to be convinced and demonstrations need to be carried out,” he says.

He notes that the risks from geomagnetic disturbances are not uniform throughout North America. They disproportionally affect the northern latitudes.

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