Skepticism of the merits of NASA’s Solar Probe Plus project plans to launch a satellite to orbit the Sun near its corona? In that intense extremely hot environment, it will seek to make measurements that may enable astrophysicists to provide early warning of a major Coronal Mass Ejection (CME) that could envelop the Earth, produce a major Geomagnetic Disturbance (GMD) causing a national, even international, loss of electricity lasting “many months,” which could lead to many deaths in technologically advanced nations. The satellite, being developed by Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), is intended to be launched in 2018. Good news? Maybe.
Last weekend, the Discovery and Science Channels ran an interesting presentation, titled “The Dark Side of the Sun.” Click here for a brief advance descriptive video discussing an existential threat caused by a major coronial emission (CME) or solar storm.
After discussing the threat, the presentation suggested that the Solar Probe Plus mission will gather data in time and of sufficient quality to warn knowledgeable astrophysicists of a Geomagnetic Disturbance (GMD) that could cause major damage to our electric power grid, leading to a major blackout and a disastrous loss of electricity for many months — and somehow they could enable the emergency responder community to take preventative action in time to avoid the potential associated existential threat.
I have referred to such an event as a “natural” electromagnetic pulse (EMP) threat to distinguish it from “manmade” EMP threats from high altitude nuclear explosions.
Click here for one of my earliest discussions (December 30, 2012) of these effects, which included links to pertinent, well researched Smithsonian and National Geographic articles that attested to the reality of the threat. And click here for my July 16, 2013 discussion of further details of this threat, prompted by a 2-page spread in the preceding Sunday’s Business Section of the Washington Post. And as noted in the Dark Side of the Sun presentation, President Obama established programs to address this threat. Click here for the October 13, 2016 White House press release.
Nevertheless, in spite such well-established understanding of the reality of this threat, the New York Times ridiculed, in advance, the Discovery and Science Channel presentations (click here) as hyping such an event as just another apocalyptic presentation intended to scare the public.
Actually, the presentation described quite well a natural EMP event that happened almost 160 years ago (the 1859 Carrington Event) — and that will happen again.
As I have often written, this all too real potential disaster is a question of “When,” not “Whether,” it will assuredly occur again. Such an event is expected every 150 or so years, so we are due.
In June 2012, we barely missed a repeat performance, when a major solar emission passed through the Earth’s orbit only about a week after the Earth’s passage. Click here for more on the importance of this near miss. Someone has estimated that there is a 12-percent likelihood per decade of a direct hit.
In 1859 — before the Civil War, the Carrington event caused major damage to the new telegraph system, including its brand new undersea telegraph cable. But Thomas Edison was barely 12 years old and there was then absolutely no dependence on electricity — and survival of America’s much smaller population was assured primarily by locally provided food and water from an agrarian society.
In today’s economy when essentially everyone’s viability depends on electricity and “just-in-time” delivered goods — often from afar, Americans would die in droves from starvation, disease and societal collapse. So would the citizens of other technologically advanced nations if they remain as unprepared as are we today.
So given this reality and all the nonsense regularly published by the New York Times, one has to wonder if anyone should rely on anything the “Gray Lady” publishes as being factually correct anymore! Their author in this case certainly didn’t do his homework.
If his purpose was just to be critical, he could have complimented NASA’s Solar Probe Plus project with faint praise for its scientific merits and then emphasized that the advertised additional warning time promised by that project will not by itself enable the needed protection against the effects of such a cataclysmic event.
The grid still needs to be protected against all EMP effects — and if the grid is protected, warning requirements would be reduced significantly, if not eliminated.
So, such additional warning (perhaps tens of hours instead of less than an hour today) could be helpful — but would not be sufficient actually to protect the American people.
We can and should be doing much more than the perhaps pertinent scientific research that was the focus of this “Dark Side of the Sun” presentation, whatever its merits.
Moreover, we need to accomplish some more important things as a higher national priority — and we are not doing so today.
For example, consider that the Solar CME threat is not being competently addressed; and moreover, even if the Solar CME threat were competently dealt with, that effort will not provide protection against the higher amplitude, more complex manmade EMP threat. And there is no Presidential mandate requiring that the EMP threat be addressed.
Perhaps most important, the Federal Energy Reliability Commission (FERC) and its partner the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) are failing to address these important issues.
FERC reviews and approves standards determining U.S. electric grid reliability based primarily on inputs from NERC, a non-profit former trade association, still effectively controlled by electric utility interests.
NERC, the officially designated “Electric Reliability Organization,” seems persistently to seek to minimize both electric utility compliance burdens and their liability for grid outages. And FERC goes along to get along.
FERC has no authority to directly edit NERC products, and consistently approves weak and often long-delayed grid security standards proposed by NERC.
Unless Congress changes the law, NERC has exclusive rights to craft electric reliability standards. FERC commissioners often have had revolving door relationships with state public utility commissions, utilities and their law firms, and lobbying groups.
Not a recipe for competent independent regulations. I refer despairingly to this congressionally approved arrangement as a “self-licking ice cream cone.”
Why isn’t the New York Times (and other news organizations) paying attention to this “self-licking ice cream cone” that undermines the safety and security of the American people — rather than ridiculing what appears to be the sound scientific effort highlighted by the Dark Side of the Sun productions on the Discovery and Science Channels?
An example of how the press could be helpful was provided by the consequences of an April 2013 sophisticated rifle attack that took out 17 transformers at the Metcalf, California substation, nearly causing a cascading blackout that could have shut down all of Silicon Valley.
Electric utilities and complicit law enforcement prevented the public from learning details of the attack. Twenty-three days after the attack, a key NERC committee recommended elimination of its physical security standard then under development. Senior FERC officials witnessed the NERC committee vote to abandon an obviously-needed standard, but did not act to reverse NERC’s action.
Jon Wellinghoff, chairman of FERC, resigned and subsequently disclosed the gravity of the Metcalf attack to the press. Click here for my February 6, 2014 discussion of solar storms and the Metcalf attack with a link to the related Wall Street Journal story, which included Wellinghoff’s disclosure that a FERC engineering study had concluded that a Metcalf-like attack on as few as nine transformer substations could black out the continental United States for up to 18 months. Imagine 18-months without electricity!!!
Only after this public disclosure and attention from Congress did FERC order NERC to restart and expedite a standards project for physical security. Thus, appropriate media attention to these critical issues can have significant helpful consequences.
And the press could be further helpful by considering other instances of FERC actions inconsistent with the public interest, which include:
- A FERC-approved standard for physical security that does not cover any generation facilities, even when loss of a single facility can cause cascading outage, and when loss of several can black out large regions;
- FERC-allowed NERC exemptions for master control rooms managing power for over 100 million Americans, from application of a physical security standard;
- FERC-approved cybersecurity standards that specifically exempt business systems at utilities penetrated by foreign malware — these business systems are connected through porous “firewalls” to computers that directly control the electric grid;
- FERC-allowed communications between grid control rooms and substations that are completely unencrypted and therefore susceptible to cyberattack; and
- FERC-allowed NERC exemptions for thousands of falsely-assessed “low impact” grid substations to avoid cybersecurity standards — despite demonstration in Ukraine that a cyberattack on such substations can cause major grid outage.
Most notably, on January 19, 2017 — the day before Donald Trump was sworn in as the nation’s 45th President, FERC approved a NERC standard for solar storms based on a model discredited by a national laboratory; a standard with so many absurd technical loopholes that not a single transformer in North America would need be outfitted with hardware-based protection.
As former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich said on Fox News that day, this was “a very, very dangerous decision . . . on how we protect ourselves from electromagnetic pulse. It is being designed as stupidly and as destructively as possible . . . If I were [President Trump] it’s one of the things I would literally repeal late tomorrow . . .”
Amen to that. Regrettably, President Trump still has not taken Newt’s advice, at least in any visible way. This lack of demonstrated interest by the President and his close advisors is not an encouraging sign; especially since FERC is currently stalemated because only two Commissioners are currently serving.
On the other hand, maybe the current stagnation is a good thing because FERC can do no harm until at least one more Commissioner is appointed. At least three are required for the five Commissioner FERC to function. And as yet there are no signs that future FERC Commissioners will be any better than the past.
If President Trump selects three competent, independent Commissioners to fill the current openings, then there would be hope for the future because he could assure a 3-out-of-5 majority in future FERC deliberations that could demand more accountability from the NERC operations.
Indeed, the FERC-NERC operation needs a major overhaul if the American people are to be protected from severe, indeed existential, threats to the electric power grid.
Drain the swamp, you think?
Stay tuned to see if the press pays any attention to these urgently critical matters — rather than making asinine comments on all too real threats to our very survival, such as those discussed in the informative “Dark Side of the Sun” presentation.
Much “Darker” threats deserve much more attention, especially those threats posed by the unresponsive bureaucracy that is not protecting the American people.
Stay tuned . . .
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