Despite warnings that New Orleans was unprepared for a severe hit by a hurricane, America was blindsided by Hurricane Katrina, a once-in-a-lifetime storm that made landfall five years ago this month. We are similarly unready for another potential natural disaster: solar storms, bursts of gas on the sun’s surface that release tremendous energy pulses.
Occasionally, a large solar storm can rain energy down on the earth, overpowering electrical grids. About once a century, a giant pulse can knock out worldwide power systems for months or even years. It’s been 90 years since the last super storm, but scientists say we are on the verge of another period of high solar activity.
This isn’t science fiction. Though less frequent than large hurricanes, significant storms have hit earth several times over the last 150 years, most notably in 1859 and 1921. Those occurred before the development of the modern power grid; recovering from a storm that size today would cost up to $2 trillion a year for several years.
Storms don’t have to be big to do damage. In March 1989 two smaller solar blasts shut down most of the grid in Quebec, leaving millions of customers without power for nine hours. Another storm, in 2003, caused a blackout in Sweden and fried 14 high-voltage transformers in South Africa.
The South African experience was particularly telling — the storm was relatively weak, but by damaging transformers it put parts of the country off-line for months. That’s because high-voltage transformers, which handle enormous amounts of electricity, are the most sensitive part of a grid; a strong electromagnetic pulse can easily fuse their copper wiring, damaging them beyond repair.
Even worse, transformers are hard to replace. They weigh up to 100 tons, so they can’t be easily moved from the factories in Europe and Asia where most of them are made; right now, there’s already a three-year waiting list for new ones.
Without aggressive preparation, we run the risk of a disaster magnitudes greater than Hurricane Katrina. Little or no electricity means little or no telecommunications, refrigeration, clean water or fuel. Basic law enforcement and national security could be compromised.
Fortunately, there are several defenses against solar storms. The most important are grid-level surge suppressors, which are essentially giant versions of the devices we use at home to protect computers. There are some 5,000 vulnerable transformers in North America; at $50,000 for each suppressor, we could protect the grid for about $250 million.
Earlier this year the House of Representatives passed a bill that would allow the White House to require utilities to put grid-protection measures in place, then recoup the costs from customers. Unfortunately, the companion bill in the Senate contains no such provision.
It’s not a lost cause, though; lawmakers can still insert the grid-protection language during conference. If they don’t, there could be trouble soon: the next period of heavy solar activity will be in late 2012. Having gone unprepared for one recent natural disaster, we would make a grave mistake not to get ready for the next.
Lawrence E. Joseph, the author of Aftermath: A Guide to Preparing for and Surviving Apocalypse 2012.