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National Defense > Blog > Posts > Report: Solar Flares Unlikely to Spark Electrical Armageddon
Report: Solar Flares Unlikely to Spark Electrical Armageddon

Energy from solar flares can indeed harm electrical grids on Earth, but a new study says the sun probably won’t plunge the United States into the Dark Ages, as some theorists have imagined.

Working on behalf of the Department of Homeland Security, members of the JASON advisory panel, an independent group of scientists, recently published a report on the vulnerability of the nation’s electrical grid to solar flares. “Impacts of Severe Space Weather on the Electric Grid” concludes that while energy blasts from the sun, called coronal mass ejections, can damage transmission lines, it is unlikely that the entire grid could be brought down.

The sun is on the upswing of an 11-year cycle called solar maximum, which creates conditions for flares. Solar-generated electromagnetic pulses have been getting extra attention in the run-up to May 2013, when the sun is expected to be most volatile.

“Concerns about the vulnerabilities of technical infrastructure to space weather have been growing since the sun entered the early stages of the current sun spot cycle in 2009, increasing prospects for severe solar storms,” the report reads.“The primary issue is not whether these storms will occur but the risks they pose to power grids, satellite communications and GPS.”

Government officials and scientists who study the sun are concerned that not enough is known about the effects of solar energy on power transmission equipment. There also is little warning when a solar storm hits. Only one satellite is tasked with monitoring them.

The JASON report calls attention to the need for better protections against electromagnetic pulses that result from solar flares, but stops short of supporting a popular theory that the sun’s energy could spell doom for America.

John Kappenman, owner of Storm Analysis Consultants, is convinced that a large solar storm could strain the U.S. electrical grid to the point of collapse. That theory was the centerpiece of several days of exercises in Washington, D.C., in November involving industry, government, researchers and defense officials. The exercise aimed to parse out what the impact and aftermath of a massive solar storm would look like.

Solar storms have caused hours-long disruptions in high-frequency radio communications and GPS satellites in the recent past but no one is quite sure how a massive storm would affect power generation and transmission in the United States.

Worst-case scenario: all of the nation’s electrical grids collapse under the strain of a large solar flare.

Kappenman said at the November conference that power supply is the  “scaffolding of modern society and if it fails, all other critical infrastructure will fail.”

Everything that runs on electricity — food production, waste treatment, potable water distribution, computers — would immediately become useless. Society would be sent back into the 18th century.

Former house speaker and 2012 Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich subscribes to this theory, even writing the forward for “One Second After,” a novel in which an electromagnetic pulse takes out all power to the United States resulting in nationwide societal disintegration.

The JASON report cited a study by Kappenman suggesting such a catastrophic outage could occur and concuded such scenario is unlikely.

“Because mitigation has not been widely applied to the U.S. electric grid, severe damage is a possibility, but a rigorous risk assessment has not been done,” the report says. ”We are not convinced that the worst-case scenario … is plausible.”

It goes on to say Kappenman’s report is not “suitable for deciding national policy.”

Some of Kappenman’s concerns are regarded as legitimate, as space weather is known to have affected GPS and to have fried electronics. Three small storms have struck the United States this year, requiring the rerouting of aircraft, among other disruptions.

With better detection and mitigation strategies, the worst consequences can be avoided, the report says.

The government has no coordinated plan of action after an EMP — manmade or natural, the JASON report warns. However, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration does operate the Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder, Colo., which is responsible for keeping track of sun spots and solar flares.

“The federal response … is poorly organized; no one is in charge, resulting in duplications and omissions between agencies,” the report points out.

Needed are better satellites and more robust protection measures for vital grid components like transformers, according to the report.

Federal space-weather monitoring and response should be centralized, it adds. Moreover, funding for studies of the electrical grid and its weaknesses should continue.

Still, enough analysis has been done and enough countermeasures are in place to prevent a complete collapse of the grid, the report concludes.

Earlier this week the Secrecy News Blog, published by the Federation of American Scientists, reported that DHS, which requested the JASON study, refused to make it publicly available under the Freedom of Information Act. A copy of the report was obtained independently by FAS.

Comments

Re: Report: Solar Flares Unlikely to Spark Electrical Armageddon

I liked the Book Preppers Road March which is a fictional story of survival after the grid is taken out by a solar storm. Its poart survival book and part action adventure
displaced2 at 12/22/2011 8:21 PM

Re: Report: Solar Flares Unlikely to Spark Electrical Armageddon

Once again, these discredited articles are being published to try to cover the national security threat and vulnerability that we face from an EMP attack whether natural or man-made.  John Kappenman, mentioned here in the article, has been the go-to expert for DC officials and has provided ground-breaking research and mitigation technology, which is why is invited to every conference in these discussion matters.  All of a sudden "an independent advisory board" that we have no description of THEIR expertise, says ..."well...it may cause problems, but not the WHOLE electrical grid"...no one knows this because we have never faced such a threat as this.  From the REAL experts in this industry - a super solar flare CAN cause the entire electrical grid to collapse with cascading effects from this with potentially catastrophic endings with little to no communication capabilities to even fix the expensive transformers in which most utilize parts from outside the US that take months to make one replacement piece.  I hope everyone does their homework at the imminent threat we really do face.  I invite readers to visit our EMP Mitigation Team group on Linked In..or visit www.EMPreport.com for real information and publications on the threats we are facing right now from the real experts and professionals in the industry.
Julie at 12/23/2011 3:02 PM

Re: Report: Solar Flares Unlikely to Spark Electrical Armageddon

I would also like to add the comment from Mr. John Kappenman himself in response to this ridiculous article/blog that was posted - I can privately reply to those that are interested in the numerous fallacies that the Jason's provided in their reports. Needless to say I was given a two-hour presentation window (only person to support the effort) while all others were there to oppose. The agenda was heavily one-sided and the outcome was probably already decided. I suspect this is the reason that DHS acted to suppress the distribution.

Sadly it is the country as a whole that is damaged by these efforts. Tremendous efforts were expended by the Congressional EMP Commission to examine and fully vet these findings. Further the National Academy of Sciences and later FERC/DOE/DHS/DOD examination and publicly available studies were provided. Efforts that were expended over years of careful and painstaking analysis that the Jason's think they only need a few hours to overturn. I would also note that the Jason's instead of directly confronting the EMP Commission, FERC, the National Academies have undertaken a very personal effort to impunge me, as they probably sense that they can achieve their goals nore easily by this approach. If they had any real courage or conviction, they should take on the organizations that requested me to work on this analysis.
I would fully support efforts of all others to confirm or overturn my analysis, where that has been done the results have supported my findings. I have yet to see any credible work that would draw entirely different conclusions.

Again, we invite you to visit our EMP Mitigation Team on Linked In, or visit www.EMPreport.com for current publications and reports that relate to this matter that are actually by EXPERTS in this industry and not some group hired to try to discount the work that Mr. Kappenman and his colleages worked so hard to provide to DC officials.  The truth is in the reports, and the time to prepare is now.  As John once mentioned, we are playing russian roulette with the sun and it is only a matter of time before we lose.  This does not even bring into consideration the threats we face from EMP weaponry that has already been constructed by other countries.  Whether we face this threat in our lifetime, or our children's lifetime, we need to mitigate against these EMP threats before it is too late.  For EMP mitigation services please visit us at www.empmitigationservice.com so we can explain some options available for keeping yourself and/or your company's infrastructure protected and operational. 
Julie Kramer at 12/24/2011 5:07 PM

Re: Report: Solar Flares Unlikely to Spark Electrical Armageddon

Really DHS?  Doesn't fall under the Department of Energy?
BAS at 1/4/2012 1:25 PM

Re: Report: Solar Flares Unlikely to Spark Electrical Armageddon

@ BAS: It falls under Department of Homeland Security as this is a National Security Threat that we stand extremely vulnerable to, and while the DOE should be interested in this potentially catastrophic threat, this Department has chosen to turn its head for monetary and political reasons. We hope by raising the awareness of the true threats we eerily face, that our utility, transportation, communication, and policy holder communities will get on board, work together, and take the necessary mitigation steps to protect our people and our country...and not in five years...but NOW!  We also want EVERYONE to be aware of these potential threats and to be prepared with the proper supplies and tools to survive an EMP threat or attack...
Julie at 1/6/2012 2:56 AM

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