House Panel Examines Space Weather, Other Vulnerabilities in the Nation’s Electric Grid

Share This

Publication date: 
25 September 2015

Two subcommittees of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology jointly held a hearing on September 10 to examine vulnerabilities in and threats to the nation’s electric grid.  While some of the threats discussed, such as cybersecurity attacks, electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attacks, and physical attacks, are manmade, much of the exchange between the members and witnesses focused on the natural threat of space weather caused by solar flares.  A panel of diverse experts warned the panel of the economic and national security consequences of potential grid disruptions and urged Congress to adopt measures to help the nation predict, prepare for, and mitigate the range of threats.

In an opening statement submitted for the record, Oversight Subcommittee Chairman Barry Loudermilk (R-GA) highlighted the array of problems that have led to major electric grid disruptions in recent years, from tree branches falling on transformers, software issues and other human error, Superstorm Sandy, to an incident in California of coordinated gun attacks on an electric substation.Loudermilk cited a statistic on how frequently attempted attacks on the electric grid take place: “An investigation completed by USA Today earlier this year found that the United States’ power grid faces physical or online attacks approximately once every four days.

Energy Subcommittee Chairman Randy Weber (R-TX) added, in his opening statement also submitted for the record, to the list of concerns with electric grid vulnerability. Weber said: “Our power grid is…at risk from geomagnetic disturbances, which can be caused by space weather or an Electromagnetic Pulse, commonly known as EMP, which could be generated in a nuclear attack. These high energy pulses could severely impact the operation of the electric grid and electric power systems across the country, disabling and damaging equipment essential to providing reliable power that could be nearly impossible to replace on a large scale.

Ranking Member of the Oversight Subcommittee Don Beyer (D-VA) also highlighted the threat of solar flares to the electric grid, emphasizing what is at stake for the nation. Beyer pointed out how integrated the electric grid has become with our economy, well-being, and national security: “Today the U.S. power grid is an intricate labyrinth of 200,000 miles of transmission lines, thousands of generating stations and hundreds of high voltage transformers. This complex and interconnected power system fuels our national and global economy. It plays a key role in our national security. It enables the delivery of critical healthcare services. It improves our lifestyles in a multitude of ways, and provides emergency services that save lives.”  Beyer continued: “When the electric grid goes down today it is more than a passing inconvenience. The elderly and very young alike may die from a lack of access to critical medical services or availability of adequate heating or air conditioning. Police, fire and emergency response capabilities may be hindered. Businesses close. Grocery stores and gas stations may cease to open or operate. Hospitals may be unable to fully function effectively.

Beyer called on other members of Congress to join him in a request he recently made to the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to investigate how the U.S. can be as prepared as possible to effectively deal with potential electric grid disruptions when they occur. GAO published a report in July 22 on the subject of federal efforts to address geomagnetic disturbances to the electric grid, called Critical Infrastructure Protection: Preliminary Observations on DHS Efforts to Address Electromagnetic Threats to the Electric Grid.

Richard Lordan, Senior Technical Executive for the Power Delivery & Utilization Sector at the Electric Power Research Institute, used his testimony to focus on the vulnerability of the grid to high impact, low frequency events, such as EMPs. He added there are three stages of an EMP and described the characteristics of each one. On creating policy to address potential threats, such as EMPs, Lordan presented the position of his organization: “EPRI supports a prudent approach, where you assess the vulnerabilities from all these threats, calculate the impact should these events occur, and develop cost-effective countermeasures that improve transmission system resiliency.

Daniel Baker, Distinguished Professor of Planetary & Space Physics and Director of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado Boulder, served as the subject matter expert at the hearing on “extreme space weather events” that “pose a threat to all forms of modern high technology” and are “a question of not if but when.” According to Baker, the National Academy of Sciences has studied the threat, and the stakes to the economy are extraordinarily high: “According to a 2009 study from the U. S. National Academies, the total economic impact could exceed $2 trillion or 20 times greater than the costs of Hurricane Katrina.” Three years ago, on July 23, 2012, a space weather major event missed the Earth by only one week, explained Baker. Calling that solar flare “a ferocious disturbance” that “was among the very fastest moving solar blasts ever witnessed in the space age,” he warned that “a direct hit by such an extreme coronal mass ejection would cause widespread power blackouts, disabling everything that uses electricity.

Baker described the nation’s current capacity to predict space weather, such as this 2012 solar flare, “primitive.”  He said of our current capabilities: “Through programs supported by the National Science Foundation, NASA, and NOAA, we observe the Sun, and we can see the general properties of the expansion of the solar atmosphere and powerful solar storms headed in our general direction. However, the measurements at the first Lagrange point provide only about 45 minutes of warning at best as to what will impact the Earth. This is insufficient time for implementing most mitigation strategies.” With regards to the Lagrange point, Baker was referring to NASA’s Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) satellite and the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) satellite that both sit at gravitational equilibrium between the Earth and the Sun and therefore are well-positioned to measure the key attributes of space weather approaching the Earth.

In response to a question posed by Representative Earl Perlmutter (D-CO) regarding what could be done to minimize the damage that might come from a major space weather event, Baker said what is needed is a “24 by 7 very dedicated kind of program to look at the Sun from sort of all directions and to be able to, as soon as possible, assess whether the disturbances…are going to be harmful or relatively benign.”  Baker added that “the investment in such an observing program would be dwarfed by the cost that society would face if we don’t do those things.”  Such a program to build an operational 24/7 national space weather program was proposed in in the most recent Decadal Strategy for Solar and Space Physics published by the National Academy of Sciences.

In November 2014, the National Science and Technology Council at the White House established the Space Weather Operations, Research and Mitigation (SWORM) Task Force to establish high-level strategic goals for preparing the nation for major space weather events.  In April, the SWORM Task Force released its draft National Space Weather Strategy.

Baker concluded his testimony with a vision for the way forward for the better prediction of space weather events: “The nation should issue a challenge to the space research community to provide the predictive capability for space weather sufficient to make our economy more resilient and to reduce to an acceptable level our national vulnerabilities. The nation should recognize that this is a pressing challenge, and that substantial resources will be required.