Over the past two years there have been several positive developments to protect the electric grid from electromagnetic pulse (EMP) events – manmade or natural phenomenon that could incapacitate large sections of the power grid. Solar storms, nuclear detonations and on-the-ground attacks by terrorists or saboteurs would lead to a cascading effect of frying electric grid components, resulting in long-term power outages, chaos, and death.
The positive developments have occurred in the public policy realm and in important work being done on pilot projects.
A March 26, 2019 Presidential Executive Order places higher priority on and outlines steps for better coordination among government agencies so that an EMP attack is less likely to occur and better able to be met. Pilot programs in San Antonio and South Carolina, along with ongoing government research, should be widely disseminated and emulated so that large swaths of the electric grid are protected from EMP within the next 10 years.
Clear Need for Protective Actions
For decades it has been clear that the United States should protect its electric grid from EMP events. The evidence has included power disruptions from nuclear testing decades ago and solar events that have caused power outages, such as in Quebec in 1989. Numerous independent Congressional EMP commissions have also thoroughly documented the need for protection.
The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) has previously implemented EMP fortifications at some military bases. DoD’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency tweeted on July 7 that it has “expertise for designing comms & elec systems that could withstand EMP – all the way back in 1962!”
Simply put, it is time to make DoD best practices and other proven technological solutions widely available to utilities so that they can protect critical infrastructure.
A 2017 report by a Congressionally-authorized EMP commission found, “Across the U.S. government, the DoD and its supporting laboratories and contractors have by far the most knowledge, data, and experience related to the production of and survival from nuclear-generated EMP. However, the DoD has largely failed to make this knowledge available to other government agencies and to the organizations that develop, build, and operate U.S. critical national infrastructure.”
Pilot Programs are Proceeding
The most notable pilot project is in San Antonio. The Joint Base San Antonio-Electromagnetic Defense Initiative (JBSA-EDI) brings together experts from government, military, industry, and research and academia. The program’s goals are to enable the base and surrounding San Antonio region to have a resilient electric power supply after an EMP attack. The findings will also be shared throughout the country.
With approximately 60,000 active-duty, Reserve, Guard, civilian and contractor personnel, Joint Base San Antonio is a vital military base for the country, and a central pillar for the San Antonio community. The consequences would be dire if an EMP event were to cut off the electricity the base receives from CPS Energy, the nation’s largest municipally owned energy utility. CPS Energy also serves those in and around San Antonio, the country’s seventh largest city.
The program currently has more than 200 subject matter experts from more than 70 organizations. Among the issues being examined are how cybersecurity and physical attacks could be combined with EMP to create disruption. The emergence of 5G technology requires innovative steps as well.
In South Carolina, the Lake Wylie Pilot Study is the first project to quantify costs for comprehensive EMP protection. Begun five years ago, it focuses on York County, South Carolina which has a population of approximately 226,000.
The project brings together prestigious experts at High Frontier, a non-profit organization. The group is chaired by Ambassador Hank Cooper, whose service in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush Administrations includes being director of the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization.
Among those working on the Lake Wylie project is Dr. George Baker, who oversaw the development of the 1990 standards for EMP protection at military bases, MIL-STD-188-125. This remains the guiding document for EMP implementation. Dr. Baker has worked on the Lake Wylie project since its inception five years ago, testified often to Congress about EMP and served on EMP Commissions.
Based on thorough analysis, Dr. Baker estimates it will cost less than $100 per citizen to fortify the region’s grid against EMP, for permanent protections. “This one-time investment, which is less than what a family pays monthly for its health insurance, would support the most important civil activities of York County – e.g., its hospital and top priority support such as water-wastewater, emergency management, (and) communications to state and national authorities,” said Ambassador Cooper. It would also enable folks to maintain their electricity, or to get it back shortly after an EMP attack.
Cost Projections Are In-Line with Previous Estimates
The costs at the Lake Wylie project are consistent with experts’ previous estimates.
On September 13, 2018, Scott McBride, Infrastructure Security Manager for National & Homeland Security at the Idaho National Laboratory testified to the U.S. Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. He said: “There must be a priority to protect the most critical large power transformers in place – my preliminary estimates are that this would cost less than $4 billion if we made it a priority to install NBD’s [Neutral Blocking Devices] at our most critical EHV [Extra High Voltage] substations. This is a small fraction of the value of replacement units, but more importantly is negligible compared to the loss of civilian life and long-term recovery costs to the economy should they fail during a GMD [Geomagnetic Disturbance] or EMP event.”
On February 27, 2019 Dr. Baker testified to the same Senate committee, “Based on the work of the Foundation for Resilient Societies and DoD experience in hardening military systems, my preliminary estimate for prioritized protection of the existing electric power system is on the order of $50 billion, representing about 1% of the grid’s replacement cost.”
He also testified that utilities’ EMP investments have been modest. “There have been a few glimmers of EMP interest and action including several uncoordinated efforts within the electric power industry and IT/Communication/Data Center industry. Center Point, PJM and Dominion Energy have each hardened a major control center. AEP has protected 400+ substation control centers,” said Dr. Baker.
Ongoing U.S. Government Research Imperative
The important progress being made at the Lake Wylie and San Antonio projects underscores the need for ongoing research, indeed expanded research, into protecting the electric grid from EMP.
Recent work at Idaho National Laboratories is strengthening the ability to guard against EMP events. As Mr. McBride said in his Senate testimony: “A mature, tested and validated technology has been developed and represents one potential solution to protect HV [High Voltage] and EHV power transformers from the threat of both GMD’s and EMP’s. The EMP hardened transformer Neutral Blocking Device is designed to provide automatic protection for HV and EHV transformers against GMD and EMP events – when GMD or EMP induced currents in a transformer are detected.”
In April 2020, Sandia National Laboratories announced it was undertaking a $40 million multiyear campaign “focused on defending large electric utility systems from potential attacks by hostile nations, as well as from damage inflicted by extreme natural disasters like hurricanes and solar flares.”
Sandia will work with researchers in industry, utility companies, universities, and other laboratories. The work is important for making sure that multiple generators are not disabled simultaneously.
Steps to Go Forward
To build upon the recent developments and dramatically expand them from pilot stage it will be important to showcase the findings and provide government grants so that they soon can be replicated.
From a broader policy standpoint, three steps should be taken. First, there should be full and timely implementation of the March 26, 2019 Presidential Executive Order on Coordinating National Resilience to Electromagnetic Pulses. It will be important to name an EMP czar who will have direct access to the President.
Utilities should also be able to recover the costs for EMP investments, having utility commissions set rates that will reimburse them for these costs. There are opportunities to tie these investments to other modernizations being done to the electric grid, much of which is already aging and needs to be refurbished.
By taking these steps, policymakers will make up for lost time and provide important and necessary protections to the electric grid, which is essential to maintain modern life, as well as public health and safety.
About the Author: Paul Steidler is a Senior Fellow with the Lexington Institute, a public policy think tank based in Arlington, Virginia.
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