University of Cape Town — Geomagnetics Research

UCT doctoral students Les Borrill (left) and Hilary Chisepo (right) test model transformers to confirm the results of their simulations. (Photo courtesy of UCT)
Updated November 2016 to add preanalysis plan. UCT staff reviewed this page prior to publication.

The Open Philanthropy Project recommended a grant of $493,425 over three years to Professor Trevor Gaunt, Emeritus Professor of Electrical Engineering at the University of Cape Town (UCT) in South Africa, to research the potential risks that geomagnetic storms could pose to the electric power system. We investigated geomagnetic storms in 2014 and 2015 as part of our interest in global catastrophic risks. A summary of our findings can be found in this series of blog posts. To summarize the potential risk (from the first post in that series):

[G]eomagnetic storms are caused by cataclysms on the sun, which fling magnetically charged matter toward earth. The collisions can rattle earth’s magnetic field, sending power surges through electrical grids. The high-speed particles can also take out satellites critical for communication and navigation. The main fear is that an extreme storm would so damage electrical grids as to black out power on a continental scale for months, even years. The toll of such a disaster would be tallied in economic terms, presumably in the trillions of dollars. It would also be measured in lives lost, since all the essential infrastructure of civilization, from food transport to law enforcement, now depends on being able to plug things in and turn them on.

And (from our full report on the topic):

My best estimate at this writing is that the probability of catastrophe is well under 1%/decade, but is nevertheless uncertain enough, given the immense stakes, to warrant more serious attention… And yet we should not be complacent about the threat. The true probability of something even more severe than Carrington is unknown. And the effects of storms weak and strong on transformers is poorly understood, at least in public-domain science. (Perhaps the military and industry actors know more than they share.) The long manufacturing times make a nation’s high-voltage transformer fleet an Achilles Heel if enough damage occurs at once. And in many countries, electric industry regulation is heavily influenced by utilities and equipment manufacturers, who out of professional pride and institutional interests may resist efforts to adequately assess and address the risk.

See our full report for more detail on our view of the risks posed by geomagnetic storms.

The grant funding will be used primarily to support graduate students to do research under Professor Gaunt’s supervision. It will also be used to purchase equipment and enable Professor Gaunt and his students to attend conferences to share the results of the research. The planned research includes the following:

  • Develop inexpensive instruments to measure geomagnetically-induced currents in power lines and transformers, then use measured variations in the currents to create a model of the potential exposure levels of different regions in the event of a geomagnetic storm. This will be done in collaboration with the Namibian utility company NamPower.
  • Model the responses of different types of transformers to geomagnetically-induced currents by exposing transformers to artificial currents and using computer modeling.
  • Improve models of power system stability in collaboration with Professor Thomas Overbye at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
  • Survey past data on transformer failure in order to improve models of the probability of transformer failure in response to geomagnetic storms.
  • Analyze the costs of power system interruptions and of efforts to prevent those interruptions in order to analyze the cost-effectiveness of different preventative measures.
  • Create an overall model of value at risk and of the reliability of the current system.

We decided to make this grant for several reasons:

  • We view this as a low-risk, shovel-ready grant in a medium-priority area. We believe that Professor Gaunt’s proposed projects address important questions directly using reasonable methods.
  • It is our impression that Professor Gaunt is one of the better and more experienced researchers in the field; in particular, David Roodman (Senior Advisor to the Open Philanthropy Project), who led our research into geomagnetic storms, has a high opinion of the quality of Professor Gaunt’s past research on geomagnetic storms. Professor Gaunt is one of the few researchers working on these topics who is not employed by industry.
  • Professor Gaunt seems to be relatively value-aligned with us. He focuses on problems that serve the public interest and seems focused on using his research to effect policy change.
  • We are fairly confident that Professor Gaunt is unlikely to receive comparable amounts of funding for this work from other sources.

Our main concern about this grant is that Professor Gaunt may have trouble bringing his research to the attention of the relevant policymakers and industry players in the developed world, though we believe that he is actively working to address this issue. We believe that this grant has little to no risk of doing harm.

We’re experimenting with recording explicit numerical forecasts of events related to our decisionmaking (especially grantmaking). The idea behind this is to pull out the implicit predictions that are playing a role in our decisions, and make it possible for us to look back on how well-calibrated and accurate those are. For this grant, we are recording the following forecasts:

  • An 85% chance that Professor Gaunt will complete 80% of the work by the end of the grant period.
  • An 80% chance that we will consider this grant a success given that Professor Gaunt completes at least 80% of the work.
  • A 20% chance that Professor Gaunt follows up or causes someone else to follow up with a proposal to widely effect positive policy change in this area in the next ten years.


Document Source
University of Cape Town, GIC Preanalysis Plan Source