This is a writeup of a shallow investigation, a brief look at an area that we use to decide how to prioritize further research.
In a nutshell
What is the problem?
A severe solar storm might have the potential to shut down power grids on a continental scale for months.
Who is already working on it?
Power companies, transformer makers, insurers, and governments all have an interest in protecting the grid from geomagnetic storms. As far as we know, there is little philanthropic involvement in this issue.
What could a new philanthropist do?
The grid can be protected through hardening and through the installation of ground-induced current blocking devices that would prevent the currents generated by a geomagnetic storm from flowing through the grid. A philanthropist could fund further research on the threat posed by geomagnetic storms or on mitigation possibilities, fund advocacy for dealing with the threat, or directly fund mitigation.
1. What is the problem?
Eruptions from the sun bombard the earth with energetic matter, called coronal mass ejections (CMEs). CMEs damage satellites and, by temporarily disrupting Earth’s magnetic field, can disrupt the operation of power grids.
In extreme cases, roughly once per decade, CMEs reach Earth within 24 hours.1 Whether a CME hits Earth depends on its direction and angular width. In July 2012, for instance, a powerful CME with an estimated angular width of 160° missed Earth because it launched during a week when its source region on the sun faced away from Earth.2 When a CME hits the earth, it can damage satellites, including ones critical for communication and navigation.3 It may also induce turbulence in the magnetic field on the planet’s surface, which in turn can generate abnormal currents in long-distance power lines.4 The intensity of these effects depends on the speed and magnetic strength and orientation of a CME.5
In March 1989, a major geomagnetic storm destabilized the grid in Québec enough to force it to shut down within minutes.6 This damaged equipment, including two major transformers, and blacked out most of the province. 83% of power was restored within nine hours.7 After, the Canadian government invested $1.2 billion in equipment upgrades intended to make the Québec grid more robust to storms.8
In 1859, a storm approximately twice as powerful as the 1989 one occurred, though it caused no major damage because there was little electrical infrastructure at the time.9
According to John Kappenman, a consultant who works on geomagnetic storms, a 1 in 100-200 years worst-case geomagnetic storm could destroy large transformers throughout the world and cause a global power outage that would take years to fix. The knock-on effects for other infrastructure–hospitals, police, pipelines, food delivery—could cause a humanitarian disaster.10 Other estimates appear to be substantially less aggressive: the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, a power industry group, reported that only older transformers would be likely to be damaged in a severe geomagnetic storm, and the US Department of Homeland Security noted that Kappenman was the only source of more extreme estimates of damages from geomagnetic storms.11 A 2011 report for the OECD concluded that the threat from geomagnetic storms is not well understood.12
Besides the risk to the power grid, geomagnetic storms also threaten satellites and aviation.13
At the completion of this shallow review in May 2014, we did not feel that we had a good understanding of the degree of risk from geomagnetic storms, though we guessed, with low confidence, that Kappenman’s 1 in 100-200 year figure for a globally devastating storm is likely to overstate the degree of risk. The deep dive has made us more confident in this estimate.14 Nevertheless, the historical record from which to infer probabilities is short, and the responses of electric grids to storms are not well studied. Given the high humanitarian stakes, we believe the threat may well offer opportunities for philanthropy.
A high-altitude detonation of a single nuclear weapon, known as an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack, could cause similar effects as for a geomagnetic storm over an area the size of the continental US.15
2. Who is already working on it?
Power companies, state and federal governments, and insurance companies all have a stake in responding to geomagnetic storms:
- Power companies presumably want to protect their infrastructure from damage.16 We have not investigated the extent to which power companies have responded to geomagnetic storm risks.
- Insurance companies might be able to pressure power companies to protect their assets from geomagnetic storms by promising lower premiums for those who take this step.17 Insurance companies appear to be considering how to incorporate geomagnetic storms into their risk models.18
- The US federal government has been concerned by the risk of electromagnetic pulse attack (which would cause similar damage and require similar mitigation strategies to a geomagnetic storm) since the Cold War, although its commitment to mitigating the damage from such an attack may have lessened since then.19The SHIELD Act, which would require power companies to mitigate the threat from geomagnetic storms, has been introduced in the House but, as of July 2013, had not been voted on by either chamber.20
- The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) is charged with enforcing geomagnetic storm-related regulations on the power industry. FERC works with an industry group, the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) to devise standards, which FERC can then either accept or remand to NERC for revision. As of May 2015, NERC had issued a detailed draft reliability standard relating to geomagnetic disturbances, for a 60-day period of public comment.21
- To our knowledge, Maine is the only state to have passed a law requiring power installations to be robust to EMPs and geomagnetic storms.22
A small number of advocates like Kappenman currently try to persuade NERC and the government to do more about the threat from geomagnetic storms, but as far as we know, there is very little philanthropic involvement in this issue.23
3. What could a new philanthropist do?
A philanthropist could potentially pursue a number of different approaches aiming to reduce risks from geomagnetic storms:24
- further research on the risks of geomagnetic storms and potential mitigation strategies
- advocacy for stronger geomagnetic safety standards for electric utilities, or for public funding to support mitigation efforts
- directly funding mitigation in partnership with electric utilities.
We do not have a strong sense of the likely returns to any of these strategies, though we would guess that the research and advocacy approaches would carry higher expected returns than direct support for mitigation.
3.1 Approaches to mitigating geomagnetic storm risk
The two basic options available to protect the grid are operational mitigation and hardening. Operational mitigation entails operating the grid in such a way as to reduce the threat from geomagnetic storms.25 The most radical kind of operational mitigation would be to unplug grid components in advance of a predicted geomagnetic storm so that they are not vulnerable to the effects of the storm. This strategy is feasible because satellites can predict periods of a few days when geomagnetic storms are likely.26 However, the national grid would likely have to be shut down for several days, which would cause enormous economic damage.27
Kappenman believes that for $1 billion, the US grid could be hardened to resist the effects of geomagnetic storms with ground-induced current (GIC) blockers.28 However, GIC blocking devices may turn out to be more expensive than Kappenman estimates, and a more diversified hardening strategy might be necessary to protect the grid.29
It is possible to undertake some operational mitigation and hardening for satellites, though both approaches face challenges.30
4. Questions for further investigation
Our research in this area has yet to answer many important questions.
Amongst other topics, our further research on this cause might address:
- How much attention do national governments (including the U.S.) pay to the threat of geomagnetic storms and EMP attack?
- How do power companies currently respond to the threat posed by geomagnetic storms?
- How likely is further research to pay off in better estimates of the likely damage from severe geomagnetic storms and in better mitigation strategies? Are better estimates already available from experts we did not contact?
- How significant is the risk of an EMP attack?
5. Our Process
We initially decided to investigate geomagnetic storms because we thought that damage to the power grid from geomagnetic storms might be a serious risk that is relatively easy to quantify and interventions to mitigate the risk might be relatively tractable.
The investigation that went into this shallow review has been very limited, consisting primarily of review of risk assessments by government agencies and other actors and a conversation with John Kappenman, the owner of Storm Analysis Consultants.
In late 2014, we commissioned a “deep dive” investigation. The report focuses on assessing the probability of an extreme storm, with shallower coverage of the impacts on grids and no discussion of options for limiting them. Previous version of this page here.
Kappenman Comments Before the FERC – Source
Kappenman 2010 – Source
Lloyd’s 2013 – Source
NRC 2008 – Source
NERC 1990 – Source
Notes from a conversation with John Kappenman, 8/6/2013 – Source
Odenwald 2000 – Source
Roodman 2015 – Source
Severe Space Weather Events 2008 – Source
Siscoe, Crooker, and Clauer 2006 – Source
World Data Center for Geomagnetism – Source
Wales 2012 – Source
|Baker et al. 2013||Source|
|Cliver and Svalgaard 2004||Source|
|DHS Office of Risk Management and Analysis 2011||Source|
|Foster et al. 2004||Source|
|Geomagnetic Disturbance Task Force 2012||Source|
|Kappenman Comments Before the FERC||Source|
|Notes from a conversation with John Kappenman, 8/6/2013||Source|
|Severe Space Weather Events 2008||Source|
|Siscoe, Crooker, and Clauer 2006||Source|
|World Data Center for Geomagnetism||Source|