Secrecy News

JASON on Severe Space Weather and the Electric Grid

Updated below

The U.S. electric power grid is vulnerable to damage from severe electromagnetic solar storms and remedial measures should be taken to reduce that vulnerability, a new study (large pdf) from the JASON scientific advisory panel concluded.

On the other hand, the JASONs said, catastrophic worst-case scenarios advanced by some are not plausible, and they should not serve as a basis for policy making.

Public disclosure of the new JASON study was blocked by the Department of Homeland Security, which sponsored the analysis.  But a copy was obtained by Secrecy News.

“Concerns about the vulnerabilities of technical infrastructure to space weather have been growing since the sun entered the early stages of the current sunspot cycle in 2009, increasing prospects for severe solar storms,” the report said.

“We agree that the U.S. electric grid remains vulnerable,” the JASONs concluded.  “Mitigation should be undertaken as soon as possible to reduce the vulnerability of the U.S. grid.  The cost appears modest compared to just the economic impact of a single storm,” they added.

But the panel declined to endorse a worst-case scenario proposed in 2010 by J. Kappenman (large pdf), who envisioned “the possibility of catastrophic damage to the U.S. electric grid, leaving millions without power for months to years.”

“We are not convinced that the worst case scenario… is plausible.  Nor is the analysis it is based on, using proprietary algorithms, suitable for deciding national policy,” the JASON report said.

Instead, “a rigorous and fully transparent risk analysis should be done of the U.S. grid.”  See “Impacts of Severe Space Weather on the Electric Grid,” JASON report JSR-11-320, November 2011.

Ironically, the Department of Homeland Security, which requested the JASON study, refused to make it publicly available.  In a November 20 letter to the Federation of American Scientists, DHS said that no portion of the study would be released under the Freedom of Information Act because it was subject to the “deliberative process privilege.”  A copy of the report was obtained independently.

Update: By letter dated December 27, DHS amended its denial of our FOIA request and released the report.

6 thoughts on “JASON on Severe Space Weather and the Electric Grid

  1. All everyone can see is the economical aspect! Will no one see the real threat? Within days we won’t be alive to worry about money because every nuclear power plant without power will melt down if the power is not restored within days to every one of them! If a solar flare big enough happens, it will kill everyone, not because of some silly prophecy about a mega flare burning up earth but because of the huge threat everyone fails to see! This will happen, too. If not within the next solar cycle, then within the next few hundred years.

  2. “We are not convinced that the worst case scenario… is plausible. Nor is the analysis it is based on, using proprietary algorithms, suitable for deciding national policy,” the JASON report said.

    I would imagine the JASONs were asked to do this because of a report the electromagnetic pulse lobby, commissioned by one of its businesses, was able to hoodwink a US government agency into publishing on its website in mid-2010. The EMP lobby sucked the New York Times into publishing this as if it was a big controversy, not once — but twice. In both cases Kappenman and other members of the electromagnetic pulse defense lobby were essentially the only sources.

    Having been around for a good long time, you know how these things work. It would seem that it became necessary at some point to have an independent group of eminent scientists aid in getting these people off the government back while still providing reasoned analysis.

    I covered this in the next two links. Of course, I’m not nearly as polite as you.

    More briefly summarized, this was a case of a business in the EMP lobby creating an analysis in which the central thrust served, coincidentally — ahem, to serve their business.

    Hence the need for an independent group like the JASONs.

  3. This is one of the stupidest wastes of money I’ve seen in a long time. We in the industry have known about the problem and ways to deal with it for decades. They would have done better by just putting some transmission system engineers in a room for a week and publishing a paper. Most of the recommendations are just excuses to spend more money, probably just to hide some DoD projects and expenditures. We should send this back and get a refund.

  4. Joe, how do you deal with an event similar to the one on 9-2-1859? with an 18 hour window to decide, since that’s how long it took that event to reach earth.

    I’m not disagreeing with you, just looking for more peace of mind than “We’ve known how to deal with this for decades”

    Because “they” said the same thing about meltdowns after Chernobyl… and yet it’s happened again.

  5. The JASONS are paid to do the work they do and that’s a “good” thing. The notion that we have a reliable electric grid today is a total fantasy. That was not mentioned in the overview. So if one wants to debate the possibilities of Cosmic events, as a Scientist I think there is merit to being concerned to take action to gather more data and make better judgements based upon that data. That does not discount any of the measures recommended by the JASONS. It is just clear that we need a great deal more information to make detailed plans but, if you take the balance of the current evidence; our current grid design does not need a great deal of stress levied at any point to cause great effects. Note: the blackout of 2003.

  6. The Jasons report on Severe Space Weather is not to be trusted. The Jasons themselves are not independent and objective. They are for sale to anyone willing to pay them. The Department of Homeland Security–that has been struggling mightily since 2008 to evade responsibility to protect the national electric grid and other critical infrastructures from natural and nuclear EMP–paid the Jasons to write this report. Unsurprisingly, the report concludes–erroneously–that a great geomagnetic storm would not be a national catastrophe. But even the Jasons are not so irresponsible as to let DHS completely off the hook, and still ended up recommending that steps be taken to protect the national electric grid from geomagnetic storms. That is one reason DHS tried to suppress the report.

    Another reason DHS tried to suppress the Jasons report is that it is an embarrasingly bad report, obviously biased, and easily rebutted. The Jasons team is not competent to write a report on the threat from geomagnetic storms. [Inappropriate personal comment deleted.] Space weather and electric grids are not their area of expertise–and it shows in their report. For example, the Jasons denounce space weather expert John Kappenman for his work proving that great geomagnetic storms can have catastrophic consequences, offer no good reason for dismissing Kappenman’s work, and falsely suggest that Kappenman’s work is unverified and unsupported by other scientific studies. In researching their report, the Jasons interviewed Kappenman–for only two hours. Most time working on their report the Jasons spent behind closed doors, closeted with officials from DHS and the electric industry lobby!

    In fact, John Kappenman is not alone. There is an official consensus among numerous really independent and objective studies sponsored by the Congress and the U.S. Government that a great geomagnetic storm could collapse the national electric grid for years, with catastrophic consequences. Indeed, the entire purpose of Congressional Commissions particularly is to provide independent and objective analysis. DHS and the Jasons hope you do not know about scientific studies by the Congressional EMP Commission, the National Academy of Sciences, the Department of Energy, and the Federal Energy Reliability Commission. All of these independent studies arrived at the same conclusion-given the current state of national unpreparedness, a great geomagnetic storm could collapse the electric grid and have catastrophic consequences. Testing of electric grid components and modeling of the electric grid done by these groups and others, including Sandia National Laboratories, Oak Ridge National Labs, and Idaho National Labs, all support that the grid is catastrophically vulnerable to a great geomagnetic storm. Not one official Commission or U.S. Government study dissents from the consensus view that a great geomagnetic storm is potentially a catastrophic threat.

    But you don’t have to be a scientist to know that a great geomagnetic storm could have catastrophic consequences. The 1989 geomagnetic storm caused Canada’s Hydro-Quebec electric grid to collapse in seconds, damaged Extremely High Voltage transformers that take years to replace, and literally melted the coils of an EHV transformer in the United States. The 1989 geo-storm–which was not a great geomagnetic storm–caused billions of dollars in damage and almost forced the evacuation of Toronto. The 1921 geomagnetic storm was ten times more powerful than the 1989 storm. The 1859 great geomagnetic storm, known as the Carrington Event, was ten times more powerful than the 1921 geo-storm.

    Common sense alone is sufficient to conclude that we need to protect our electric grid and other critical infrastructures from this threat.

    However, don’t expect common sense from the Department of Homeland Security or the electric power lobby. In February, expect to see another report, this one from the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, that will also try to convince you that great geomagnetic sytorms are not a potentially catastrophic threat. All of this is aimed at stopping Congress from passing the SHIELD Act (HR 668), that is designed to require DHS and the electric power industry to protect America’s national electric grid from geomagnetic storms and other threats.

    Dr. Peter Vincent Pry
    EMPact America

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