House Calls for Development of Standards to Protect Electric Grid from Severe Space Weather Events

House Calls for Development of Standards to Protect Electric Grid from Severe Space Weather Events

On Wednesday, the House passed the Grid Reliability and Infrastructure Defense (GRID) Act, H.R. 5026 (H. Rept. 111-493), whose purpose is to protect the U.S. bulk-power system and electric infrastructure. Cybersecurity and electromagnetic pulse (EMP) threats and vulnerabilities are addressed in the bill. The EMP vulnerabilities include severe space weather events, or “geomagnetic storms” as they are called in the bill.

Space weather refers to the effects on Earth and its environs of the Sun’s “coronal mass ejections” – more commonly known as solar flares. It has long been known that solar flares disrupt high frequency radio communications, but they can also disrupt the Earth’s magnetic field causing voltages in electric transmission lines that can damage the large transformers that are critical components of the electric grid. A 1989 power outage that affected a large swath of northeastern Canada was caused by such an event.

With the world increasingly dependent on terrestrial electrical power grids, as well as terrestrial and space-based communications systems and satellite-based navigation and timing (GPS), the consequences of severe space weather events could be catastrophic. The National Research Council published a report in 2008 describing the potential societal and economic effects of severe space weather events and asked whether U.S. institutions are prepared “to cope with the effects of a ‘space weather Katrina,’ a rare, but according to historical records, not inconceivable eventuality?”

The GRID bill focuses on the electric grid only. Among its provisions is directing the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), through its electric reliability organization, the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC), to establish a reliability standard to protect the bulk power system from geomagnetic storms. FERC must “identify the nature and magnitude of the reasonably foreseeable geomagnetic storm events against which the standards should protect, similar to the identification of a ‘design basis threat.’ The standards must balance risks against the cost of protecting against those risks.”

At a meeting on space weather issues Tuesday, Dr. Chris Beck, a staff member for the House Homeland Security Committee, noted that there is no companion bill in the Senate. With the Senate moving slowly on most legislation, he does not expect the bill to reach the Senate floor, but was relatively optimistic that it might be incorporated into an appropriations bill.

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