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King: What if our electric grid went down?

POSTED: April 17, 2012 1:00 a.m.

I woke this morning, rolled over in bed, and glanced at the illuminated numbers on my clock. After 6, still black outside, but time to get up. I stumbled toward the door, flipped the light switch in the hall, and turned up the thermostat to take the chill out the house.

In the bathroom, I used the flush toilet and filled the sink with hot water to splash sleep out of my eyes, then to the kitchen to put the kettle on for coffee and take eggs out of the fridge.

Each act drew power from the electrical grid.

Later in the day, I cashed a check at the bank, picked up a prescription at the pharmacy and put gas in the car. If the grid had been down, the bank and the pharmacy would have locked their doors and the gas pumps would have been inoperable.

We’ve all experienced temporary blackouts when a storm or car accident takes out a power line. Usually electricity is restored in less than an hour. When the power outage covers a large area, it becomes news. But even then, in a day or so, the lights are back on.

The U.S. electrical grid is a complex network of independently owned and operated power plants and transmission lines. There’s a huge amount of redundancy built into the system. Knock out one part and another takes over. But the interlocking web of power plants, transformers and transmission lines that provides us with reliable electricity has an inherent flaw.

Under certain circumstances the system can experience so large an overload in one location that it crashes other parts of the system. This is what happened in the Northeast in 1965, when more than 30 million people were without power for up to 12 hours.

A worse blackout occurred in 2003 when a widespread power outage affected some 65 million people in the northern and midwestern U.S. and parts of Canada. But power was restored in less than 18 hours.

What would happen if large areas of the grid, maybe a third of the country, were knocked out for days, even weeks?

There are two ways this could happen. Detonating a nuclear bomb in the atmosphere could create an electromagnetic pulse capable of disrupting the grid. Or a natural electromagnetic pulse could come from the sun when it goes though one of its cyclical storm periods.

According to the National Research Council, an independent, nonpartisan division of the U.S. National Academies, a peek period of electromagnetic sun activity could melt electrical transformers throughout the U.S. and bring the grid down for an extended period. The sun goes through these intense storm periods approximately once every 70 to 100 years.

The last event of a magnitude capable of collapsing much of the U.S. grid was in 1921, well before the world became depended on all its electronic gadgetry — before computers, before modern electronic banking systems and before people relied on modern pharmaceuticals.

And before we had nuclear power plants, which depend on an outside source of electricity to cool their reactors. All nuclear reactors — they number about 450 worldwide — have emergency backup generators, but the generators have a limited amount of fuel on site. In the U.S., the amount is enough for one week.

Keeping U.S. reactors from melting down would be a top priority in the event of grid failure. But should the country experience a general breakdown of its communication and transportation systems, one week might not be enough. The U.S. could probably survive an electromagnetic pulse generated by terrorists, but if it came from the sun, the crisis would reach around the world.

This information is not new. There are ways to reinforce the grid and prepare for an electromagnetic pulse no matter what the source. The Congressionally mandated EMP Commission has studied this and made its recommendations to Congress. So far nothing has been done.

Joan King lives in Sautee. Her column appears biweekly on Tuesdays and at gainesvilletimes.com/viewpoint.


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