Our sun threatens grid too, INL researchers say

An artist’s rendering of a solar storm hitting the planet Mars and stripping ions from the planet’s upper atmosphere.
An artist’s rendering of a solar storm hitting the planet Mars and stripping ions from the planet’s upper atmosphere. AP

Hacking and extreme weather present threats to the grid. But so do electromagnetic waves from the sun.

Idaho National Laboratory researchers have been seeking to build resilience into the nation’s power grid at its state-of-the-art research facilities on the 890-square-mile site in East Idaho. The INL hosted a conference earlier this year to examine the less known but powerful threat to our electric power infrastructure.

Astronomers witnessed a powerful explosion on the sun March 10, 1989, that released a billion-ton cloud of gas with the energy of thousands of hydrogen bombs exploding at once. This magnetic storm cloud shot toward Earth at 1 million miles per hour.

Two days later, the solar plasma struck Earth’s magnetic field, causing dazzling northern lights as far south as Cuba and sending electric current into the ground across North America.

The weak point in the continent’s grid was in Quebec, and early on March 13 its grid failed. For 12 hours, power outages left millions of people were in the dark, stalled elevators, and closed schools and businesses.

A National Academy of Sciences report estimates that a worst-case geomagnetic storm could have an economic impact of $1 trillion to $2 trillion in the first year, which is 20 times the damage caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The estimates are based on digital prediction models funded by the National Academy of Sciences and others.

A year ago, INL announced full-scale testing and validated these phenomena, confirming some geomagnetic storm theories and bringing new concerns to light. The lab followed with a conference in Idaho this year with scientists, engineers and utility managers.

“INL’s tests demonstrated the strength of geomagnetic-induced currents and the resulting harmonics,” said Scott McBride, INL Infrastructure Security Department manager. “Advanced planning may help us to prevent unexpected shutdown that damage systems and may lead to socioeconomic impacts, injuries, fatalities, serious business disruption and data loss.”

INL’s Critical Infrastructure Test Range allows for physical and cyber performance tests to be conducted on industry-scale infrastructure. The site has an Electric Grid Test Bed and a Cyber Security Test Bed. Its grid is a 61-mile, 138-kilovolt loop complete with seven substations and a control center, all linked with advanced communications and instrumentation.

Portions of the loop can be isolated and reconfigured for independent, specialized testing. INL’s physics-based Real Time Digital Simulator allows engineers to visualize the effects of power grid failures.

“We are interested in taking a closer look at the challenges posed by a geomagnetic disturbance,” said McBride. “We are taking a proactive approach to discuss building resilience into the power infrastructure to avoid some of the damage that could occur.”

The ability to simulate real-time information is a key factor in detecting previously unknown vulnerabilities and offering operators guidance for responding to grid failures. The simulator allows specialists to predict, plan and prepare for catastrophic events, including cyberattacks.

“The next Pearl Harbor we confront could very well be a cybeattack that cripples our power systems, our grid, our security systems, our financial systems,” said former U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, who is scheduled to receive an award from the Frank Church Institute at Boise State University on Jan. 18.

Rocky Barker: 208-377-6484, @RockyBarker