Monday, May 2, 2016

Hardening the Grid

Two years ago I wrote about the book One Second After, by William R. Forstchen, which novelizes the aftermath of an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) strike. It’s time to write about that issue again.

Frank Gaffney
photo from
Center for Security Policy
This past Saturday I was privileged to sit in a room with some influential people, and listen to Frank Gaffney, Founder and President of the Center for Security Policy, a national security think tank; Dr. Peter Pry, Executive Director of the Task Force on National and Homeland Security, a Congressional advisory board dedicated to protecting the US from an EMP attack and other threats; and others who were trying to get us informed about this issue.

Here’s the short of it: an EMP is a super surge that fries electrical systems. It’s like a lightning strike—only much much more powerful and much more widespread. It can affect any unprotected electronics, from giant transformers down to phones, computers, appliances, cars, and the whole gamut. It can mean that a large portion of our infrastructure—the electric grid—is vulnerable, leaving everything we use electricity for ruined.

There are natural and man-made threats. The natural threat comes from the sun: solar flares. Not just any flare, but really big ones, called a coronal mass ejection. The size to be concerned about is called Carrington class, named for a really big one that happened in 1859, taking down the telegraph system. Telegraph units burst into flame. Even trans-Atlantic underwater cables were affected.

We weren’t at that time dependent on electricity as part of our infrastructure, like we are today. Estimates now predict that loss of power could lead to the deaths of up to 90% of the population in a relatively short time—a few weeks or months. Our food, transportation, communications, and sometimes even air and water depend on electricity. People dependent on electricity for medical conditions might be most immediately affected. It could take up to several years (not days, weeks, or months) to rebuild infrastructure—assuming that the resources still exist outside the affected area.

Dr. Peter Pry
photo from Center for Security Policy
How likely is a large coronal mass ejection? Likely. In 2012 we had the largest one since 1859, and two years ago we had a near miss. It’s sort of like waiting for an earthquake. Chances are, at some point, the big one(s) will come. In the meantime, you can ignore the danger, but ignoring it does nothing to alleviate the threat. Such a solar flare would travel to us at a speed of 3 million miles per hour, so we would have nearly no warning time to prepare.

The man-made threat comes from a nuclear explosion above the atmosphere. Our enemies know our vulnerability. Enemies include North Korea, Iran, Russia, China, and any other bad actors with nuclear capabilities or seeking them. This type of attack is more likely than a nuclear missile attack on land. And since most of our defense technology depends on electricity, our ability to respond would be compromised.

The awareness of our vulnerability has actually been there a while. One of our speakers on Saturday was Texas State Senator Bob Hall, who gave us some history. Back after he graduated from the Citadel, in the 1960s, as a second lieutenant, he worked on the Minuteman Missile program. The Pentagon had become aware that their high altitude tests knocked out power in the islands below. 
Meanwhile, Russian tests knocked out power in the Soviet Union. That led to agreements to halt high altitude tests (underground testing continued after that). So, with the awareness that electronics were vulnerable, Senator Hall’s job was to protect—harden—the missiles.

He eventually left the military and never talked about this, because it had been highly classified. And then a few years ago people started talking about it openly. And he realized it was something he felt called to act on. He calls himself a “recovering political apathetic.” He stepped out of what he retirement, took on being a state senator—and in the last legislative session he carried the bill dealing with this issue.

Even though it’s a trans-partisan issue (we all use electricity, and we’re all vulnerable to the loss of our electricity), it’s just barely reaching people’s awareness. Issues often take multiple times in the legislature to get through. But we remain vulnerable as long as this isn’t handled.

Let me spell out a few important details. Hardening the grid is not technologically difficult. It’s something like putting metal in the right places, so that a surge would hit the metal rather than the electronics within. A Faraday cage is a simple version—scalable to use at home.

We learned Saturday that your home microwave can be used as a Faraday cage—to protect your essential medical equipment or something else, of course only when the microwave is not in use. Another simple home version can be a metal garbage can. Whatever you place inside should be placed in a plastic bag or container, so the electrical object doesn’t touch the metal walls of the can.

Nor is hardening the grid expensive. The entire US could have the basic grid protected for $2 billion. If we gave up a single unconstitutional regulatory program, we could immediately pay for it. Greater protection of the entire infrastructure could cost up to $20 billion. But that investment could come eventually; the immediate insurance should be the basic grid.

There are three electric grids covering the contiguous US states: the eastern grid handles about 75% of the population. The rest is covered by the western grid and the Texas grid. Yes, Texas has its own independent grid. We have no federal oversight. It is our responsibility. We can protect ourselves, regardless of what the federal government does or does not do.

Electricity is essentially a private industry product—85% private in the US. And those of us talking about it are free-market anti-harmful-government-regulation types on principle. So what’s going on? One question that came up Saturday was, why don’t the utility companies do something about this?

The answer isn’t exactly simple. Already in Texas, government officials have offered the money necessary to harden the grid—at no cost to the utilities. And the utilities said, “No thanks; we have it under control.” To this, Senator Hall asked directly if they were ready to be audited for an EMP attack; they obfuscated.

Their workers, board members, and owners will all be subject to the same loss of life and civilization as the rest of us. Yet they refuse to act.

One explanation is that these companies aren’t run by engineers; they’re run by lawyers. Their priority is to protect against liability. In a way, responding that they know the danger exists is an admission that they should have already protected the grid. So refusing to act is a way of refusing to admit knowledge—so their liability is safe.

The best answer I heard Saturday was from Dr. Pry, that the electrical industry is acting similarly to other industries in history. The zeppelin industry insisted on hydrogen, and refused to pay a little extra for helium, claiming they were so careful, an accident would never happen. Until it did. And then the industry was destroyed entirely.

The automobile industry didn’t put safety glass in cars, and seat bests and other safety measures—until public demand followed by government regulation forced them to.

Union Carbide pesticides are another example. They went to Bhopal, India, where they were free from regulation. Until they had an accident resulting in many deaths. This cost them $100 million that they could have saved if they had taken the required safety measures.

There is a natural reaction—put this off. Don’t think about it now. Maybe nothing bad will ever happen.

If the public demands grid hardening from the utility companies, it will happen. But maybe not soon enough. Maybe not until government regulation forces them.

So, that brings us to the what-can-we-do question. It’s time for some citizen lobbying.

There’s an awareness at the national level. At least eleven studies have led to the consensus: “The nation’s bulk power distribution system can be disrupted or destroyed over large areas due to various man-caused and naturally occurring phenomena.[i]” The Shield Act, to harden the grid, has come up in several legislative sessions. But it hasn’t gotten through both houses. The threat of an EMP strike was mentioned by Ted Cruz during one of the presidential debates. All of the Republican candidates have been briefed on the issue,but no one else has made it a priority.

Call your representative and senators; let them know you’re aware of the issue, care about it, see it as essential—and you will hold them responsible.

If you’re in Texas, contact your state representative and state senator. Let them know how urgent you believe this is. If we work during the next several months, we can get them to make it a priority in the next legislative session. Let them know that Senator Bob Hall will be carrying this bill again, and encourage them to sign on with him.

But that means we’re looking at the legislative session that starts January 2017. Most legislation that actually gets through that session gets implemented around September 2017, or even later. That’s another year and a half away, during which something could happen.

This could be handled by executive order. The necessary budget for handling this critical infrastructure could be diverted from other infrastructure funding—right away. Since offering help to the electrical industry hasn’t worked, and since protecting infrastructure is an essential government function, if we let Governor Abbott and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick know we care about this, we can get action much sooner.

If you’re in another state, press your governor to act. Once one governor acts, others will begin to follow.

Guilty Knowledge
by Frank Gaffney
If you need more information to take on this issue with knowledge, there’s a short book by Frank Gaffney, published by the Center for Security Policy, called Guilty Knowledge: What the US Government Knows about the Vulnerability of the Electric Grid, But Refuses to Fix. For updates and more information, try their website

There’s also the Forstchen book I mentioned earlier; even though it’s a novel, it contains notes on what’s real and where to find that info. As I was researching today I came across a book called A Nation Forsaken: EMP—the Escalating Threat of an American Catastrophe, by F. Michael Maloof. I haven’t read it, but it looks informative.

Last Tuesday, April 26th, on the Glenn Beck Show, he talked about this issue and other disasters with some experts, including what you can do to protect and prepare yourself at home if the government and utilities refuse to act. I believe he made that episode available without a subscription.

Among the suggestions for preparing for any disaster: have some food and water available to get you by for a while. Start with a three-day kit. Extend to a month. And then extend to a year if you can.

We have been prudent and done that, for a couple of decades, at our house. Long enough that a good portion reached its expiration date. We resupplied about eight years ago. But by then I was pretty limited in my diet. I need a refrigerator in order to eat without poisoning myself. So I’d much prefer hardening the grid—in time—to depending on my personal preparedness.

If you’re not ready to go off grid and live off the land, then this is the time and the issue to take on with citizen lobbying.

[i] From the foreword of Guilty Knowledge, Frank J. Gaffney, Jr., p. 6.

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