Solar superstorm could kill millions, cost trillions

(Reuters) – Weather has been lousy this year, with droughts, heat and killer storms. But a solar superstorm could be far worse.

A monster blast of geomagnetic particles from the sun could destroy 300 or more of the 2,100 high-voltage transformers that are the backbone of the U.S. electric grid, according to the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). Even a few hundred destroyed transformers could disable the entire interconnected system.

There is impetus for a group of federal agencies to look for ways to prepare for such a storm this year as the sun moves into an active period called solar maximum, expected to peak in 2013.

U.S. experts estimate as much as a 7 percent chance of a superstorm in the next decade, which seems a slight risk, but the effects would be so wide-ranging – akin to a major meteorite strike – that it has drawn official concern.

Power blackouts can cause chaos, as they did briefly in India when more than 600 million people lost electricity for hours on two consecutive days in July. However, the kind of long-duration outage that might happen in the case of a massive solar storm would have more profound and costly effects.

There is disagreement on how costly the damage would be, but experts in the U.S. government and industry acknowledge it is a complex problem requiring a coordinated solution.

A report by the NAS estimated that about 365 high-voltage transformers in the continental United States are at risk of failure or permanent damage requiring replacement in the event of a solar superstorm.

NO POWER FOR A YEAR?

Replacements might not be available for a year or more, and the cost of damage in the first year after a storm could be as high as $2 trillion, the report said. The most vulnerable areas are the eastern one-third of the country, from the Midwest to the East Coast, and the Northwest, as far east as Montana and Wyoming and as far south as California.

The national grid was built over decades to get energy at the lowest price from where it is generated to where it is used. A solar superstorm has the capacity to bring that network down, the academy’s report said.

“Historically large storms have a potential to cause power grid blackouts and transformer damage of unprecedented proportions, long-term blackouts and lengthy restoration times, and chronic shortages for multiple years are possible,” the report said.

Richard Andres, an energy and environmental security expert at the military’s National Defense University (NDU), is helping to coordinate an interagency group to deal with the problem. The failure of the national power grid could be disastrous, he said.

In a worst-case scenario, commerce would almost instantly cease, he said, noting he was speaking for himself and not the U.S. government. Water and fuel, which depend on electric pumps, would stop flowing in most cities within hours, modern communications would end and mechanized transport would stall.

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