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 December 16, 2013
U.S. Must Address Risk to Power Grid of Coronal Mass Ejections

 Your series on climate adaptation has been outstanding. Congratulations on a job well done. The latest article, "Hardening Energy Assets" is particularly interesting.

However, I'd respectfully point out that an especially important subject that has been omitted. That is the devastating risk to the entire electric power grid posed by a coronal mass ejection (CME) (Editor's note: CME is a massive burst of solar wind and magnetic fields rising above the solar corona or released into space.

It is widespread that people are unaware of CME. I could not find any references to CME or related subjects on the ENR website. Briefly, a really big CME will---not could, but will---collapse the entire North American electric grid. Based on research by Lloyds of London, there is a 1 in 150 chance of having a CME equal to the largest one on record, in 1859. The probability of a smaller CME that is equivalent to the one that shut down the electric power grid in Quebec, Canada in 1989 is 1 in 50. Compare these to the probability of someone dying in a traffic accident, which is 1 in 6,584. The probability of a CME is 44 to 132 times higher than dying in a car accident!

Importantly, we know with 100% certainty that a CME will, in fact, occur. This is a natural phenomenon, a normal process for the sun that has been going on for millions of years and will continue for many more millions of years. There are currently no preparations made across the entire U.S. power grid to accommodate and mitigate CME impacts.

We know that seat belts save lives so we "buckle up," yet we do nothing to prepare for a devastating event that is much more likely to occur. The entire nation is vulnerable to the loss of electric power for decades.The economic and societal impacts are overwhelming. The technology to protect the grid and mitigate damage is well known. It is also quite economic.Canadian costs were about $34 per person for this one-time operation. That is, it can be done and the cost is modest.

Nothing has been done yet in America. As someone who has studied this subject for more than five years, I would respectfully suggest that ENR do an in-depth article for its audience, which has the technical ability to understand the subject, on the risk that CMEs present to the country. It would go a long way to reduce the widespread lack of knowledge on this subject and would be an important service to the people of America.

Michael Suffita, P.E.
President, Protect Utah's Power Grid, Salt Lake City