Is The Power Grid Ready for Worst-Case Scenarios?

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Kappenman cites the impact of a 1989 event in which a geomagnetic storm brought down the power grid for the province of Quebec, leaving 6 million customers in the dark. Kappenman insists it could have been worse.

“We came very close to a blackout that could have extended from the Northeast coast to the Pacific northwest,” he said it. “The North American continent had a near miss.”

Kappenman has advised the President’s Commission on Critical Infrastructure Protection on the risks from geomagnetic storms, and has testified before Congress on the issue.

The disastrous scenarios Kappenman describes are based on events much larger than the 1989 incident. Solar storms occur in 11-year cycles, but they’re not easy to predict. A story this week in the New York Times noted that although this year represents the peak of the solar activity, no major events have been seen.

“The truth of it is there isn’t a lot going on,” Joseph Kunches, a space scientist at the Space Weather Prediction Center, told The Times. “It’s been a bit of a dud.”

EMPs and Radio Frequency Weapons

The U.S. power grid also faces a range of risks associated with electro magnetic pulses (EMPs) and radio frequency weapons (RFWs) that use intense pulses of RF energy to destroy electronics, according to George Baker, professor emeritus at James Madison University and a veteran of the Defense Nuclear Agency.

The most dramatic risk is presented by a nuclear EMP, in which a nuclear device is detonated high in the atmosphere above North America. Such an attack could have a profound impact on power infrastructure.

“The big characteristic of (nuclear) EMP for electrical grids and data centers is the is the wide affected region,” said Baker. “This is where you worry about the whole North American grid coming down.”

Perhaps a more likely scenario is the use of a RF weapon on a data center. Baker cited an incident in the Netherlands in which a disgruntled former employee used a small RF weapon to damage data in a bank’s data center. Baker says working RF weapons have been created that can fit in everything from a briefcase to a truck.

The good news? It’s a threat you can defend against. “The protection is very straightforward,” said Baker. “The Department of Defense has been doing it since the 1960s. We know from the DoD that the protection is affordable.”

Special shielding can be incorporated into walls and enclosures to protect from EMPs and RF weapons, Baker said. Walls and enclosures can be shielded, as can ventilation shafts, penetrations in walls and ceilings, and doors.

Popik, Baker and Kappenman all urged data center professionals to learn more about these issues and press for action from utilities and the government to investigate sensible defensive measures. Politicians may find the potential risks alarming, but that doesnlt always lead to action.

“It’s easy to become distracted about things that may not have happened yet,” said Popik.

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About the Author

Rich Miller is the founder and editor at large of Data Center Knowledge, and has been reporting on the data center sector since 2000. He has tracked the growing impact of high-density computing on the power and cooling of data centers, and the resulting push for improved energy efficiency in these facilities.

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