Russ: Hi, I’m Russ Capper and this is The EnergyMakers Show. Our topic today is the electrical grid system, it’s extreme importance, and its vulnerability. My guests today are Dr. Bill Radawsky, President and founder of Metatech, and Bob Hall, Texas State Senator from District 2. Bob, Bill, welcome to The EnergyMakers Show.
Bob: Thank you, Russ, it’s great to be here with you.
Bill: Great to be here too.
Russ: Ok, good deal. So, guys when I think of the power grid system I think that there’s just a huge part of the population that has no understanding of its importance, no understanding of what it provides us with, no appreciation of its incredible reliability. Every time we go to the light switch and turn it on, the lights come one. Electricity goes off, we go, my goodness, I hope they hurry up and get it back on. I think there’s a lot of people that think it’s no big deal. Am I exaggerating how I describe it?
Bob: Not at all. Matter of fact, it’s pretty much an understatement because people don’t realize that electricity is the third most important thing to sustaining life today. The only two things more important are air and water. There are a lot of people who live longer without food than they will without electricity (Russ: My goodness.)
Bill: The other problem is that most people recognize when they lose power in their area, say due to a lightning strike or some other local phenomena, that they’re worried about their local wiring and so forth, which can be repaired fairly quickly, but if you have problems with the high voltage bulk grid, you can’t get the power to the people and it may be out for a long time. And that is the real concern is the high voltage grid and being able to keep it operating.
Russ: Oh, wow. Well I’ve been through several periods, like on hurricane Ike and a trip I took to New York one time, and it’s just amazing how everything comes to a stop. Which sort of brings us to you guys and what you’re focused on and it is that vulnerability, and as I understand it, you think, to a major degree the grid is under risk in a certain category. Explain that to us.
Bill: Well we did some work for the EMP commission, which was a congressional commission that started around 2001, and one of the first things we did, we were asked to take a look at the vulnerability of the equipment that controls the grid. And so we’re not talking now about the transformers but the electronics inside of the control houses at every substation. There are thousands of substations in the United States, and we found in testing the equipment that they are extremely vulnerable to high levels of electromagnetic pulses. Different types; both from a nuclear EMP, from electromagnetic weapons, and even from a geomagnetic storm started by the sun.
Russ: Ok explain what a electromagnetic event is. I mean, for a layman like me.
Bill: Well, we have radio. Everybody knows, well they used to know what radio is. Cellular phones are a form of radio. Your speech is turned into an electromagnetic wave that is sent back to a cell station. The only difference is that these levels are around one volt per meter. Now, if you expose that cell phone or the cell tower to 50,000 volts per meter, you’re going to have damage, and that’s the problem. It’s not just a simple thing of recovery. And the high altitude EMP covers a huge area, half the continent, or the full continent in a single go. And you can have a tremendous amount of damage if that equipment isn’t protected in some way.
Bob: I was going to say the seriousness of it is what you describe when that was a local event. Large for the Manhattan area, but it was basically local, so you had power outside the area. What we’re talking about here is an event that would take out the power, essentially, from coast to coast and border to border, so there is no cavalry coming in from some other place. You have a widespread, the widespread is the entire United States.
Russ: Ok, so obvious question for me is, who would or what sort of incident would cause one of these electromagnetic, powerful waves to come through and cause the damage?
Bill: Well there are three main ways that it can happen. The first is a nuclear burst in space, above the United States or any other country where it could occur.
Russ: An intentional,
Bill: An intentional one. And there are concerns, it’s in the media, you can read the articles that some terrorist group could launch a scud missile with a primitive nuclear device and create a signal that could be damaging. And that is a concern. And the second one is more modern, or newer, and this is what we call electromagnetic weapons. The same technology that allows very small solid state equipment also allows you to build very small solid state weapons. And the movies like Oceans 11, and 24, they have it right. Those things they show are real. We have in our laboratory a device that can damage almost any commercial piece of equipment, and it’s this big.
Russ: Ok, when an electromagnetic weapon goes off do you see it, feel it, or anything (Bill: No.)? All of the sudden the power goes out?
Bill: What Bob said is very important. The electromagnetic weapon is a close attack. It’s only going to take out one facility. Now if you have a coordinated attack, multiple attackers, but no one will know. You won’t hear anything, you won’t see anything you won’t hear anything, you’ll just stop.
Bob: When a nuclear weapon is set off at high altitudes outside the earth’s atmosphere, you can stand there and be looking at it. You may or may not see a bright flash for fractions of a microsecond, but there will be no kinetics. There’s no blast, there’s nothing blown up. You don’t feel it, it doesn’t hurt humans, it doesn’t hurt plants.
Bill: in 1962 when we did the Starfish test at high altitudes, 400 kilometers, it was announced ahead of time. People in Honolulu went out with picnic baskets at 11 o’clock at night and watched.
Russ: And what happened?
Bill: They saw a light display. Not the microsecond, it would be almost impossible to see that light, but what they saw was an aurora display of the charged particles that were injected, similar to being near the North Pole, except now you’re in Honolulu.
Russ: Was there an impact on the electrical grid system?
Bill: There were some electrical effects, but they weren’t as substantial as some people thought they should have been. The difference was the test was over wide areas of ocean. Later, the Russians informed us about their testing over land, and they had lots of things happen to a commercial facility. They didn’t tell us anything about military effects, which is not surprising.
Russ: Ok, so Bill, when you started this you said there’s three variations: there’s the high altitude, nuclear, the lower, local nuclear type,
Bill: No, no, it’s not nuclear. It’s non-nuclear. It’s something you can put together, you can actually build a device out of your microwave oven. You can make that into a weapon. It’s short range. The more sophisticated ones can damage equipment at a kilometer, a long distance. The third one is the solar storm, which is a natural event. They do happen periodically. In 1989, in March, Quebec, the province of Quebec went into a black out. From beginning the end, when the impulse arrived, was 92 seconds from normal to blackout, due to a solar event.
Bob: And that wasn’t the first one.
Bill: No that’s right.
Bob: If we can go back, the first one that we really have where there was something that could be damaged that we know of was in 1859, called the Carrington Event. Our telegraph systems were fried from coast to coast and in Europe, operators were burned, and there were reports of railroad ties being set on fire due to high currents going through the rails. The rails bent.
Bill: The importance, though, of the Quebec event is it is with a modern power grid, which exists everywhere. The power grids all over the world are basically the same.
Russ: Ok, so was it that big of a deal? I mean, did it go out and an hour later everything (Bill: it was about nine hours), about nine hours.
Bill: That’s right. And because the grid collapsed so rapidly, they didn’t have a lot of damage, and that’s one of the intriguing things. Some people say, well the way to avoid this if you think a big storm is coming, is just turn off the power grid. Well, the problem is if you turn off the power grid it takes you a long time to get it back under normal circumstances.
Russ: Ok, but it still doesn’t seem to me like, I mean, you were particularly on this high altitude nuclear version. You were talking then like this was very widespread, but on all these things can’t they just sort of turn it back on?
Bill: It’s not easy to turn the power grid back on over a large area. In a local area, if it’s just a matter of putting the wires back up, you know, they have switches. They turn off the power to the wire that’s down, they replace the wire with a small transformer, turn it back on, everything’s fine. But if it’s the high voltage grid where all the energy is passing from the generators to the cities, that’s not a simple matter.
Russ: And that’s where we have a big problem. I mean, it can affect water and food? You can’t even charge your Tesla then, right (Bob and Bill: No.)?
Bob: The issue of the widespread, if you get equipment damage, you get the high voltage transformers, which are very large, several thousand tons. It takes 24, 36 months to get one built. We don’t even make them in the United States anymore, and special equipment to move them. When they’re out, there’s nothing downstream of the electricity of the high voltage transformers. So while there are relatively few of those compared to the users, or meters, you lose one high voltage transformer, or several of them, and it effects a huge number of users. And then on top of that you have the problem that we really don’t ever experience, and that’s what they call the black start. And that’s when the power is turned off completely and you’ve got to restart. And it’s a very complicated, delicate process, primarily because unlike water, you can store water in a big tank and use it whenever you want to.
Electricity is used, essentially, the instant that it’s made, and so you’re having to make what’s being used, and if you don’t have a user, you can’t make it. And so it’s a balancing act.
Russ: Ok, you have sufficiently scared me in this because I know you guys are of the opinion that there’s things we can do to protect the grid from this. Is it huge, is it expensive or not?
Bill: Well, there are variations in the cost depending on which aspect, but what we have learned is if you have control centers and substations, if you build them new, with metal buildings, the cost will not be that much different than building them out of concrete or brick. So, from that point of view, a new build is fairly inexpensive. I think in one major control center that was built, the additional cost was about 4% on the new build to make a metal box, basically, to put everything in. Once you put everything inside, the metal material, if it’s continuous, it stops the electromagnetic fields. But for older equipment, and buildings, and just trying to add protection, it’s much more expensive and difficult, but it can be done.
Russ: Ok, well I was doing research on you guys a little bit beforehand and you sort of champion the cause to do that, but there’s sort of a lobbying branch, this is probably more in your category that works with utilities that’s against this. Now, are they against it just because it costs money?
Bob: I’ve been trying to figure that out myself. One conclusion I came to is that we have power companies that are run by executives who are more concerned about their paychecks and bonuses than they are about what they ought to be doing for the American people.
Bill: I think there’s a second issue, and actually I saw this and I’m sure you did to, Bob, when we were in the military there’s sort of a feeling that, well it’s never going to really happen. So why should we spend some money on something that will never happen? And a second factor, and I think this is where Bob and his good work really come in, is that every state has a public utility commission, and they don’t want money to be wasted. The power companies have to show what they’re going to do and why, and then they can recover that cost. I’m working with the smart grid issues in the US and there are some public utilities that are not approving things that would give you more margin, like backup transformers. They don’t want you to have too many backup transformers because it costs money.
Russ: So, Bob, I’m curious though. What does the Department of Defense think of this? It seems like we worry about cyber security, appropriately, all the time, but I don’t hear anybody worrying about this other than the two of you.
Bob: Well the grid, that’s not under the Department of Defense.
Russ: Yeah, but it’s like a threat to our country.
Bill: But it is true the time when we were in the service, most of the military bases had their own power plants. Today, they’re now almost always in commercial power because it’s basically cheaper. They don’t have to have a staff of people, and so forth. And they are concerned in several places that because there are those that do have a backup power center, they don’t have enough for the whole base. They’re trying to cover the critical aspects, so it’s a tricky business. But Bob’s right that power, and there are auto confused fights, I have to be careful, between the Department of Homeland Security and the military, it’s like who is in charge of helping? And DOE, of course, Department of Energy. So, there’s a little bit of confusion about who should be helping the power industry to do some of this.
Russ: I’m going to be paying attention from here on when the electricity goes out. I hope that it’s not one of these deals because, man it sounds serious.
Bob: It is very serious. This is not the Leave it to Beaver world we grew up in. We have moved well beyond what we used to consider the only groups of people that could take down America would be a large army, like Russia or China, but technology which has brought us to this point. To be so dependent on electricity and technology that has brought rather sophisticated weapons, very easy to obtain, and taking very few, we’re in a situation now where a handful of people with one weapon can do more damage to the united states than a million-man army can do in six months and a lot of weapons.
Russ: So we’re exposed.
Bill: One of the ironies, I think, is that of the three threats, the one that is getting some attention, although not enough in my opinion, is the geomagnetic storm. And that’s because it could happen at any time and no one has to do it, but if you think about it, we have enemies who would like to do us harm. And I would think one would be more concerned about threats that are made by people who want to attack you and want to hurt you.
Bob: Oh, absolutely. We know, from documents we’ve captured, that the Russians have the EMP threat in their war scenario, and the Chinese, since the 60’s. We have captured documents from the Iranians in which they talk about using EMP as a first strike in 22 different war scenarios. We have listened to the North Koreans talk about it significantly. We’ve watched them develop missiles that have the capability to deliver an EMP weapon. We’ve watched the Iranians and the North Koreans test launch missiles off the back of cargo ships, which is that’s all it would take is a small SA-2 missile and one small nuclear weapon off the coast of Galveston, get it a couple hundred nautical miles above Kansas, and the lights go out.
Russ: Wow, alright well thank you very much and good luck in your pursuit to keep this from happening guys.
Bob: Thank you.
Bill: Thank you.
Russ: You bet. And that wraps up my discussion with Bob Hall, the Texas State Senator from District 2, and Bill Radasky, the President of Metatech. And this is The EnergyMakers Show.
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