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Power grid expert: New federal 'reliability' standard lulls nation into false sense of security

This map depicts the electric power grid across the United States. (Image: Argonne National Laboratory)

A federal agency charged with protecting the reliability of the United States' power grid last week rejected an appeal by industry experts who say a new “hollow” reliability standard leaves the country wide open to widespread blackouts.

In April, For the Record revealed the gaps in security for the U.S. infrastructure in “Unguarded.” Dr. Peter Pry, a U.S. energy grid expert, says Thursday’s decision to uphold the North American Electric Reliability Corporation standard will plague the overall protection of the grid.

CBS San Francisco Transformer Substation Attacked Experts argue extra-high voltage transformers need additional protection from manmade attacks and natural events, such as solar flares and other geomagnetic disturbances. But the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission shot down a "last-stop" appeal from some grid experts to prevent a "junk science" reliability standard from being implemented. (Image source: CBS San Francisco)

"On Oct. 16, the U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approved the Geomagnetic Disturbance Standard proposed by the [NERC], despite the gross inadequacy of the standard," Pry, executive director of the Task Force on National and Homeland Security and director of the U.S. Nuclear Strategy Forum, told TheBlaze.

Pry explained this was a “last-stop” effort to keep the federal agency from implementing “junk science.”

"This is a big set back for those of us trying to protect our nation ...  it is better to have no GMD standard than a fake GMD standard that will lull policymakers and the public into complacency about an existential threat to our civilization," he said.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is tasked with safeguarding the grid from both manmade attacks and natural events so high voltage transmissions can still function between states in the event of an incident. But Pry said two big issues with the FERC-approved standard would actually made the grid more vulnerable.

"In this standard it does not require the electric power industry to place [geomagnetically induced current] monitors at the transformer substations," Pry explained. "The idea here is that if you had these monitors at transformer substations, you'd actually be collecting real data over the years on the geomagnetic fields."

Pry asked, "So, why would anybody who's serious about protecting transformers ... object to having monitors installed to measure what the real stress is?"

He said this question uncovers the second “glaring” problem with the standard.

"They want to stick with their fictional computer models ... that underestimate the threat to the electric grid from natural EMP from the sun by a factor of at least two and probably five," he said.

The problem with the reliability standard is much like building the wrong kind of house in a hurricane zone, Pry explained.

"For example, it's as if this document says the winds for a hurricane would never go above 100 miles per hour, but we know the data says otherwise and they can go twice as high," he said. "You wouldn't build a house that could only withstand half the winds expected ... and these geomagnetic threats can actually go five times higher than NERC claims."

The former chair of the Congressional EMP Commission said the lack of national security protection offered to critical U.S.’ infrastructure continues to be a problem, but the states have the authority to implement solutions.  He said the fix lies with the Public Utilities Commissions in each state, which can direct how their grid systems should be protected.

"Over the last year FERC has been lobbying and bringing pressure to bear and trying to muzzle the good guys," he said, emphasizing that the states should not trust the “bureaucrats in Washington and the electric power industry” to protect the grid at the federal level.

"Few arguments are better than NERC's own hollow GMD standard for geomagnetic storms to prove that the states should not wait for Washington, but should act now to protect their grids and the lives of their peoples," Pry said.

Check out a clip from "Unguarded" here, or find the entire episode on the For the Record show page.

Follow Elizabeth Kreft (@elizabethakreft) on Twitter

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