Fed sees EMP as a threat to power infrastructure, but can't figure out how to prevent it.

Fed sees EMP as a threat to power infrastructure, but can't figure out how to prevent it.

Summary: Handicapped by their own mandate, FERC has identified a real problem, but isn't allowed to address it.

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TOPICS: Data Centers
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While we often worry about maintaining power to our datacenters and plan for the potential impact of power outages and how we will deal with them almost all the plans made by datacenter operators deal with short term power failures. Long-term outages usually fall under the aegis of our disaster recovery / business continuity planning, but even that level of organization operates under the expectation that the national power grid will remain intact.

The Federal Regulatory Energy Commission (FERC) has, since the establishment of the regulatory oversight explained in the Energy Policy Act of 2005, been the agency responsible for the protection of the delivery of reliable bulk energy in the US. This means primarily the backbone of energy providers; they are not tasked with oversight of regional providers.

In a somewhat convoluted process, FERC has designate another group, the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) to review, propose and approve new and existing standards with the goal of improving the reliability and protecting the bulk power systems within the continental US. They are not responsible for Alaska or Hawaii.

Last month, Joseph McClellan, the director of the Office of Electric Reliability of the FERC testified before congress to point out the limitations of federal policy on maintaining the reliability and availability of the nation’s electric backbone in a time when external threats are a potential problem.  You can download the transcript of his testimony here.

He basically makes two points; the first is that while the current procedures and processes in place for the government and FERC to provide direction on how to meet their mandated requirements are suitable for long-term planning, they are basically useless if there is a need for a quick reaction to ongoing events.

The second is the lack of any real process in place to handle physical threats to reliability of the bulk electric providers, with specific attention to the potential damage that can be caused by EMP. He makes it quite clear that while the danger of EMP damage is a real one, and that this has been known to the government for at least a decade, that there has been little to no activity on how to address this physical threat beyond additional reports and studies identifying EMP as a potential problem. And in a typical government catch-22, they FERC can identify the problem but is limited by the scope of their authority and cannot promulgate standards for addressing this very real issue.

Topic: Data Centers

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12 comments
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  • oh well...

    i think as citizens all we can say is "oh well"

    if the government with all its resources can't find a solution, then its too bad for everyone.

    on the positive side, i'm pretty sure that the government has underground operational centers that are protected from emp.
    databaseben
    • Why blame government?

      Most of our products came from private industry. Means to protect these gadgets were not included, because the price would go higher, profits would be down, etc...

      If government mandated such safety, people would shriek all sorts of nasty things...

      Sorry, pegging government - either way - doesn't fly.
      HypnoToad72
  • Huh?

    Is FERC planning on issuing guidelines for the sun going nova, too? What are they going to do, tell the terrorists "Sorry, but your EMP bomb is limited to 5000 volts/meter"? Are they going to require that the entire existing electrical power grid and every electronic item in existence be Faraday caged? Or are they working with DARPA on a scalable, portable, and unbreakable force field generator? Publishing a regulation that new equipment going forward has to withstand an EMP of "X volts/meter" is hardly worthwhile -- whoever attacked would just use more bombs.
    Vesicant
  • This is easy.

    How about we get the government to stop bombing and killing people in other countries, so that no one would bother to set off such a weapon?
    Bob_Robert
    • It wouldn't stop them.

      Sadly, the situation is not that simple. If every bombing mission were cancelled, it wouldn't stop them.
      CobraA1
    • Yeah, that's it

      If we just stop doing military stuff, no one would do such a thing.

      Certainly no one in the world hates the US for simply existing.

      Oh, wait.
      harvey_rabbit
  • The fear of EMP has been around for decades,

    even used as entertainment fodder in the 1980s... so few people can claim ignorance and get away with it, and most of those people are the loopy customers buying their latest cell phone toy.

    Why didn't private industry step up to the plate, or do such EMP protections hamper profit too much? If government had, everybody would be screaming "faaaaascism", "communiiiiism", and everything else...
    HypnoToad72
  • If we're getting hit with EMPs . . .

    If we're getting hit with EMPs . . . then chances are, we're looking at World War 3.

    The most practical way of generating an EMP pulse, as far as I know, is with a nuclear weapon . . .
    CobraA1
  • Get the priorities right

    Thousands of people die *every day* from known causes where government regulation could have made the difference. The biggest one is medical mistakes and incompetent doctors which are actively concealed by existing regulations. Why? Money, oodles and oodles of it. Lost profits by hospitals, lost bribes to Congress, even though all of that would be offset by immediate and widespread benefits to the public.

    It would cost utilities billions of dollars to pay for even rudimentary defenses, against a miniscule chance of it happening. So NOBODY wants to pay for it, not the companies, not taxpayers, not the legislators.

    From a risk standpoint, I'd say the utilities are 10 times more likely to go offline because of a US financial meltdown than from any sort of sneak nuclear attack.
    terry flores
  • EMP?

    Does the casual reader even know what EMP is? That, as hinted at by CobraQ1, an EMP is caused by ionization phenomenon caused by an upper atmospheric atomic burst. So, if we're suffering EMP then we've been undergoing a successful nuclear attack. This article mentions EMP only in the last paragraph, without explaining what "EMP" is, and where the notion came from (presumably from an upper-atmospheric nuclear test in the 1950's). No one knows, really, the magnitude of such an event, whether it is dire as predicted, etc etc. The hypothesis is that because "the grid" is spread over so large an area and entended in length, it will act as an antenna that "picks up" some of the energy of "the burst" and fry all the substations connected to it, maybe even the power-generators. An explanation in this article of the facts as known would make the article useful, as opposed what it is now.
    Gezeer
    • Unfortunately

      EMP is not caused only by an nuclear explosion. There are numerous other ways to produce EMP.
      EMP is produced around us by lighting activity all the time...
      One of the most powerful human-build EMP generators is located... in the US. :)

      Any electrical circuit is affected by EMP and of course Faraday illustrated long ago how trivial protection can be obtained.

      Anyway, where is the news?
      danbi
  • EMP

    Pass the SHIELD Act.
    Patricia Donalds