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Geomagnetic Threats to Grid Targeted

By: Todd H. Cunningham |

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is proposing that its reliability watchdog develop standards to protect against the potential threat to bulk power system reliability posed by geomagnetic disturbances.

GMDs are caused by the interaction of magnetic particles ejected by the sun with the earth’s magnetic field. While there is a low probability of such disturbances occurring, according to FERC, they can damage or destroy the system and potentially lead to prolonged power outages.

Witnesses reported at a recent House subcommittee hearing on Capitol Hill that grid vulnerability is a growing concern.

To counter what Commissioner John Norris termed “a poster child for a low-frequency, high-impact threat,” FERC’s proposed rule (Docket RM12-22),approved in October, calls for a two-stage process.

First, it directs the grid watchdog, the North American Electric Reliability Corp., to file standards within 90 days of a final rule’s effective date, requiring bulk power system owners and operators to develop and implement operational procedures to mitigate GMD effects.

Next, the proposal requires NERC to file standards, within six months of a final rule’s effective date, requiring grid owners and operators to assess GMDs’ potential impacts and implement protective strategies.

The proposed rule avoids specific requirements, giving NERC deference to assess GMD challenges and what is needed to defend against them.

Norris backed this deference as appropriate, but emphasized that with high solar flare activity predicted in the near term, time is of the essence.

Commissioner Cheryl LaFleur characterized the steps called for in the proposed rule as “no regrets” actions appropriate to take while exploration of technical issue continues. She added that the upcoming increase in solar storm activity was not the only reason for addressing the GMD issue promptly.

“The U.S. is facing considerable investment in our transmission grid,” LaFleur pointed out. “We have a big opportunity to make sure the next generation of transmission equipment is built to withstand geomagnetic disturbances.”

According to Barry Lawson, NRECA associate director, power delivery and reliability, the association will work with its Reliability Task Force to develop a response to the proposed rule.

“This is a very technical issue,” Lawson said, “and membership input will be critically important to developing NRECA’s comments.”