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Maine Voices: Solar storm risk to our state’s electric grid is a pre-Katrina moment

Andrea Boland for Portland Press Herald

The Maine Legislature has done its work to address the threat of a total collapse of the electric grid from an extreme geomagnetic solar storm (a geomagnetic disturbance) so powerful and widespread it would black out Maine, the whole Northeast, Atlantic seaboard or even the nation for months or years – but work remains.

L.D. 1363, sponsored by Sen. David Miramant, D-Camden, would have required Central Maine Power to install protections on the grid that would allow it to recover quickly. Without protections, it could not survive. Studies have been done by the Public Utilities Commission, first responders, insurance companies and independent national experts.

Sen. Miramant summed up the results this way: “We have identified a problem, we have a solution, so we need to just fix it.”

We are in a pre-Katrina moment. Everyone knows we need to build the dikes, but will we?

A geomagnetic disturbance is a powerful superstorm of charged particles that comes hurtling through space at us from the sun, blasting into the magnetic fields that surround the Earth and sending big power surges through the electric grid, causing fires and burning out everything connected to the system. It reaches everyone.

Loss of electric power for months or years is not practically survivable, because the critical extra-high-voltage transformers that control the flow of electricity throughout the state would be destroyed or badly damaged. The transformers come from other countries and take up to two years to deliver in normal times, and we have no spares.

There are even manmade electromagnetic pulse weapons that can have the same effect, and worse; these are a major concern of the military.

For all these reasons and the losses they would bring about, prevention of grid collapse is the only credible protection. The alternative is unthinkable.

We are in a pre-Katrina moment. Everyone knows we need to build the dikes, but will we?

L.D. 1363 passed in the House by a strong bipartisan vote. It lost in the Senate by a single vote, unfortunately along party lines. Only two Republicans, David Burns of Whiting and Rodney Whittemore of Skowhegan, supported it.

Thus, we have no law in place to require CMP to install protections and ensure the safety of the public. Their lobbyists won, senators succumbed and everyone else lost – an old political story.

The industry has fought protective reliability standards at the national level for years. Do you know that a big solar storm can cause death? The utilities know. Does that bother you?

People wonder why the electric utilities don’t want to protect their business, their profits, but there’s no clear answer.

They talk probabilities, but this is a 100 percent probable event. They say they don’t need a higher standard of protection, but their own data show otherwise. They say they don’t want to be told what to do, but they are a monopoly, transferring their business risks to ratepayers, who would have to pick up the costs of massive losses, while CMP has blanket liability protection from responsibility.

It’s not a cost issue. The surge blockers would cost $2.3 million, but CMP has said it has a viable option: equipment costing $42 million that has not been proven effective for severe solar storms. Either way, they get an 11.74 percent guaranteed rate of return on their investment: $42 million earns them $4,930,000, $2.3 million earns $270,000.

L.D. 1363 would have required CMP to install protective power surge blockers on their most critical transmission equipment: the extra-high-voltage transformers that control the flow of electric power throughout the state.

There are 15 of them, costing about $10 million each, or a total of $150 million. The blockers attach to them and automatically block dangerous surging currents. They’ve been tested and proven effective by Idaho National Laboratory.

Their cost is $2.3 million, total (about $4 million installed), if Maine accepts the offer currently on the table. If CMP financed it over five years, the cost to ratepayers would be 60 cents per person, per year; if over the 20-year life of the blockers, 15 cents per person per year. We can afford that.

Fortunately, the manufacturer has left the offer on the table for now, so there is still time to consider it. CMP could pick it up on its own. Alternatively, the governor or the PUC could order CMP to pick it up.

Do you think they will? Do you think they should? Does it bother you that they haven’t already? Maybe they should hear from you. They’ve heard from me.

Do you think anyone cares? I do, especially those people up on the poles.

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