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Electronic Armageddon? Congress Worries That Solar Flares Could Spell Disaster

High-energy electric pulses from the sun could surge to Earth and cripple our electrical grid for years, causing billions in damages, government officials and scientists worry.

The House is so concerned that the Energy and Commerce committee voted unanimously 47 to 0 to approve a bill allocating $100 million to protect the energy grid from this rare but potentially devastating occurrence.

The Grid Reliability and Infrastructure Defense Act, or H.R. 5026, aims "to amend the Federal Power Act to protect the bulk-power system and electric infrastructure critical to the defense of the United States against cybersecurity and other threats and vulnerabilities."

It cites electromagnetic pulses from geomagnetic or solar storms as the big threat to our energy distribution grid, and demands "an order directing the Electric Reliability Organization to submit … reliability standards adequate to protect the bulk-power system from any reasonably foreseeable geomagnetic storm event."

Solar storms occur when sunspots on our star erupt and spew out flumes of charged particles that can damage power systems. The sun's activity typically follows an 11-year cycle, and it looks to be coming out of a slump and gearing up for an active period.

"The sun is waking up from a deep slumber, and in the next few years we expect to see much higher levels of solar activity," said Richard Fisher, head of NASA's Heliophysics Division. "At the same time, our technological society has developed an unprecedented sensitivity to solar storms."

Fisher and other experts met Tuesday at the Space Weather Enterprise Forum to discuss the intersection of these two issues, and ways to protect society from nature's wrath.

A major solar storm could cause 20 times more economic damage than Hurricane Katrina, the National Academy of Sciences warned in a 2008 report, "Severe Space Weather Events—Societal and Economic Impacts."

And the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, while pointing out that "these risks are rare, and in some cases have never occurred," is nonetheless very concerned about the reality of geomagnetic events.

It a recently released report, NERC cited recent analysis by Metatech and Storm Analysis Consultants that suggests "the potential extremes of the geomagnetic threat environment may be much greater than previously anticipated. Geomagnetically induced currents on system infrastructure have the potential to result in widespread tripping of key transmission lines and irreversible physical damage to large transformers."

It's the fear of an EMP, specifically a high-altitude pulse caused by a solar event, that has Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-MD) worried.

“It would cost about $100 million to protect the grid from EMP," he said in a speech at the House. "The consequences of inaction are dire. If our grid is destroyed by EMP, the National Academies warn it would cost us between $1 trillion and $2 trillion in damages and take four to 10 years to recover.”

Next week National Geographic Explorer will air a special on the topic, which warns that the risk also comes from terrorists. In "Electronic Armageddon," Explorer asks the viewer to "picture an instantaneous deathblow to the vital engines that power our society -- delivered by a weapon specifically designed NOT to kill humans, but to kill electronics."

While predicting the odds of a nuclear HEMP attack from terrorist groups are less certain, most experts agree that another source of an EMP, the sun, is imminent,” the show warns.

Space.com contributed to this report.