“We are so dependent on electronic transactions for everything—buying groceries, buying gas—that you can easily see how this could decay into serious civil discord,” he says. “We can't really avoid the event. We can mitigate the impacts, and that means we need to know what's coming.”
With warning, says Catholic University of America economist Kevin Forbes, power-grid operators can take precautions to protect their systems, including making sure they have enough “reactive power” available to expend on keeping the networks balanced during a storm, and perhaps “ease up on their transmissions so as to produce closer to home so they're not vulnerable to those fluctuations in the electricity flows.”
Forbes has calculated the outage costs that electric utilities pass along to their customer base at $5,000-10,000 per megawatt hour. At that rate, paying for an operational warning system is cost effective.
“Would it make economic sense,” he says. “The answer is probably 'yes,' because the economic cost of a blackout—even if the transformers are not permanently damaged—is huge, given that $5,000-10,000 figure that I put forward.”
In a House Science Committee hearing on the same subject, witnesses agreed with the thrust of the latest National Research Council decadal survey on space weather, which was released in August. At the top of the priority list, which was based on a survey of researchers in solar and space physics, was a call to complete the present program of spacecraft designed to expand knowledge of how the Sun's violent nature impacts the space around it.
Collectively the 18 solar-observation spacecraft NASA is flying, and the network of ground facilities run by the National Science Foundation (NSF) comprise a virtual “Heliophysics Systems Observatory” that collects information on the solar flares and CMEs, as well as how the solar wind spreads through the solar system and interacts with Earth's magnetic field.
But the scientific satellites in the virtual observatory have limited lifetimes that will begin to expire by late in the current decade, and so far there is no plan or money to use the knowledge they collect to establish an operational system.
“We have to have complete observations of the Sun, the interplanetary medium, the effects at Earth,” says Daniel N. Baker of the University of Colorado, who chaired the NRC's decadal survey committee. “We have to have the models, the tools that are necessary to tie all this together.”
Just doing that “requires an investment of more resources than are presently available in the budgets of any of the agencies,” Baker testified. “And so the vision we laid out was one which would require another $100-200 million per year over this next decade, without doing damage to the basic science or the ongoing activities of [the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] or NSF or any of the other agencies.”
Baker's panel called for a follow-on study to address the issue of funding and division of labor between NOAA and NASA. Near-term, he says, NASA could take on more of the operational role carried by NOAA's National Weather Service if funds for a dedicated operational system are not forthcoming.