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The Secure High-voltage Infrastructure for Electricity from Lethal Damage Act (SHIELD Act, HR 668), aims to protect America’s electric grid against an Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) event. There are essentially only two static events that could cause significant EMP damage: 1) a coronal mass ejection (CME) (or solar storm) or 2) a nuclear attack. The SHIELD Act attempts to protect against these two events by hardening facilities and by having replacement parts available. It is essentially budget neutral because it passes on to consumers the costs of these changes, which are estimated to cost about 20 cents per rate-payer for one year (not per year). You might think this is crazy but the science and experts back it up. (Seriously.)
A major CME event or nuclear attack could cause severe damage to the entire electric grid. A recent CME that likely caused a “geomagnetic storm” capable of damaging our electric grid occurred in 1989 over Quebec. (EMP report, p. 17). This storm caused the collapse of the Quebec Hydro grid. Further, the International Journal of Research and Applications said there is a one in eight chance that a “massive solar storm” will occur within the next decade. A storm like that could cause severe damage to America’s electric grid. Add to that the threat of a nuclear attack by a rogue state or terrorist organization looking to cause extreme damage with only one nuclear weapon. If a nuclear weapon were set off at the proper height (about 100 km – 500 km with a 400 km sweet spot) it could cause widespread EMP damage across a large part of the nation. Because our electric systems are interdependent, it could bring virtually the entire electric grid down.
You can imagine what these natural or nuclear phenomena could do to our daily way of life. Imagine a world without technology: no texting, cell phones, or Facebook; no air conditioning (enjoy those 100 plus degree heat waves!); food and medicine would spoil quickly without refrigerators; running water would stop as electric pumps failed; supply routes for food, gas, and other essential items would shut down; and our way of life would fundamentally change. This could truly be devastating to our technologically advanced society.
But this can’t actually happen right? Wrong. Congress created a commission to write a report assessing the threat of an EMP event and offer recommendations. This report found that an EMP is capable of causing a national catastrophe but also found that the catastrophe is preventable. This may not be the gravest threat facing America, but it is certainly a credible and preventable threat.
If this is of such national importance why hasn’t it been passed? Well, it got a good start last Congress. The GRID Act was introduced by Rep. Markey in the 111th Congress. It is substantially similar to the SHIELD Act, except it included a cyber threat protection portion. The GRID Act received bi-partisan support both coming out of committee (with a unanimous 47-0 vote) and passed the full House by a voice vote. However, the Senate failed to pass the GRID Act because of the cyber-threat protection language. This is likely why it was removed when it was reintroduced in the 112th Congress.
Currently, the SHIELD Act is stuck in the Energy and Commerce Committee, where Congressman Fred Upton (R) sits as the Chairman. Congressman Upton voted in favor of the GRID Act and will hopefully move the SHIELD Act out of committee as well. Otherwise, we might just end up back in our Horse and Buggy.
– Nick Barry
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