It sounds like something out of science fiction or disaster movies, but the prospect of a large-scale electromagnetic pulse taking out the electrical grid is one being talked about at the Oklahoma Capitol.
At least two bills want voters to decide if they are willing to pay more on their electric bills to shield key equipment from electromagnetic pulse (EMP) radiation.
As far as science is concerned, the threat is real. The sun shoots off solar flares on regular cycles that can affect electronics on earth, although the effects are usually limited in area and intensity. The sun is about to start another phase of such geomagnetic disturbances or solar storms.
The threat from a man-made EMP in the form of a nuclear explosion or a “dirty bomb” is also real, but experts are split on the likelihood of such a weapon being deployed over the United States that would fry the electrical grid and communications devices.
Rep. Gus Blackwell, R-Laverne, said he was convinced of the need to protect the electrical grid after hearing Frank Gaffney, the founder and president of the Washington-based Center for Security Policy. Gaffney, a frequent speaker on EMP issues, was among the presenters at a November event hosted by the Legislative Counterterrorism Caucus.
Blackwell’s House Bill 2623 would put a state question on November’s ballot to ask voters if they are willing to fund infrastructure upgrades on their electric bills. The bill passed a House committee and could be heard on the floor some time this week, he said.
Sen. Ralph Shortey, R-Oklahoma City, authored Senate Bill 2016, a companion bill with similar EMP language. It passed a Senate committee in February.
Blackwell said he realizes customers might balk at costs to protect the electrical infrastructure from an EMP. Early estimates range from $9 million to more than $250 million, depending on the level of protection, he said.
“It’s an attempt to start putting money aside to harden the grid and make sure we wouldn’t be left in the dark,” Blackwell said. “It’s not a mandate. It would put it to a vote of the people; there would be some limit on costs.”
Blackwell said the military already has standards to protect its infrastructure against EMPs.
Oklahoma’s two largest electric utilities don’t support the bills, saying the costs are too uncertain and the risks of EMP attacks are small.
Stan Whiteford, spokesman for Public Service Co. of Oklahoma, said there are no specifics in the legislation as to what infrastructure would need to be shielded from EMP attacks or geomagnetic disturbances.
John Rhea, compliance officer for Oklahoma Gas and Electric Co., said regional grid officials monitor solar flares.
“The financial implications of trying to protect against any and all potential GMD-type situations would be exorbitant,” Rhea said.
Rhea said a cooperative program put in place after the 9/11 terrorist attacks provides utilities access to replacement high-voltage transformers, expensive pieces of the electrical grid that can last up to 50 years but aren’t easy to transport across the country.
At least four other states are studying EMP-related disasters, including Arizona, Florida, New Jersey and New York, said Kristy Hartman, an energy specialist with the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Last year, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission requested standards for dealing with geomagnetic disturbances from the sun.