What if Chicken Little was right – Would utility providers be prepared?

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As a history buff and science geek, my husband will watch the History Channel or Discovery Channel until he’s asleep on the couch. He is the epitome of the phrase, “learning is cool.” Recently, we watched the History Channel’s The Men Who Built America , which specifically focused on J.P. Morgan and his relationship with Thomas Edison.

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Following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, utility crews worked tirelessly to restore power.

Banking tycoon J.P. Morgan funded Edison’s work, and the two started Edison General Electric Company in 1887. Today, you know the company as General Electric. The duo introduced direct current (DC) electricity to New York, which is what the city ran on for 125 years until it was switched to alternating currents (AC) in 1997. From its initial inception, electricity changed the world forever, making us completely dependent on an occasionally unstable resource.

Following the impact of Superstorm Sandy, millions of people in the Northeast United States were without power for days and even weeks. New Englanders experienced the archaic ways of living by candlelight. After that event, a closer look was taken at keeping the lights on during a freak storm or natural disaster. The response from utility providers, however, was unexpected.

In 2005, Walt Disney Feature Animation produced a modern-day tail of the classic Chicken Little.

In 2005, Walt Disney Feature Animation produced a modern-day tale of the classic Chicken Little.

According to the New York Times and its discussion with electric utility providers in New England, it is more cost effective for a company and its customers to spend money on recovery efforts following a storm than actually implementing prevention methods and safeguarding its assets. What was not taken into account, unfortunately, was the economic impact of power outages on business operations, gasoline availability, retail sales, hospital safety, etc., which has far more damaging effects to the nation’s financial system. (Mentioned in my previous blog, even one weather event can trigger a ripple effect on the community.)

So, what if the next “Superstorm Sandy” didn’t come from the ocean or clouds? What if the next natural disaster came from space? Would utility companies be prepared? Could they handle returning power to communities as they did during Hurricane Katrina, Ike, or Sandy? Was Chicken Little right? Is the sky falling?

Not exactly,  but in a recent blog from the Washington Post, writer Brad Plumer explains the shocking truth about electric utilities and their disaster preparedness plans. If, for example, the 1859 Carrington Event occurred again, you can forget about a couple of weeks without power; this geomagnetic solar storm emitted from the sun would fry transformers and communication wires indefinitely, leaving people without power for years, in a worst case scenario. (Cue music from NBC’s TV hit Revolution.)

NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory snapped this picture of an eruption on the sun's surface producing a coronal mass ejection in 2012. Credit: NASA/SDO/AIA

NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory snapped this picture of an eruption on the sun’s surface producing a coronal mass ejection in 2012. Credit: NASA/SDO/AIA

As utility providers, insurance companies and government officials learn more about the damaging effects of all types of weather events, including “space weather,” more is being done to prepare business operations. According to Plumer, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission issued a report that will eventually mandate grid operators to prepare for space weather events of all types. Insurance companies are also analyzing these space events for their clients, while airlines monitor space weather reports for planes flying over the poles, to avoid losing radio contact with air traffic controllers. Even our handy-dandy GPS systems are getting a closer look for ways to limit space weather interference.

While severe weather competes with space weather for hot topics among meteorologists and scientists, companies are taking a serious look at disaster preparedness and business continuity plans. While we hope for the best, it’s still vital to prepare for the worst. Perhaps utility providers should take a lesson from my husband – learning is cool – especially if it’s how to safeguard your personnel, assets, and more importantly, your community, against space or earth weather. Finally, don’t forget to stock up on those candles.

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