FREDERICK, Md. — Roscoe Bartlett was rattling off the prices of giant bags of rice, wheat and corn, sold cheaply at Sam’s Club. The former congressman from rural, western Maryland expressed bewilderment that every American doesn’t stockpile such things, considering what he is sure is coming.
“Storing enough calories isn’t really a challenge,” said the rugged 87-year-old Republican, who served 10 terms on Capitol Hill. “The real challenge is vitamins and stuff.”
Bartlett is preparing for an epic power outage. More than the lights would go out, he fears. All electronics could malfunction. Cars might not run. GPS systems would fail. Generators would be of no use, as gas pumps would stop working. The disruption could last a year or more. There would be looting, rioting, a general societal collapse.
It will be caused, he says, by a surge of magnetic current that fries the power grid and wreaks havoc on all electronics. Either a solar storm will trigger it, he says, or a terrorist act.
The scenario seems purely one of science fiction, and, in fact, many analysts dismiss as overwrought the scenes of devastation sketched out by the former congressman and fellow believers.
But the ranks of those concerned that the country is on a collision course with a dangerous electromagnetic surge have increased considerably of late. Long the preserve of hawkish conservatives — notably former House Speaker Newt Gingrich — the idea that the power system is at risk has been drawing a wider audience. Regulators have begun scrambling to put a plan in place.
“We definitely think this is a risk,” said Trevor Maynard, head of exposure management at Lloyd’s of London. “It is one of those hazards you just know is going to happen, just like you know a major Miami hurricane will happen.”
Of course, the fact that a massive hurricane will hit Miami — or a major earthquake will strike Southern California — hasn’t stopped millions of people from flocking to those areas.
For government officials, few problems are tougher than deciding how best to head off rare, but potentially devastating, event risks. Do too much and you impose unreasonable costs and hurt the economy in response to a problem that might not happen for centuries. Do too little and you add to a list of unheeded disaster warnings that includes the risk of storm surges in New Orleans and tsunamis in the Indian Ocean.
In the case of electronic pulses, the most sober warnings come from government weather scientists.
At a recent conference in Washington, William Murtagh of the federal Space Weather Prediction Center described the dangers of a massive solar storm that is, as the Lloyd’s report on the issue says, “almost inevitable.”
Such storms take place roughly every 150 years. The last one was 155 years ago.
During the “Carrington event” of 1859, named after the English astronomer who observed it, a huge solar storm ejected a mass of particles and electromagnetic energy intense enough to induce a surge that knocked out the switching system of the New York Central Railroad below 125th Street and caused the control tower to catch fire. News reports told of telegraph wires going berserk.
But electricity was hardly the backbone of society in pre-Civil War America. Scientists fear such an occurrence now could cause chaos.
A preview of the potential damage came in 1989, when the Hydro-Quebec power grid in Canada collapsed in less than two minutes from a solar storm. Six million people were without power for nine hours.
A bigger event could knock out multiple transformers — so many, perhaps, that backup systems would be overwhelmed. Replacing them could take months.
Lloyd’s is uncertain whether the impact of a solar-storm-induced magnetic pulse would be cataclysmic. But its worst-case scenario would truly be: 20 million to 40 million Americans losing electricity for as long as a year or two, “resulting in major and widespread social unrest, riots and theft.”
A year and a half ago, America came close — at least in astronomical terms — to finding out what could happen. In July 2012, a massive ejection from a solar storm headed toward Earth. The storm was the size of Carrington’s. It missed Earth’s orbital position by seven days.
That was a wake-up call, said Daniel Baker, director of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado, Boulder.
At a San Francisco meeting of the American Geophysical Union in December, Baker proposed the government take the information collected from the 2012 event and use it to create a kind of geomagnetic “war games” to simulate the effects of a huge solar flare, “rather than waiting to be clobbered by a direct hit.”
Congress has taken note, as has the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which has asked utilities to assess their vulnerabilities and come up with plans.
Many in Congress want to go further, pushing measures to force utilities to update their systems. Congressional investigators have warned that in a major crisis, the “mutual assistance agreements” under which utilities help one another in disasters would fall apart.
Supporters of the legislation, which passed the House in 2010 but died in the Senate, have suggested requiring utilities to keep more spare transformers and other equipment on hand. They also want utilities to install “blocking capacitors” and other devices to shield key equipment.
In Quebec, the government invested $1.2 billion installing such devices after the 1989 blackout. The cost to U.S. utilities would be substantially more, given the size and complexity of the American power grid.
In Maine, lawmakers who grew impatient waiting for Congress to pass a bill have gone ahead with their own measure requiring utility action. Other states are pondering similar bills.
Utilities have resisted such major investments, opting instead for a strategy focused on shifting power loads to soften the blow to the grid in the event of an extreme solar storm.
In Congress, the effort has drawn unusual bipartisan backing, including many tea party Republicans as well as liberals such as Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Beverly Hills), whose staff co-wrote a report concluding that power companies are unprepared.
“This has become a strange alliance,” said Peter Pry, a former CIA analyst at the forefront of lobbying efforts to “harden” the grid.
“I am a tea party Republican who does not like big government. But people like me who are genetically antigovernment are nonetheless trying to expand its regulatory powers to do something about this,” he said.
The tea party interest stems largely from the efforts of people including Gingrich, Bartlett and former CIA Director James Woolsey, who have spent years warning of the danger, not of a solar flare but of a similar electromagnetic pulse caused by a terrorist act.
In theory, a terrorist group with a nuclear weapon could unleash a high-altitude explosion that would create a pulse large enough to mimic the impact of a massive solar storm.
“An attack of this sort is much easier than most nuclear attacks people talk about,” Woolsey said at the same conference where Murtagh spoke. “People say, ‘The North Koreans, Iranians, whoever, are not crazy. There would be retaliation. Let’s forget about this.’ I don’t think so.”
Others have their doubts.
“The capacity we have to model out the effects of this kind of attack is very limited,” said Jeffrey Lewis, a nonproliferation scholar at the Monterey institute of International Studies. “People are saying these outlandish things that are not related to data. You get skeptical of them really quick.”
Lewis believes the doomsday scenarios are being peddled in the interest of other agendas, such as promoting missile defense systems and early strikes on Iran and North Korea.
As that debate plays out, Bartlett, the former congressman, is holding out hope that Congress or the states will ultimately force utilities to do more. In the meantime, he offers this advice: Get over to Sam’s Club.