Recently, the Austrian Defense Minister, Klaudia Tanner, assured that there is a high possibility of an electrical blackout that affects all kinds of services, such as computers, mobile phones and electricity, both in homes and businesses. A blackout that would not only take place in Austria, but would spread throughout Europe.

In fact, the Austrian Armed Forces created a video to show Austrians how they should prepare for the great blackout in order to warn of the risk of a possible power outage “in the next five years”, which has triggered different theories in media and social networks.

The minister has affirmed that it is a danger “underestimated by all” when it could have catastrophic consequences. Several media, and even politicians, are interpreting this news in a geopolitical key, associated with a possible lack of gas supply that generates electricity in some European countries, such as Spain. Vox has already asked Congress for the appearance of the Director of National Security, Miguel Ángel Ballesteros, to report on whether he plans to include in his strategy the risk that Spain may suffer a “major power outage.”

But what if the origin of this blackout has to do with nature itself?

One of the last executive orders of President Obama before leaving the White House in the US was to prepare to withstand a geomagnetic storm. In it, different ministries and federal agencies were urged to establish a plan that guarantees the continuity of service provided by critical infrastructures and technologies, and protects them before, during and after an extreme solar event occurs.

Why does the Austrian Defense Minister use 5 years as a reference for the famous blackout? Precisely in this period of time (2022-2026) the Sun will go through a period of maximum activity, as it has been happening for millions of years, which coincides with the alert period given by the Austrians.

Maximum solar activity like this could directly affect long metal infrastructures: oil pipelines, railways, telecommunications lines or electricity transmission lines. In the latter case, these currents could cause permanent damage to very high voltage transformers (EHVT).

The so-called Carrington Event of 1859 was the most important solar storm recorded to date. There were still no oil pipelines or electrical networks, but it put the entire western telegraph system out of service. The annals of the time relate that the glare of the northern lights allowed the press to be read for several nights, even in latitudes of Central America. Since then, there have been light storms that led to the interruption of telegraph service in specific geographical areas (Switzerland 1903, Sweden 1921), submarine cable (between the United Kingdom and the United States in 1958), and satellite communications (crisis between the United States and the USSR in 1967) until the fall of the electricity grid in the province of Quebec in 1989. In the latter case, irreparable damage was also produced in transformation equipment, and the service did not begin to be restored until after nine hours .

In a 2013 report, the London Lloyds insurance market estimated that an event like this would leave a population of between 20 and 40 million people in the United States without electricity, for periods of time ranging from 16 days to one. to two years. The duration of the interruptions would largely depend on the availability of spare parts for high voltage transformers. The delivery times for new transformers are at least five months. The total economic cost for such a scenario is estimated to be between $ 600 billion and $ 2.6 trillion.

Ultimately, a meteorological situation of this caliber could cause instability throughout the country’s electrical system, leading to cascading failures that would significantly disrupt business activities and people’s lives.

Are our governments and critical infrastructures ready? From the point of view of prevention, countries should take these extreme solar events into account when designing transmission networks, their topology and key elements: in the case of communication networks, eliminate the metal wherever possible by substituting by fiber optics, adding filters and checking grounding impedances. In the case of oil pipelines, replace the metal with dielectric material, and in the case of electrical networks, renew the EHTV park, decentralize energy production and properly dimension the capacities of the network elements. From the point of view of the reaction, these scenarios should be included in the business continuity plans, even counting on the eventuality of a preventive blackout lasting several days, in the electricity and communications supply, among other contingencies. Several companies, such as the organization I work for, are already working on contingency plans that contemplate the prolonged absence of electricity supply to regulate their information systems.

Although an extreme solar storm event can occur at any time, it is usually correlated with peaks in solar activity. The next (cycle nº 25) will take place in the next five years, more than enough time to prepare … will we really be in Spain?

Manuel Carpio es Cybersecurity Senior Advisor en Abai Group


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