NY Times: Hundreds of Transformers Could Be Lost To A Geomagnetic Storm

Matthew L. Wald wrote an article, 14 March 2012, for the The New York Times titled A Drill to Replace Crucial Transformers (Not the Hollywood Kind). The article stated that there were about 2,100 high-voltage transformers spread throughout the country. These transformers are pieces of electrical hardware about the size of a one-car garage.

Engineers in the electric business and officials with the Department of Homeland Security have long been concerned that transformers are vulnerable to disruptions from extreme weather like hurricanes, as well as terrorist and computer attacks and even electrical disturbances from geomagnetic, or so-called solar, storms.

A large Coronal Mass ejection (CME), like the one in the video below, directed at Earth could cause a geomagnetic or solar storm. If such a CME were to hit us, it could destroy large transformers all over the planet.


Video of a Coronal Mass Ejection, courtesy of NASA.


According to the article, replacing a transformer is "a logistical and time-consuming nightmare that can take up to two years."

Typically a transformer lasts 50 years so even the means to ship them around the country are in short supply. And most of them are unique in design:

The industry rule of thumb is that for every 13 transformers in the field, there are 10 designs.

According to the article, a study for the Energy Department suggested hundreds of transformers could be lost to a geomagnetic storm. If hundreds of transformers were lost, the power grid might go down permanently. If that worst-case were to be actualized somehow, the grid couldn't be fixed. Not ever.

How can that be?

As the article states, these transformers take years to manufacture when our infrastructure is working perfectly. Society would collapse long before all the replacement transformers could be installed.

Without the use of widespread, reliable electricity, we could not grow, process, and transport enough food to feed the population. We could not distribute clean drinking water to our cities or provide sanitation or healthcare. There would be no commerce as we have come to know it. Such a collapse would probably result in widespread starvation, the reintroduction of diseases vanquished by modern sanitation, unprecedented social unrest, and a skyrocketing mortality rate.

I know that sounds bad. That’s because it is. If you want to learn more about how vulnerable we are, you can read my story Patriarch Run. You can also watch the videos in my discussion guide. I’d recommend that you start with the National Geographic documentary. There are also videos from credible sources such as Ted Koppel, NASA and the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

Benjamin Dancer

Benjamin is the author of the literary thriller Patriarch Run, the first book in a series that will include Fidelityand The Story of the Boy. He also writes about parenting, education, sustainability and national security.

Benjamin works as an Advisor at a Colorado high school where he has made a career out of mentoring young people as they come of age. His work with adolescents has informed his stories, which are typically themed around fatherhood and coming-of-age.

You can connect with Benjamin by signing up for his newsletter below and by participating in the conversation at his blog.