When the Commission to Assess the Threat from Electromagnetic Pulse [EMP] Attack published its report in 2004, coal accounted for roughly half of all power produced in the United States. Today, only a third of US electricity comes from coal, according to the US Energy Information Agency (EIA). This is good news for both environmentalists and natural gascompanies. The formers’ long term dream of a more sustainable source of power is being realized, while the latters’ business is booming.
According to the EIA report, natural gas now makes up a third of all power produced – with nuclear and renewables making up the rest. This shift has been resisted, mainly by mining unions and coal companies, but their protests seem to be in vain, as coal consumption is set to fall even more rapidly in coming years. In 2013 alone, the Tennessee Valley Authority closed eight coal-fired plants. But as this battle continues, one part of this conversation seems to have been forgotten. The potential safety net against EMP provided by coal. As coal begins to disappear, so, too, will our ability to recover from geomagnetic storms and EMP.
Electromagnetic pulse is a high energy discharge of electricity most often caused by lightning. When weaponized, they can be used to fry electrical components, rendering them effectively useless. It can be caused by a nuclear blast at high altitude, known as a nuclear electromagnetic pulse (NEMP) or by a Non-Nuclear Electromagnetic Pulse, also known as an NNEMP weapon, such as the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Counter-Electronics High Power Microwave Advanced Missile Project.
The third type of electromagnetic threat is a geomagnetic storm, or Carrington Event. A 2012 near miss from one of these solar storms would have caused a $2 trillion dollar loss — a number four times greater than the damage caused by Hurricane Katrina, according to a 2014 article published by NASA Science News. This issue is compounded because of the length of time needed to repair transformers, a project that could take years. However, both costs and time could be cut drastically if a reliable source of power was known to available after such an event. Startlingly, the same article puts the likelihood of such a storm hitting earth in the next 10 years at 12 percent.
Although hydroelectric power is similarly resilient, at least in theory, it lacks geographic distribution. Coal power, on the other hand, is relatively simple and does not need to be tied to a river or other source of moving water as pointed out in the EMP commission’s report. In addition, it has long existed in a form similar to today’s, only with simple pre electric parts like those on steam engines inside of 1800s ships and locomotives. Further, coal is relatively cheap to mine and store, costing around $50 per ton, according to the National Mining Association. This makes it the ideal candidate for long term power outages and system failures. However, coal does come with a set of drawbacks, mainly environmental concerns and issues related to global warming and public health. This would not be a major problem for EMP resilience since they would not be operational except in emergency situations involving immediate threats.
To implement such a plan would take more than simply using the current coal plants without any changes. Although coal fired plants have a number of built in and inherent pieces that make them useful for protection against EMP, such as easily stored fuel and simple design, they are not perfect, and need to be updated before their full usefulness can come into play. What is needed varies, but includes EM hardening of the substation attached to the facility, hardening all electric driven components, even largely mechanical parts like coal conveyors, and the introduction of a long term fuel storage facility.
Failing traditional methods like faraday cages, it should also be remembered that the theory behind coal powered engines runs from long before the use of electricity. Therefore, it would be possible to replace many of the modern parts with those that are older, mechanical and by their nature, impervious to EMP.
To create these older parts would by no means be a simple task. Building themwould take considerable effort. It would also take a special team of experts to build and modify older designs. For instance, the tools used to originally build these mechanical pieces may be themselves hard to find and difficult or dangerous to use. Therefore, modern equipment will have to be adjusted and modified to safely make these pieces. Another option is to use 3D printing to create some of the smaller components of the devices. This technology has a good deal of potential that should be explored beyond the scope of this article in order to fully grasp the possibilities associated with it.
The economic benefit of such a plan should not be forgotten. Not only will it increase profit for coal mining companies, it will also reduce unemployment for the miners themselves, who often come from impoverished areas of the United States. As of May 2016, the unemployment rate for miners and other extraction workers is, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 11.1 percent, or twice the national average. Although the spike would likely be short lived, only enough to fill on site storage, it would have to be significant in order to build up a supply large enough to last years. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists,a typical 500 megawatt power plant uses 1.4 million tons of coal each year. That amount could be kept on site at an emergency power plant, with the potential for even more storage a possibility.
The plan would not just affect the coal mining industry itself. It would also affect the technicians and craftsman who would construct the specialized mechanical parts to replace the electrical ones. The electric companies would be eager to turn their rapidly obsolete coal power plants into economically viable sources of emergency energy. This money will have to come from somewhere, and in the short term, government subsidies may be needed. In the long term, though, it is possible that power companies will be comfortable with paying the costs themselves, seeing that in the event of catastrophe they will lose a much smaller sum of money.
For example, during the 2003 northeast blackout, it was estimated that the Long Island Power Authority lost roughly $20 million, although this pales in comparison to the estimated $1 billion dollar loss to New York City itself, according to its comptroller’s office.
The use of coal power plants is by no means a complete solution to the EMP threat. Instead, it is only a small part of the issue, dealing with the source of power itself. In addition, it must be understood that coal, by its nature, can only be a temporary solution, not a permanent one. It is however, a reserve source of energy for electrical power generation that can be used in crisis for potentially years, given that enough is stored onsite to last that long. This would allow them to be connected to important facilities soon after the crisis.
To perform this task would take additional work like EM hardening the electric systems in the facilities attached, along with hardening the power delivery system. With these tools in place, however, weathering the storm of EMP would be much easier and coal could potentially save thousands, if not millions, of lives. According to former CIA director James Woolsey, the number of deaths in an EMP would be two thirds of the US population, or roughly 212.6 million people.
If the United States were to fully turn its back on coal, then in the event of an EMP we would be unable to restart electricity production for a long time — likely years. The economic impact would be huge, costing upwards of billions of dollars. This would be dwarfed by the social and political upheaval if the power was cut, an enormous loss of trust for the US government along with erosion of law and order.
But, ultimately, it would be the human cost that would be greatest. Estimates vary, but numbers are potentially huge with, as mentioned above, Woolsey pegging it at two thirds and other sources, such as the Wall Street Journal, putting the number at a nearly unbelievable 90 percent of the US population.
Kelso C. Horne IV is a student at West Texas A&M. He has lived in North America and North East Asia. His interests include cybersecurity and electronic warfare defense.