When George Anderson looks up, he sees national vulnerability.
It isn’t asteroids that worry Anderson, and he’s unconcerned about global warming. Instead, he thinks a cloud of magnetically charged gas is going to float down from the sky and scramble our electronics. Data centers from coast to coast will be erased in a flash. Airplanes will fall from the sky. Blackouts will plunge the country into prolonged food and water shortages, eventually leading to lawlessness and chaos. It sounds like the setup for a screenplay by Lost creator J. J. Abrams, but Anderson insists it isn’t science fiction. He’s stockpiling food for his family. He’s also been pouring his personal fortune into a new company called Emprimus that is starting to be noticed, and that he hopes can help save civilization.
While he’s not the only one who’s alarmed about the risk, he faces stiff headwinds from a slow-to-change power generating industry. Can a business founded on an iffy doomsday scenario primed to occur as early as next year gain traction in time to make a difference?
From UFOs to EMP
Growing up in Minneapolis in the 1950s, Anderson was a math whiz whose hobbies included speculating on the whereabouts of flying saucers. He looked up at the sky, and also up to his older brother, Clifford, who would go on to become the third-generation leader of their family business, Crown Iron Works. George worked summers at Crown as a draftsman and pilot-plant technician while attending Stanford University, and became the primary engineer for Oil Seed Systems, Inc. in 1969 and chief engineer in 1975. He’s spent decades designing seed oil extraction equipment for the likes of ADM, Cargill, and ConAgra.
It was a speech in early 2001 that would once again turn Anderson’s attention to the heavens.
George’s wife, Barb, had attended a talk by conservative pundit Frank Gaffney, who was sounding an alarm about America’s vulnerability to electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attacks; the premise is that a rogue state or terrorist group could detonate one or more nuclear warheads in the upper atmosphere. The explosion wouldn’t cause physical damage, but its gamma rays would create an energy field that would disrupt and possibly destroy electronic equipment within several hundred of miles.
Michael Crowley, writing in The New Republic, dismissed the concept in 2009 as “scientifically valid” but “not strategically realistic.” It didn’t gain much public attention beyond a small circle of neoconservatives who see the threat as real and have made preparing the country for EMP a Y2K-like cause. About 700 gathered at the Niagara Falls Convention Center in September 2009 for the EMPACT America conference, which attracted 2008 Republican presidential contenders Mike Huckabee and Newt Gingrich as keynote speakers. The same year, Gingrich co-authored a science-fiction novel set in the aftermath of an EMP attack on America.
George Anderson says he was skeptical at first, but after a meeting with Gaffney he was convinced that “this was serious business.”
A Need for Real Solutions
Anderson spent the next few years researching the EMP threat and sharing his findings with whomever would listen, including members of Congress. He got a packet of EMP information into the hands of Mitt Romney after meeting him briefly in the Twin Cities.
In early 2008, Anderson concluded that Congress was unlikely to act to protect the country from EMP unless he could offer tangible solutions. He decided to found Emprimus, hired risk management consultant Gale Nordling as CEO, and set out to help banks, hospitals, and other institutions prepare for an EMP attack. The pitch: Hire us to help reinforce your data centers with metal walls and ceilings to protect them in the event of a nuclear explosion in the upper atmosphere. Ultimately, it was a message people weren’t ready to hear.
“At first they would be petrified,” says Nordling, describing the early sales calls. “Then they’d look at us and be like, ‘There’s just no chance we’re going to do that.’”
Nordling says the custom solutions St. Louis Park–based Emprimus were offering were complicated and expensive. The company decided to retool around standardized, easy-to-install products. It also de-emphasized EMP in their sales pitches and instead focus marketing on a more widely accepted risk: solar storms.
The electronics-disrupting energy field that would accompany a nuclear explosion in the atmosphere happens to resemble the energy associated with geomagnetic storms, also known as solar storms. They’re a regular phenomenon caused by explosions on the surface of the sun. The bursts spew gamma rays and clouds of charged particles, which usually fly off into outer space without affecting us. Once in a while, though, these storms cross paths with Earth, where they create vivid light shows in the sky and, in rare instances, can damage satellites, cause radio interference, and even power outages.
On March 13, 1989, one of the largest solar storms in modern history knocked out power to more than 6 million customers in Quebec. Strong solar storms can happen at any time, but their frequency rises and falls on an 11-year cycle. The next peak is due in 2013, and society today is more dependent on sensitive electronics than it was at the height of the previous cycle. That’s helping to spur public anxiety and speculation about whether our 21st-century digital world is ready for a major solar event. Anderson believes a product that Emprimus designed for EMP protection could help prepare utilities for major solar storms, too.
In the past several months, there’s been an increase in the number of people contacting Blue Line to prepare for a disaster, but it’s not due all that much to the Mayan calendar’s end on December 21, predictions of giant solar flares in 2013, possible pandemics, or other, more typically discussed concerns. Rather, Johnson says, it’s more often due to concern about a possible financial system meltdown: “The people we deal with are pretty self-sufficient, and they want to be able to take care of themselves and their family should the economy completely collapse.”
What are they stocking up on right now? Firearms and ammunition. “Ammunition is running out at a lot of the stores we work with,” Johnson says, which are independents, not retailers like Gander Mountain. His customers also are thinking about items that can be traded.
“If all of a sudden there’s some big issue that lasts for more than a few weeks, money isn’t going to matter as much as what you can trade,” Johnson says. Instead of stockpiling cash, people are better off building up a stash of items with which they can barter, such as tools, water filters, portable stoves, and “anything else one can use to aid oneself or your family.”
The Perfect Storm?
What could happen in 2013 when solar activity peaks? Maybe nothing. The strongest flares could miss Earth entirely. Or it could be something modest, similar to what happened around the last peak in 2002, when geomagnetic currents caused a blackout in Sweden and put GPS systems on the fritz. Airlines rerouted flights to avoid radio interference and high radiation levels.
The worst-case scenario may be a repeat of the 1859 Carrington Event, the most extreme space weather event on record. Named for the amateur astronomer who documented the storm, the flares created auroras so bright that campers woke up in the middle of the night, thinking it was morning, and began cooking breakfast, the Rocky Mountain News reported. Telegraph machines burst to life, producing “fantastical and unreadable messages,” the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin said.
“While the socioeconomic impacts of a future Carrington event are difficult to predict, it is not unreasonable to assume that an event of such magnitude would lead to much deeper and more widespread socioeconomic disruptions than occurred in 1859, when modern electricity-based technology was still in its infancy,” concluded a 2008 report from the National Academy of Sciences.
Just how deep and widespread the disruptions would be is a subject of debate and speculation. Anderson and Nordling believe that the perfect solar storm would be nothing short of an apocalypse. “At best, it’s the loss of civilized life,” says Nordling. “You have no water. You have no heat. You have no light. You have no food. It’s chaos quickly. The best thing to do is to get out of town—and you better have a weapon with you.”
The presentation comes off like a cross between a door-to-door salesman and a fire-and-brimstone televangelist. The reason things would become so bad, so fast, is that an EMP attack or major solar event, they say, would destroy electric transformers—critical equipment that adjusts voltage as electricity travels from power plant to outlet. Anderson’s nightmare scenario cascades from there: Without transformers, there’s no electricity. Without electricity, there are not only no lights but also no pumps to move water and fuel; without fuel there’s no transportation; without transportation there’s no distribution of food and other supplies; and without those essentials, there are riots and violence. The lead time for acquiring a large transformer is more than a year, which means parts of the country would stay in the dark for several years.
Anderson has bought each of his kids dozens of canned meals that won’t expire for 25 years. He has his own stockpile, not to mention leftover inventory from the recently shuttered American Pantry division of Emprimus. The unit sought to sell the canned disaster-survival meals online, but lack of sales prompted Anderson to shut down the operation in September.
For water, Anderson plans to fill his bathtub as soon as the event occurs and seal the drain with cellophane to ensure that none leaks away. He also figures his home water heater will hold a decent supply of water to last several days. He’s coy about the rest of his preparations, such as whether he has guns or a safe room. “I think, generally speaking, you don’t advertise much what you’re doing.”
All of this might be avoided, however, if Emprimus can sell enough of its new product, Anderson says. The company has designed a $250,000 piece of equipment that it says can protect transformers from EMP attacks or solar storms. The Solid Ground system will detect the presence of either threat, and reroute power through a bank of capacitors that block the interference. Emprimus recently licensed the design to ABB, one of the world’s largest sellers of electric utility equipment, which consulted on Solid Ground’s design.
ABB sees enough promise that it iswilling to put its name and sales force behind the product, but a senior sales official admits that questions remain about its necessity and best use.
“The transformers themselves, especially new ones, are not vulnerable,” says Bart Gaskey, ABB’s vice president of sales for the northeastern United States.
The solar storm discussion is a relatively new one in the industry, Gaskey says, and ABB has redesigned equipment in the last decade to ensure it is safe to operate during a geomagnetic disturbance. Older transformers would probably not be damaged, either, he says, though there’s less certainty about 40- or 50-year-old units operating past their intended life spans. “The bottom line: At this point it doesn’t appear to be a doomsday prophecy.”
Anderson estimates that 1,000 of the nation’s 2,100 high-voltage transformers need to be upgraded to protect the United States from a huge solar storm; ABB’s Gaskey thinks there may be nearly that many aging transformers.
Where ABB sees a market is in retrofitting some of those old units, where the Solid Ground system could serve as affordable extra insurance. “It’s definitely a belt and suspenders,” says Gaskey.
ABB and Emprimus have visited about 20 potential customers in North America. Gaskey declined to share sales projections and noted that more study is needed to demonstrate the benefits and prove the product wouldn’t have negative side-effects elsewhere on the electric grid.