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Can Emprimus Save Civilization?

Can Emprimus Save Civilization?

A local company with technology to protect the power grid from doomsday scenarios may be gaining traction in the market. But without sales or real-world evidence of risk, will Emprimus be taken seriously?

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.

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Gale Nordling

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.

Testing Under Way

Emprimus’ Solid Ground system has gone through two successful rounds of testing at KEMA Laboratories, an energy testing and certification lab in Pennsylvania, says Nordling. The company has also hired PowerWorld, an Illinois power systems simulation software company, to begin modeling how the equipment might affect the electric grid as a whole. Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Defense’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency completed its own tests of the product in September, installing and observing the systems in a live electric grid at Idaho National Laboratories.

“No one is going to buy this until these tests are done,” says Nordling, which is why the company hadn’t made a sale as of the end of September.

The national organization in charge of developing and enforcing reliability standards for the North American electric grid did not endorse use of blocking devices such as the one designed by Emprimus. A February 2012 report from the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) says the industry instead should develop and maintain operational procedures for responding to the effects of geomagnetic disturbances. These include turning on backup generation sources when a strong solar event is imminent so that the system can quickly respond to any sudden drop in voltage.

The Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), a research group that receives most of its funding from utilities, collaborated on the NERC report and agrees with its conclusion, but is monitoring ongoing testing. “There’s some questions that need to be answered before EPRI would be comfortable recommending deployment of blocking devices,” says Richard Lordan, a senior technical executive at EPRI who leads its solar storm research.

Lordan has seen Emprimus’ product and says it’s “very impressive.” At least three other competing blocking systems are at various stages of development, but Emprimus’ technology is probably the furthest along, he says. Still, EPRI won’t endorse any of them until more is known about how they affect the electric grid as a whole. If blocking devices are deployed on some but not all transformers, for example, there is concern that geomagnetic currents would merely move on to the next unprotected transformer, turning it into a game of high-voltage Whack-A-Mole.

There’s also serious disagreement about the degree to which transformers would be affected by an EMP or solar event. One report says a once-in-a-century solar superstorm would destroy more than 350 high-voltage transformers, putting 130 million Americans in the dark for four to 10 years, and costing the nation up to $2 trillion. The report is known as the Metatech study, and it was written by a Duluth scientist, John Kappenman, a former Minnesota Power transmission planning manager who now consults on solar storms.

Despite an endorsement from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Kappenman’s findings are disputed by utilities and transformer manufacturers. Other researchers haven’t been able to reproduce Metatech’s results. A recent study at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory looked at how a similar event would affect the grid in 14 western states and concluded that it would have almost no effects. NERC has criticized the Metatech study for being based on proprietary software, which prevents others from verifying its modeling assumptions.

Lordan says geomagnetic disturbances can immediately affect the quality and quantity of electricity coming out of a transformer, causing anything from flickering lights to rolling blackouts. “Our conclusion is that it is much more likely that a severe storm would lead to a [short-term] voltage collapse rather than this simultaneous catastrophic failure of multiple power transformers.”

Yet no one really knows exactly what would happen today in such a disturbance. Dr. Massoud Amin, director of the University of Minnesota’s Technological Leadership Institute, is known as one of the “fathers of the smart grid” for pioneering concepts in the late 1990s around grid reliability and resilience. He also briefed a congressional commission on EMP in 2002. Amin says that there’s growing consensus that a solar superstorm or EMP attack would damage some transformers, but we don’t know enough about the specific vulnerability or how various proposed solutions would affect the overall system.

“What we need right up front—and I would put this on fast track—is a very systematic risk assessment,” Amin says. We need modeling and simulation “so we have a way of actually assessing risk based on actual physics and engineering of the problem, rather than fear.”

How to Prioritize?

Guarding against electromagnetic interference would be among Amin’s top 10 priorities when it comes to grid reliability, he says. Higher priorities should include building more high-voltage transmission capacity and incorporating technology that makes the grid more responsive to any disturbance, whether it’s a solar storm or variations in wind generation.

But he also wouldn’t delay further study of the grid’s vulnerability to solar storms. With every solar peak, there’s a one-in-nine chance for a once-in-a-century solar storm. With the next solar peak approaching in 2013, Amin thinks it would be prudent to complete a systemwide risk assessment by the end of this year if possible.

As for EMP, Amin says the idea that a terrorist group could take out the entire continent’s electric grid with a single nuclear weapon detonated in the atmosphere is far-fetched. What’s more realistic, he says, is that enemies or criminals would use smaller electromagnetic weapons that might target individual pieces of infrastructure.

The electric industry has been paying closer attention to solar flares in recent years. Grid operators now receive regular updates from the National Weather Service’s Space Weather Prediction Center in Colorado whenever solar storms appear imminent, says Mike McMullen, director of regional operations at Midwest Independent Systems Operator, Inc. (MISO), which manages the electric grid in parts of 11 states and Manitoba. The alerts give operators up to 20 minutes to shift generation and transmission from affected equipment if necessary. They’ve received two alerts each of the past three years, but none has required any action. “At this time, I’m not aware of any time we have had to re-dispatch due to geomagnetic-induced current,” McMullen says.

Lordan of EPRI insists the industry has learned the lessons of the Quebec storm. “If the 1989 storm happened today, we wouldn’t lose transformers and we wouldn’t lose the grid,” he says.

It’s speculation about larger solar superstorms or intentional EMP attacks that can lead to a never-ending string of what-ifs about the end of modern civilization.

Amin had a brush with this darkness in 1977, as a 16-year-old student from Iran visiting New York City, when a lightning strike caused a 24-hour citywide blackout.

“I was shocked to see looters smash their way into an electronics store. There were fires. There were 3,800 arrests, but there were also many wonderful stories of neighbors helping one another,” Amin recalls. “The linchpin of that system was the generosity of human beings and the care they had toward each other. And electricity.”

Dan Haugen is a local journalist who specializes in energy topics. He writes the monthly Fuel for Thought column in this magazine.

Apocalypse Now?

Cash may be worthless after doomsday, but entrepreneurs see opportunities to profit from ‘preppers.’

Doomsday, a timeless, always popular theme in books and movies, is for an increasing number of Americans transitioning from a possibility into something they feel they need to prepare for, and expect, in the very near future.

While others may view such individuals as conspiracy nuts gone wild or hoarders in search of a cause, an estimated 4 million Americans are now “preppers”—people who are doing whatever they can today to survive disasters ranging from weather-related catastrophes to power outages that can last from a few days to years, as depicted in NBC’s new television series Revolution. Chief among their concerns are a solar flare or electromagnetic pulse-induced power failure, global pandemic, and increasingly, a global economic meltdown.

To prepare, they’re stockpiling food, water, emergency kits, cash, weapons, and more. Some are buying pre-made emergency shelters and burying them in their yards, or moving into disaster-resistant homes, ranging from properties built partially into the ground in northern Minnesota to nuclear attack-resistant condos being built in former missile silos in Kansas. Others are hiring consultants to tell them how to live in their home—the “sheltering” Homeland Security talks about—for an entire month.

As with other emerging trends, new jobs are being created. There are now more than 23,800 disaster planning positions waiting to be filled—with about 100 in the Twin Cities—paying an average salary of $62,000 a year, according to the website SimplyHired.com. Savvy entrepreneurs are starting companies such as Emprimus, while established businesses are finding ways to profit from rapidly growing demand. Even National Geographic has turned the subject into a money-maker: Its highest-rated television show is now Doomsday Preppers.

Other examples of businesses out to profit from doomsday’s approach include Dallas-based Deep Earth Bunkers, which is selling pre-fab steel shelters, safe rooms, tsunami pods, bunkers, and underground condos.

Draper, Utah–based Ready Store reports it has helped 1 million Americans prepare for disaster. The leading food storage and emergency preparedness company sells a wide range of disaster-related survival products; it specializes in dehydrated and military-grade meals-ready-to-eat (MREs). Customers can buy kits that can provide enough food and water for one person for three days ($65), six months ($3,633), or one year ($7,248).

And closer to home, there are companies such as Brooklyn Park–based Blue Line Gear. Ryan Johnson, a full-time police officer by day, created this side business to help others prepare for the unpredictable for a couple of reasons: “I do a lot of camping and am an Eagle Scout leader who really believes in always being prepared and being able to take care of oneself and your family.” As he grew older and started a family, Johnson’s business vision evolved into wanting to “make sure we can make it several weeks without having to wait in line for anything.”

His company sells a variety of survival-related products and specializes in knives. “When it gets down to it, if you have one thing to take with you into the woods, it’s a knife,” Johnson says—one you know how to use. Other products include “bug-out” kits for when one needs to evacuate quickly, and more important, he says, emergency kits for staying put. “Often times, at least around here, it’s more common for people to need to hang out in one place, and you need to have things at that point,” he says, adding that those who instead think they can get a bug-out kit and evacuate need to first ask themselves one question: Where are you going? That’s especially poignant here in Minneapolis, where a single tank of gas isn’t enough to drive beyond winter’s reach if a disaster occurs at this time of the year.

“Ninety-nine percent are going to run out and get things from the food shelf, whatever they can and whatever gas they can, and then that’ll be it,” Johnson says. “We have the ability to filter or boil our own water, and you need to do so without something that needs the aid of a power grid or gas line.”

Dale Kurschner