Obama Wants to 'Power Africa': What About Keeping the Lights On in America?

The centerpiece of President Obama’s Africa Summit appears to be a new “Power Africa” that envisions a commitment of as much as $7 billion in government spending and loan guarantees and $9 billion in private-sector investments to help bring electricity to millions of Africans.

Commendable as that initiative may be, the question occurs: At the very moment Mr. Obama is promising to turn the lights on in what used to be known as “the Dark Continent,” what is the Obama administration going to do to assure that the American people are not blacked out – possibly permanently?

Unfortunately, there is real reason to believe that the United States’s electrical grid is extremely vulnerable to possibly protracted disruption. That can result from enemy action utilizing a variety of techniques or from naturally occurring events. Assorted attacks on substations, power lines and/or generating facilities in this country and elsewhere – from San Jose, California, and Nogales, Arizona, to Iraq and Yemen to Mexico – have demonstrated that al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and perhaps others understand the strategic importance of these assets and the ease with which they can be disrupted, if not destroyed.

Even in the absence of such attacks utilizing electromagnetic pulse weapons, cyberwarfare, or more traditional types of sabotage, our grid is still in imminent peril: Roughly every 150 years, the earth is hit with an intense solar storm known as a Carrington Event, which unleashes devastating levels of electromagnetic energy.

The impact of such storms on the electric infrastructure – especially nuclear power plants and the effectively irreplaceable high voltage transformers that are the backbone of the grid – would be catastrophic.  Ditto for the society that depends upon this and all the other critical infrastructures electricity enables.

The last one occurred 155 years ago. So we are due for one at any time.

In fact, as NASA reminded us recently, our planet had what is, in astrophysical terms, a close encounter with such a Carrington Event. A geomagnetic disturbance powered by a nearly simultaneous double solar flare on July 23, 2012 intersected the earth’s orbit at a point in space where the earth would be just nine days later.

Even more alarming, as the NASA press release points out, there is a 12 percent probability that the earth will be hit with such a destructive solar storm sometime in the next ten years. Those odds are slightly better than Russian Roulette. But who in their right mind would – knowing the stakes – put at risk not just their own lives, but life as we know it?

We will be doing no favor to anyone if we spend billions of dollars building a new grid in Africa that is not protected against all such hazards. Not for the Africans we are trying to help.  Not for the U.S. taxpayers, businesses, and investors whose equities are on the line. Any smart grid or other technology provided to the people of Africa by President Obama’s Power Africa project must be hardened against the various threats with which it may predictably have to contend.

A blue-ribbon congressional commission charged with assessing the EMP threat estimated that it would cost roughly $2 billion to “harden” key elements of the U.S. electric grid. If Mr. Obama can find $7 billion to introduce millions of Africans to the 21st Century, surely we can allocate a fraction of that amount to ensure that our countrymen and women remain in it.


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