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San Antonio Coalition Takes Aim at Electromagnetic Threats

A diverse group of stakeholders around the Texas city is researching the resilience of grid infrastructure, focusing on how best to defend against natural and manmade electromagnetic disturbances.

Power grid
(TNS) — When a fierce solar flare battered the Earth 161 years ago, electricity surged through telegraph lines and frazzled communications as a rainbow of auroras lit up skies around the world.

Telegraph machines sparked fires, shocked operators and kept transmitting after people unplugged their power supplies.

The so-called Carrington Event of September 1859 was the strongest geomagnetic storm to hit the planet in at least 500 years, according to NASA.

Scientists agree it's a matter of time before a similar solar storm hits Earth again, and with today's dependence on power and sophisticated electronics, society is more vulnerable to electromagnetic disturbances — whether from the sun or human-made high-altitude nuclear blasts.

"Those telegraph wires and those telegraph tappers are about 1,000 times more resilient than the SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) systems, the electronics in a laptop or our computer systems for our water delivery systems, transformers and the energy delivery systems in our (power) grids," said Steve Kwast, a retired Air Force lieutenant general and electromagnetic defense advocate. "So it gives you a sense for the fact that Mother Nature could be as destructive as a determined enemy."

San Antonio is at the forefront of the nation's electromagnetic defense research and response with a collaboration between the military's Joint Base San Antonio, the city, CPS Energy, the University of Texas at San Antonio, Southwest Research Institute and dozens of other agencies.

The group is bolstering the resilience of San Antonio's infrastructure, which could help the community not only weather a catastrophe but also make the city more attractive to businesses looking to relocate.

"We're pretty resilient with regard to lightning strikes and hurricanes and trees falling down," Kwast said. "That's built into the business model, but determined electromagnetic weapons or the sun's electromagnetic discharge — like a Carrington Event — nobody ever thought about that."

The United States, he said, is not moving fast enough to protect against long-term power outages and other hardships created by these types of "high-impact, low-frequency" threats.

In March 2019, the White House issued an executive order to coordinate national resilience to electromagnetic pulses. Two months later, the Department of Defense designated JBSA as a test base.

"An electromagnetic pulse (EMP) has the potential to disrupt, degrade and damage technology and critical infrastructure systems," the order states. "EMPs can affect large geographic areas, disrupting elements critical to the Nation's security and economic prosperity, and could adversely affect global commerce and stability."

Kwast said an EMP could knock out power, natural gas, water, food distribution, transportation, and communications and information systems to large areas for extended periods.

"This should be something everybody cares about," he said. The JBSA and city collaboration is an example of "everybody coming together to solve a really important problem for the American people."

Guy Walsh, retired Air Force brigadier general and founding executive director of UTSA's National Security Collaboration Center, said electromagnetic defense is a way to prepare for the "worst-case scenario."

"I equate it to the equivalent of the surge protector at your house," he said. "If you can protect against that worst-case lightning strike, you're also protecting against some other shorts and types of pieces that happen there."


The White House executive order "was our call to move fast" on electromagnetic defense, said Texas Air National Guard Brig. Gen. Michael "Apollo" Lovell, executive director of JBSA's Electromagnetic Defense Initiative.

San Antonio, he said, is the perfect place to tackle such a complex problem.

Air Force Lt. Col. Eddie "Thumper" Stamper, JBSA-EDI's mission coordinator, calls the program a "holistic approach to resiliency" that's not just looking at electromagnetic defense but also cyber- and physical threats to the city's infrastructure.

The mayor's office has been looking at cyberthreats and resiliency for several years, he said, "so it's sort of a natural marriage."

Strengthening the city's infrastructure is good for both the military and the city because "military readiness is enabled by community resilience," Stamper said. The thinking is that the local bases can't continue their missions effectively if they're cut off from resources that come from local providers.

The JBSA-EDI is a clearinghouse of concepts, and 380 representatives from 80 organizations meet quarterly, including the U.S. Department of Energy and Department of Homeland Security. They've shifted their meetings online during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"We really have become a focal point of a national effort, but part of our goal is to is to create other versions of us in other locations," Stamper said.


In April, JBSA received a $9 million grant — $5 million from the state and $3.4 million plus $600,000 in in-kind contributions from CPS — to strengthen physical security at 11 power substations and replace some overhead transmission lines with underground lines.

CPS is reinforcing barriers, fencing and structures at three of its power substations, according to Richard Medina, the city-owned utility's vice president of grid transformation and engineering.

The enhancements will protect against projectiles, vehicle-born threats and snipers, according to Lovell. Upgrades will begin at the remaining eight substations later. The project is slated for completion by the end of 2021.

Both JBSA and CPS declined to elaborate on details of the substation upgrades, including locations, citing security concerns. Fred Bonewell, CPS' chief security, safety and gas solutions officer, described the effort as "perimeter security."

JBSA also collaborated with the city's Department of Emergency Management on what they believe was "the first-ever combined city-base tabletop exercise exploring a long-term regional power outage," Lovell said. "We identified a number of things, some of which we kind of expected, some we didn't know about — but that's why you have exercises."

Walsh said UTSA's NSCC is focused on testing, modeling and building awareness of electromagnetic defense.

"There's been plenty of research at the foundational levels of understanding the science, but what we're trying to do is model very specifically — how does the city of San Antonio survive?"  Walsh said. "What is it that we do working with CPS Energy to make us more resilient, both in our technical solutions ... and the education piece?"

The JBSA-EDI doesn't have an estimated cost for protecting the area's power grid, according to Stamper. They're still assessing.

"Until we actually get beyond the actual assessment, we're not going to know exactly how much hardening, what kind of hardening, and then, of course, that drives what the actual cost will be," Stamper said.

Right now, the group is focused on "Circuit One," a project to protect the infrastructure around JBSA-Lackland.

"Circuit One is going to be our first project to harden a commercial circuit that supports military operations, and it benefits both on and off base," Stamper said. "But as we were starting to look into how to do that, we realized some of the technology doesn't exist — a lot of it does. It's just a matter of putting it all together."

Circuit One consists of a power generating plant, transmission lines and substations, according to Medina.

"And that'll be the first of its kind in our industry, looking at that total circuit versus just one component of a circuit," he said.

The project could take three to five years to complete, according to Bonewell.


"We have interviewed dozens and dozens of companies and people" who sell equipment to protect against electromagnetic disturbances, Stamper said. But they haven't selected technologies or vendors yet.

Commercial devices such as the "EMP Shield" can protect homes and vehicles from lightning, power surges, solar flares and EMPS.

The boxes — slightly bigger than a deck of cards — connect to breaker boxes and shunt excess electricity in "500 trillionths of a second," according to the EMP Shield website.

With an EMP, "it really is about shutting down some of the power, because it's the power surge that creates the biggest damage,"  Walsh said.

"Faraday cages" — metal enclosures that block electromagnetic charges —  help protect everything from cellphones to power substations.

Walsh said people can put cellphones and other devices in turned-off microwaves, steel trash cans or even cardboard boxes wrapped several times in aluminum foil to protect them from EMPs.

"The concept is fairly simple in terms of how you do that. The question is, are you ready to do that, and have we done the education and preparation for folks to understand?" Walsh asked. "The public understanding is just as important as having a technology solution."

Then there's the problem of safeguarding large equipment and facilities.

At CPS facilities, "some of the electronics are already kind of hardened with their shells and have devices in there,"  Medina said. The utility is working with the military, Department of Energy and national labs "to look at and reassess some of these to make sure that there's adequate protection, and then, of course, technology is changing."

Certain paints on transformers can help diffuse power surges, according to Kwast, who said there are many simple and relatively low-cost tactics to protect against EMPs, such as keeping backup generators unplugged and protected by Faraday cages.

Timing complicates things, too.

With a solar flare, there's time to prepare, but there would be little or no warning of an EMP from a high-altitude nuclear blast.

Walsh said cities need the capability to quickly disconnect components from the grid, and 5G networks could help with that.

With 5G, "your systems have enough time so that they become almost an autonomous grid," he said. "If it has that indication and warning of a blast, you can still remove that power using 5G."

The JBSA-EDI is also looking at how to safeguard and use new 5G networks.

5G is "really an Internet of things, so you're looking at a relay system, and 5G will have a level of resilience that we haven't seen before," Lovell said, "because it's an Internet of things that are transmitters and relays for communication that we haven't been able to leverage in the past."

In June, the Defense Department tapped JBSA as a test bed for 5G technologies. The base launched a 5G research lab that currently has 14 employees, according to Lovell.

5G "gives us redundancy and resiliency for communications that we need should America have a bad day," he said.


Bonewell, who has worked in the energy sector for 30 years, said the White House's executive order to enhance resiliency against EMPs is the "right action."

He said power infrastructure has come a long way from the 1850s technology frazzled by the Carrington Event.

"We're not really sure how much (today's grid) would withstand, but ... with a lot of the protections that we have, I think we would be okay," he said. "We will be better (in San Antonio) than anybody because we're thinking about this and acting on it."

Power companies monitor solar flares and geomagnetic disturbances,  Medina said. "We have protocols and a lot of the systems have been modeled, so there's procedures in place."

JBSA-EDI's challenge is preparing for the worst case in a fiscally responsible and technologically effective way, according to Stamper.

"Whatever we develop here over the next four years of testing, building, education and doing those things is really where the nation's going to go," Walsh said. "So that's just a pretty neat opportunity for the community of San Antonio to be on the leading edge of the education, the technology solutions and the research that's going to change and make us much more resilient and much more prepared."

©2020 the San Antonio Express-News, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.