An article in the British Daily Mail online newspaper recently got my attention. It spoke about the dangers of solar storms, also known as solar flares. It says in part
Labour former minister Graham Stringer said Britain should be prepared for a repeat of the solar storm of 1859, which hit Earth and paralysed much of the telegraph system.
In a Commons motion, Mr Stringer said such an event could now ‘knock out the National Grid, which would lead to a loss of water supply, transport and food and therefore create a national emergency’.
The so-called ‘Carrington event’ was a magnetic storm that struck Earth in 1859 and caused the failure of telegraph systems all over Europe and North America. Auroras were reportedly seen as far south as Florida. Now a report funded by NASA claims such a storm today would lead to ‘planetary disaster.’
Read the full Daily Mail article here. They didn’t give a link but they probably meant this article on the NASA website. NASA quotes the full 132-page report, which can be read online or downloaded here, as
The problem begins with the electric power grid. “Electric power is modern society’s cornerstone technology on which virtually all other infrastructures and services depend,” the report notes. Yet it is particularly vulnerable to bad space weather. Ground currents induced during geomagnetic storms can actually melt the copper windings of transformers at the heart of many power distribution systems. Sprawling power lines act like antennas, picking up the currents and spreading the problem over a wide area. The most famous geomagnetic power outage happened during a space storm in March 1989 when six million people in Quebec lost power for 9 hours.
I highly recommend reading the article if not the report. It is indeed chilling to realize that almost everything in our modern society depends on electricity being available. It is not just web, e-mail and iPhone that will go poof. Lighting in your home, cooking your meals, showering, washing your clothes, cooling and freezing food and above all the water you are drinking. This might be gone almost overnight.
So what can be done about it? The report points out that the “[g]round currents induced during geomagnetic storms can actually melt the copper windings of transformers at the heart of many power distribution systems” it further notes in Chapter 7 that
the effects on these interdependent infrastructures could persist for multiple years, with a potential for significant societal impacts and with economic costs that could be measurable in the several-trillion-dollars-per-year range.
Electric power grids, a national critical infrastructure, continue to become more vulnerable to disruption from geomagnetic storms. For example, the evolution of open access on the transmission system has fostered the transport of large amounts of energy across the power system in order to maximize the economic benefit of delivering the lowest-cost energy to areas of demand. The magnitude of power transfers has grown, and the risk is that the increased level of transfers, coupled with multiple equipment failures, could worsen the impacts of a storm event.
It is then a question of policy and being prepared which clearly the utility companies have not and are not. They don’t have the equipment to deal with GICs (geomagnetically induced currents). As the report points out, the economic model under which utilities operate actually aggravates the problem. The solution could be as easy as installing supplemental transformer neutral ground resistors which would be relatively inexpensive, has low engineering trade-offs, and could produce 60-70 percent reductions of GIC levels for storms of all sizes, according to the report.
This could be a stimulus project. Especially if you think about the fact that the grid needs to be modernized and upgraded anyway because it will lack the capacity to deal with all the e-Cars that will have to be plugged in overnight…