Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Solar flares could knock out power grid: concern grows with increase in Sun's "coronal mass ejections"

Here we go again, on call for “coronal mass ejections”.  The “Health & Science” Section E of the Washington Post on Tuesday June 21 with the story “Sunburst could be a big blow; experts say power grids and communications are vulnerable to ‘space weather’”, link here. The online title is more telling: “As the sun awakens, the power grid stands vulnerable.”

The sun is re-entering a period of more sunspot activity, to maximize from 2012-2014.  There may be a long term trend for less activity after 2021, but we have to get through a potentially dangerous period. It appears that major power transformers need big time “Faraday-type” shielding, as would be recommended for defense against terrorist-originating EMP attacks.  There are mechanisms to shut down transformers about a half-hour before a plasma cloud hits the Earth.

There a flare on June 7, the cloud from which enveloped some of Earth by June 9, but there was no direct hit.  The position of the Earth in its orbit would also affect the severity of the hit.

A solar storm or coronal mass ejection would not affect unplugged personal electronics or cars; but an EMP event would. 

Because the electromagnetic field is weaker at the poles, northern regions are more vulnerable. There have been dire predictions (even from a 2008 National Academy of Sciences Report) that parts of northern US, Canada and Europe could go without power for years. The utility industry tends to discredit those fears.  There was a flare about 1/10 tenth the size of the 1859 Carrington Event back in March 1989, that shut down part of Quebec for about a day.  Exposure risk for a region may be greatest near the time of its hemispheric solstice.

The North American Electric Reliability Corporation is authorized by Congress to supervise the readiness of electric utilities, and here is their page on the potential impact of electromagnetic pulse (EMP) events or geomagnetic storms, here. Note the sublinks dealing specifically with EMP and solar flare (coronal mass ejection or geomagnetic storm) events on the second page, right side.

After Hurricane Isabel in 2003, some areas in northern Virginia were without power for nine days because of the time it took Dominion Power to locate transformers, an observation that highlights the need for substation protection.

In August 2003 parts of the Northeast were without power for up to four days after an unusual cascading failure.  Failures had occurred in New York City in 1977 and 1965.

Unlike the climate change debate, the solar flare problem is totally "nature made".  But warfare or terrorism could lead to EMP incidents. 

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