Monday, September 15, 2014

Vox Media publishes detailed news story on space weather (solar flare, coronal mass ejection) threat to power grid

Brad Plummer, now a senior editor at Vox and previously a major technology contributor to the Washington Post, has a detailed article on “Voxdotcom” on the solar storm and coronal mass ejection threat now, here   It was published late Friday September 12 but was tweeted early Monday morning, today.
The article emphasizes that the region of the power grid likely to be under the most stress from coronal mass ejections is the Northeast, from New York City up into New England and Quebec.  The greatest technical threat comes from a CME particles, if the plasma cloud is dense enough, inducing ground currents and overloading major transformers.  The danger might be reduced with some advance warning systems that could lead to blackouts or at least brownouts.  The most logical permanent solution is for utilities to have enough unused capacity that they don’t get easily overloaded, and this is a serious economic issue for stockholders, including me (Dominion and Pepco).  It’s also a serious problem that American manufacturers (two of them are in Virginia) aren’t prepared to replace transformer hardware quickly without importing a lot of parts of finished pieces.   The ability to maintain a hardware infrastructure and component supply is a national security issue that should trump normal “just in time” business practices.  We need to keep some parts in the Virginia Shenandoah Valley or North Carolina Piedmont (not too close to coasts) and not in India and China. 

Power outages would very likely by regional, but a big question is how well major Internet companies could function in such a situation.  These would include social media companies, ISP’s, small business service platforms.   Google and Facebook don’t talk publicly about their disaster resilience plans, except that we know that all of these companies have multiple servers, including farms in Ashburn VA and around Charlotte or Raleigh NC.  Apple, and most major financial companies, have a lot of capacity around Charlotte, Panther country. 

It doesn't appear that home or business electronics are at risk from CME's (except from voltage surges, which can be prevented with proper shielding and UPS)..  The situation is much more dire from a deliberate EMP attack, which adds other kinds of particles or flux to the attack.  Presumably a home with its own full backup supply (whether from a propane or natural gas generator, or a solar setup) would be much better off. 

Slate News predicts a 1 in 8 chance of a Carrington sized event by 2020, although the Sun seems to be coming out of its most active period.  The Sun actually emitted a CME in October 2003 on the same day that “Smallville” aired an episode about a catastrophic solar flare, filmed months before.  (Ironically, the opening of that show in 2001 had been filmed about a month before 9/11, but is prescient.)  Vox does point out our narrow miss in 2012, which we indeed “missed”.

Vox hasn't produce a yellow "cardstack" on the power grid issue yet, but I would urge Vox to do so.  Vox has a staff to do this much detailed work and editing; I don't.  I had emailed Vox Press about this and a few other critical issues on Aug. 26, 2014, two weeks before the "flare".  

It doesn't appear that CME's present a risk (through induced magnetic fields) to home electronics that are turned off, and unplugged.  On the other hand, EMP blasts do present that risk, as they have other components not present in CME's.  A similar question might be posed for electronics very close to major power lines, but I have not heard that this is a problem. 
Wikipedia attribution link for northern lights over Calgary, link here.  I visited Calgary in Sept. 1983.  No early fall snow that time (but there was snow at Lake Louise). 

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