Solar Storms Threaten Electrical Grid in 2013

Geomagnetic storm in Alaska. Photo by NASA Goddard Photo and Video. Some rights reserved.

The most pressing natural disaster concern for 2013? We have all read about the risks of climate change, of earthquakes and tornadoes, of nuclear fallout, of the December 2012 apocalypse. But the sun has not managed to top the list. Next year, the sun is expected to reach a peak eruption period, which is associated with powerful sun storms that shoot charged particles into space. When those particles hit the earth and its magnetic field, they create currents that the electrical grid picks up. That can cause voltage fluctuations, overheating, and permanent damage to transformers, which could mean widespread blackouts. (The Wall Street Journal has an article on the topic here).

Regulators are now grappling with what action to take. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) is coordinating efforts to research the impacts of solar storms to develop a response (you can read FERC Commissioner Philip Moeller’s comments on the matter to the Bulk Power System Conference here). Among the possibilities being considered, regulators could require the industry to install blocking devices on transformers, for example, or just to add monitoring devices. Some scientists caution, though, that too little is known about the threat to warrant spending hundreds of millions of dollars on blocking devices. Meanwhile, the nation’s biggest grid operators and power generators are collecting data proactively on their systems’ vulnerabilities and abilities to respond to potential damage.

In testimony to the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, Joseph McClelland, Director of FERC’s Office of Electric Reliability, emphasized the impact of major solar storms historically. In 1859, a solar storm left the telegraph system useless and burned multiple telegraph stations to the ground. The northern lights could be seen as far south as Panama. A 1921 storm had similar effects, but still the electrical grid was in its infancy.

Only in 1989 did particles from a solar storm of any scale hit modern electricity-transmission lines. A barrage of particles hit electrical systems from New Jersey through the province of Quebec, and within minutes most of the province was dark. The 1989 storm, though, is estimated to be only one tenth the size of the 1921 storm. Stay tuned for regulatory proposals and updates.

One response to this post.

  1. […] That possibility seemed pretty exciting, and warranted a really cool picture; check out our post here. Today, we cover another threat, more quantifiable but maybe less exciting – the inability to […]

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