“Today’s sprawling high-voltage power grids are more susceptible to space weather impacts than ever before.”
—John Kappenman, author of a January 2010 report (PDF) by Metatech Corp. prepared for Oak Ridge National Laboratory
Like those of us at FOP, you may not have realized that we (as in, everyone on Earth) are currently in Solar Cycle 24. Solar cycles run for about eleven years, and Cycle 24 began in January 2008. This cycle is currently predicted to peak around May 2013. Predictions of how this peak could materially affect the infrastructure of the American electrical grid sounds a bit like the next Hollywood disaster film. Apparently, a total obliteration of the “grid,” at least in the Northeastern United States, is within the realm of possibilities.
Over the last few weeks, as part of our research for the Thingness of Energy project, we found ourselves doing some light reading in the 2011 Summer Reliability Assessment (PDF) report. It’s a fascinating document released by The North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC). On page 24, we encountered the following words under the heading “Geo-Magnetic Disturbances:”
“The potential impacts of geo‐magnetic disturbance (GMD) events has gained renewed attention as recent studies have suggested the severity of solar storms may be higher and reach lower geographic latitudes than formerly forecast. NERC and the U.S. Department of Energy identified this as a High Impact, Low Frequency event risk to bulk power system reliability in a joint report issued in April 2010. GMD can impact bulk power system reliability in many ways. The two most extensive impacts are the potential damage to transformers, which can result in long‐term impacts if replacement transformers cannot be installed rapidly, and short‐term disruptions to communication and control. … Geo‐magnetic storms are unlike terrestrial weather threats to the power grid. These storms can not only develop rapidly but also have continental footprints that can result in widespread simultaneous impact to many points on the system. The system is not designed to operate through the simultaneous loss of many key assets and such an impact could quickly bring the system outside the protection provided by traditional planning and operating reliability criteria, resulting in potential system instability and, in some cases, widespread disturbances and outages. In view of the new awareness of the possible extremes of the geo‐magnetic storm environment, a focused review and perspective on the role of the design and operation of the bulk power system with respect to these threats is underway through the NERC sponsored GMD Task Force.”
A false-color image of coronal loops taken with NASA’s Transition Region and Coronal Explorer satellite on November 9, 2000, image courtesy NASA
The solar cycle last peaked in 2001 and predictions from NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center forecast the maximum peak of sunspots, which correlate with coronal‐mass ejections (also known as solar flares) between 2012 and 2013. You can watch a NASA animation of a coronal-mass ejection here.
What’s important to know is that when these “disturbances” reach Earth’s surface they are called geomagnetically induced currents (GIC). These currents can be conducted by (and send surges through) human built infrastructures that we rely quite heavily upon, including electrical power transmission grids, undersea communication cables, telephone and telegraph networks and railways. The currents can also be conducted by oil and gas pipelines, and lessen pipe integrity over time.
The most recent geomagnetic event of note occurred in March 1989 (during Solar Cycle 22). A flare event induced the collapse of the Hydro-Québec electrical system in seconds and left six million people without electricity for nine hours. Since most of Québec sits upon the Canadian Shield, the dense rock prevented the geomagnetic current from flowing through the earth. The current instead found a less resistant path along 735 kV power lines. The state of international affairs at the time caused the jammed satellite communications to be mistaken initially for a nuclear attack. And remarkably, aurorae were seen as far south as Texas.
Back in 1989, Hydro-Québec was especially vulnerable due to having some of the longest high-voltage lines in the world. Today, despite numerous upgrades, the system is still extremely vulnerable. Twenty-three years later the company has grown to operate the most extensive transmission system in North America. It supplies most of Québec province and channels energy into the Northeastern United States as well as to New Brunswick and Ontario.
During a minor solar flare event last summer, a New York Times article cited a May 31, 2011 House Energy subcommittee hearing in which Joseph McClelland, director of the Office of Electric Reliability at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission stated: “If the solar storm of 1921, which has been termed a one-in-100-year event, were to occur today, well over 300 extra-high-voltage transformers could be damaged or destroyed, thereby interrupting power to 130 million people for a period of years.”
In the course of our research we also learned about the most powerful solar storm in recorded history, the event of 1859 (back during Solar Cycle 10). We also discovered that the upcoming solar weather in 2012-13 could have an alignment with a hole in Earth’s magnetosphere in a way that would exacerbate the storm’s impact on the grid.
Given all this, it’s hard to feel overly optimistic about what the next peak could bring. As we all become more reliant on electrically powered communications, the social and economic risks grow exponentially. The Northeastern region of the United States is of particular concern because of outdated transformers. Replacement transformers are not made in the United States and can take years to produce. While large swaths of the American West have updated their systems, or have newer systems in place that include devices called “series capacitors” (that can block the flow of surging geomagnetic currents on transmission lines) only two lines in the eastern grid have this protection. Ultra-high voltage transformers are particularly vulnerable and the United States uses more of these than anywhere else. (Learn about transformers on the Hydro-Quebec website.)
It’s impossible to say where this all might lead given the wildly unpredictable potentials. But it seems like an opportunity to stop taking the electricity we currently have for granted, and be reminded that despite its general invisibility in our daily lives, “the grid” is a material thing that we all rely upon. It also presents us with a humbling design provocation for the future: all infrastructures we design are subject to forces that travel 93 million miles—and they can be instantly and massively out-scaled despite our best design attempts and capacities.
A solar eruptive prominence as seen in extreme UV light on March 30, 2010 with Earth superimposed for a sense of scale. Credit: NASA/SDO
Space weather can be tracked on numerous websites, such as: NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center, NOAA’s Space Weather Advisories, NASA’s Space Weather Action Center, the U.S. Air Force’s Space Operations, or the USGS’s National GeoMagnetism Program. NASA also has a handy FAQ page about solar storms and space weather.
For additional reading, see the GRID Act, an attempt to, “amend the Federal Power Act to protect the bulk-power system and electric infrastructure critical to the defense of the United States from cybersecurity and other threats and vulnerabilities.” It was passed by the House in 2010, but appears to be currently stuck in Congress.
The U.S. Federal Energy Regulation Commission and Oak Ridge National Laboratory report: “Electromagnetic Pulse: Effects on the U.S. Power Grid”
“High-Impact, Low-Frequency Event Risk to the North American Bulk Power System”, a Jointly-Commissioned Summary Report of the North American Electric Reliability Corporation and the U.S. Department of Energy (PDF)
North American Electric Reliability Corporation Report on the 1989 Geomagnetic disturbance event in Quebec (PDF).
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