I read this article and I thought to add it here. Later I will add a post for why this has gotten me so interested and nervous about power outages. If you wish to read more go to the address below:
Oct. 26, 2010: Every hundred years or so, a solar storm comes along so potent it fills the skies of Earth with blood-red auroras, makes compass needles point in the wrong direction, and sends electric currents coursing through the planet's topsoil. The most famous such storm, the Carrington Event of 1859, actually shocked telegraph operators and set some of their offices on fire. A 2008 report by the National Academy of Sciences warns that if such a storm occurred today, we could experience widespread power blackouts with permanent damage to many key transformers.
What's a utility operator to do?
"Solar Shield is a new and experimental forecasting system for the North American power grid," explains project leader Antti Pulkkinen, a Catholic University of America research associate working at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. "We believe we can zero in on specific transformers and predict which of them are going to be hit hardest by a space weather event."
The troublemaker for power grids is the "GIC" – short for geomagnetically induced current. When a coronal mass ejection (a billion-ton solar storm cloud) hits Earth's magnetic field, the impact causes the field to shake and quiver. These magnetic vibrations induce currents almost everywhere, from Earth's upper atmosphere to the ground beneath our feet. Powerful GICs can overload circuits, trip breakers, and in extreme cases melt the windings of heavy-duty transformers.
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While many utilities have taken steps to fortify their grids, the overall situation has only gotten worse. A 2009 report by the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) and the US Department of Energy concluded that modern power systems have a "significantly enhance[d] vulnerability and exposure to effects of a severe geomagnetic storm." The underlying reason may be seen at a glance in this plot:
Since the beginning of the Space Age the total length of high-voltage power lines crisscrossing
A large-scale blackout could last a long time, mainly due to transformer damage. As the
The innovation of Solar Shield is its ability to deliver transformer-level predictions. Pulkkinen explains how it works:
"Solar Shield springs into action when we see a coronal mass ejection (CME) billowing away from the sun. Images from
While the CME is crossing the sun-Earth divide, a trip that typically takes 24 to 48 hours, the Solar Shield team prepares to calculate ground currents. "We work at Goddard's Community Coordinated Modeling Center (CCMC)," says Pulkkinen. The CCMC is a place where leading researchers from around the world have gathered their best physics-based computer programs for modeling space weather events. The crucial moment comes about 30 minutes before impact when the cloud sweeps past ACE, a spacecraft stationed 1.5 million km upstream from Earth. Sensors onboard ACE make in situ measurements of the CME's speed, density, and magnetic field. These data are transmitted to Earth and the waiting Solar Shield team.
"We quickly feed the data into CCMC computers," says Pulkkinen. "Our models predict fields and currents in Earth's upper atmosphere and propagate these currents down to the ground." With less than 30 minutes to go, Solar Shield can issue an alert to utilities with detailed information about GICs.
Pulkkinen stresses that Solar Shield is experimental and has never been field-tested during a severe geomagnetic storm. A small number of utility companies have installed current monitors at key locations in the power grid to help the team check their predictions. So far, though, the sun has been mostly quiet with only a few relatively mild storms during the past year. The team needs more data.
"We'd like more power companies to join our research effort," he adds. "The more data we can collect from the field, the faster we can test and improve Solar Shield." Power companies work with the team through EPRI, the Electric Power Research Institute. Of course a few good storms would help test the system, too. They're coming. The next solar maximum is expected around 2013, so it's only a matter of time.
Author: Dr. Tony Phillips | Credit: Science@NASA
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