US Power Grid At The Peril of Solar Super Storm

US Power Grid At The Peril of Solar Super Storm

A solar super storm could affect the US weather more as compared to the droughts, heat and killer storms that have been experienced this year.

According to the national academy of science (NAS) the entire us electric grid which comprises of 2100 high-voltage transformers is at the vague of been destroyed. This is due to the shocking revelation that massive geomagnetic particles from the sun could destroy more than 300 transformers, which form part of the interconnected system.

A lot of preparations are been made by a group of federal agencies this year on how to handle a storm which is known as the solar maximum. This is when the sun moves to an active period, the sun is expected to reach its peak by 2013.

The effects of the super storm which has a 7% of happening in the coming decade according to us experts are predicted to be more risk, and also they could be similar to the effects of a major meteorite strike. These shocking revelations have made the officials more concerned.

Even though the effects of geomagnetic storm are very huge the chances of it occurring are estimated to be very minimal as compared to chances of a big meteorite hitting the earth which has a probability of 1% of happening.

The effects of the power blackout caused by a huge solar storm are very destructive and have a greater impact on the economy and cannot even be compared to what happened in India in July where about 600 million residents lost power for only a few hours for two days these losses were minimal.

Although, there are a few disagreements on the extent and the cost of the damage both the us government experts and the industry agree that there is a need of a coordinated solution due to the complexity of the problem.

According to a report released by NAS, which states that in case of a solar super storm the United States is at risk of permanently losing or repairing more than 365 high-voltage transformers.

However, the North American electric reliability corporation or NERC which is in command of the northern American power grid disagrees with the academy’s report that claims in case of a solar super storm hundreds of transformers would be destroyed.

According to a report, NERC believes that a collapse in voltage is what would happen in case of a solar super storm this would cut of power rather than destroying the transformers. And also there would be a less delay in output.

One year without power

If the solar storm was to occur, the areas which will be prone to disaster include at least one-third of the eastern part of the country stretching from the Midwest to the east coast and also the north west part covering Montana and Wyoming to the east and California to the south. The replacements of the transformers would not be available for more than a year and damage will be approximately $2trillion according to a report by the academy.

Although the national grid was constructed many years ago it, main purpose was to move power from where it was been generated to where it was been used at a minimal cost.

According to a report released by the academy is that a solar super storm can collapse the entire network.

Based on historical fact’s power grid blackouts and destruction of UN known number of transformers was caused by very huge storms and also there is a possibility of long-term blackouts accompanied by long restoration time and chronic shortages as mentioned in the report.

Due to the disastrous effects of failure of the national grid, an interagency group has been set up to look into this problem. The group is been led by Richard Andres, who is an expert in energy and environmental security and based in the military’s National Defence University (NDU).

According to him water and fuel, which requires electricity to be pumped to major cities would fail within hours, also both modern communication and mechanised transportation would come to a stop thus bring to a standstill the commercial sector. However, by this remarks was not speaking on behalf of the US government.

Even backup power would be affected.

Hospitals, the Military and other sensitive area’s backup generators would also be affected if they relied on diesel or natural gas, which is supplied using pipelines that depend on electricity.

The number of people affected in the United States will be more than 130 million based on the academy’s report. However, according to Andres in the worst- case scenario millions of people would die.

According to a federal government expert who is very conversant with the issue is that the effects of a major solar storm on the grid cannot be predicted.
The conclusions reached in the report released by NAS are based on many assumptions concerning the resiliency of high-voltage transformers, this is according to the expert who spoke in secrecy.

Quoting the expert who said that what they were trying to come into terms with is what the effect on the grid would be in case of a weather super storm. The illustrates this dilemma by giving an example on how it’s difficult to predict the number of trees that might fall in the the next hurricane even when one is aware that the hurricane would happen.

Because the US power grid covers a wide area and is interconnected it would be very much affected as compared to other nation’s electric power systems in the event that a solar super storm was to occur,

The solution to these problems would be reached by bringing together the White House, Congress, private industry, the Pentagon and agencies ranging from the Department of Homeland Security to NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Various meetings have been held at NDU since last year, and a public forum followed in June at the national press club in Washington on the various issues.

This kind of disaster is not new to many agencies as they have encountered it before but not from the sun. Considering the US national-security community which has been concerned about a high altitude nuclear attack from its enemies, which has a similar effect on the grid as the sun, as it generates an electromagnetic pulse that would completely destroy them.

There is an increase in the activity of the sun.

According to Bill Murtagh, an expert on space weather at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration the sun gives off a portion of its atmosphere into space, which is enough to affect the lives of the humans in almost 3 to4 times in the 11-year solar cycle.

Quoting Murtagh, who claims that the people are used to the sun blast particles that affect the power grids, satellite navigation, radio transmission and airplane routes like those experienced in January and March because they cause minimal problems.

However, what to worry about are brutal solar storms, these are storms that bombard earth with magnetized particles. These particles have the capability of destroying big transformers to a point that they cannot re start as experienced in 1859 and 1921 when such storms occurred.

At the time, the effects were not as much because people were not relying on electricity as much and the US grid was not as complex and interconnected like today.

According to the US geological survey, there is a possibility of between 6%to7% chances of what happened in 1859 solar storm happening in the next 10 years.

The fact that the solar maximum is expected to come it does not increase the chances of solar storms. However, due to it, there is a likely possibility of solar storms re-occurring, according to Murtagh.

Murtagh warns that although it could take up to 500 years for a solar storm like that of 1859 happens on earth. The truth of the matter is that it could happen at any time even next week

“It’s hard to predict when it would happen,” said Murtagh, since the sun launched a storm last month which was not aimed on earth

However, according to NERC’s Mark Lauby, the solar storm in 1989 that affected power outage in the Canadian province of Quebec lasted for many hours but there were no transformers, which were destroyed.

A standard high –voltage transformer weighs about 500000 pounds (227 metric tons) and is about the size of a small house, replacing it when it’s damaged is not an easy task.

Three transformers instead of one

According to the Electric Power Research Institute, the time required to replace one big transformer is approximately two years however this time can be shortened to less than a week by putting up of three small transformers instead of one large one.

However, there are other alternatives that include the installation of resistors on the high-voltage transformers thus preventing them from over heating. The other option is a system fix which warns power companies’ managers that a solar event is coming and thus giving them time to switch to locally generated power, avoiding the use of long-distance transmission lines.

The cost of installing resistors on all high-voltage transformers is valued between $150 million and $200 million.

According to Paul Werbos, an expert in the field of decision theory the cost of installing the resistors and other measures to minimise the risk is much cheaper as compared to the cost of damages in trillion that the solar storm would cause. He advises that this is the best option and should be taken at once.

Source: Times Live

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RPN's contributed to this report.

Professional freelancer in Green Technology and Scientific Development. Educational background in the field of Human Resources Management.

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