February 24, 2011

Final Frontier Week Part 3: Will the Sun Take Down the Electric Grid?

Over the past few days, we’ve been highlighting how space
technology can be used to improve our understanding of climate and
environmental change as we examine the security and foreign policy implications
of these issues. Today we turn to a much more sci-fi-ready area of space tech
and natural security: space weather disrupting electricity here on the ground.

Many are warning
that we’ll see a
major increase in electric system vulnerability to space weather
events over
the next few years as the sun enters a new solar maximum period. So I’ve dug
through my archive of research on this topic to provide you with some good
resources to look to as the media follows these events, especially as they
pertain to energy.

mass ejections
and other solar phenomena can indeed affect a variety of
important technologies, including electric infrastructure and GPS systems.
Generally, solar events are of top concern for things like electric
infrastructure if they are aimed directly at the Earth; the one we saw a few
weeks ago turned out to be quite mild, for example, because “the flare’s
magnetic field happened to be aligned parallel to the Earth’s
,” according
to Wired Science.

In one of the biggest events in recent history, a major
solar event in 1989 wiped out Quebec’s grid system, melting transformers and
copper wiring here on Earth. One useful NASA site recalls that “six
million people in Quebec lost power for 9 hours
.” Makes you ponder how to
ensure U.S. military bases and other critical infrastructure are less
susceptible, eh?  According to a 2008
National Academies report
looking into the economic and social impacts of
space weather:

Strong auroral currents can disrupt
and damage modern electric power grids and may contribute to the corrosion of
oil and gas pipelines…Electric power is modern society’s cornerstone
technology, the technology on which virtually all other infrastructures and
services depend. Although the probability of a wide-area electric power
blackout resulting from an extreme space weather event is low, the consequences
of such an event could be very high, as its effects would cascade through
other, dependent systems.

Putting this into dollars-and-cents terms, NOAA’s handy FAQ page cites two
reports that “One credible electric power outage could result in a direct loss
to US Gross Domestic Product of $3 - $6 billion,” and “A recent estimate is
that the use of good forecasts by the power industry could save the US $365 M
per year, averaged over the solar cycle.” Those are big bucks in this coming
age of efficient spending.

Luckily, many of our nation’s top science nerds, civilian
and military, are on the case to study space weather and how it may affect our
electric infrastructure – the first step in avoiding problems. Among others,
spacecraft are providing constant streams of new data about the sun’s
temperament and its effects on the space weather events most worrisome to our
economic and security interests. And the interwebs provide tons of great
sources for further information about the possibilities of space weather
affecting electric power systems, past disruptions, and even the ability to receive space weather alerts.
NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center has a page for electricity and
utilities-relevant info
. NASA has a great space weather page that links to news clips and other useful
websites. NASA and NOAA websites for specific spacecraft also provide real-time
photos and videos and good news updates on how
the data being collected is increasing our understanding of space weather and
its potential effects.

In other words, as a great man once said, don’t panic. We
know more about solar weather than ever thanks to smart investments in space
technology and data collection that will help electricity providers and other
infrastructure guardians to minimize the prospects of destruction. And in case
they don’t, remember to keep a few candles and flashlights on hand.

Photo: A large solar flare on February 15, 2011 is captured by the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory and Solar Dynamics Observatory. Courtesy of NASA.