Power grid cut worries flaring over solar flares

This is quite alarming, but as Dr. Leif Svalgaard explained in his email tip to me, “…in this case, probably justified”.

Here’s the story from the Independent:

Officials in Britain and the United States are preparing to make controlled power cuts to their national electricity supplies in response to a warning of a possible powerful solar storm hitting the Earth. In an interview with The Independent, Thomas Bogdan, director of the US Space Weather Prediction Centre, said that controlled power “outages” will protect the National Electricity Grids against damage which could take months or even years to repair should a large solar storm collide with the Earth without any precautions being taken.

The aim of the joint US-UK collaboration is to improve solar weather forecasting to a point where it is possible to warn power companies of an imminent storm. There is a feeling that if a “category 5” solar storm – the biggest of the five categories – were to be predicted, then taking the grid off-line before it is due to hit Earth and letting the storm pass would be better than trying to keep things running, he said.

Read the full story at the Independent here, they say they Met Office will be involved.

Of course, so far, the sun has been a bit of a limp noodle, but even a weak head-on CME aimed at Earth can wreak havoc with the dainty micro-electronics we use these days. Even though the overall solar activity has been low, we have witnessed impressive flares, such as this one on June 7th and this one on Feb 14th: Sunspot group 1158 produces an X class solar flare.

For some people the world would end if their computers or personal telecommunications were solar deep fried, so this is probably a good idea. Of course, with the Met Office track record for terrestrial forecasting, I worry they’ll forecast a “BBQ solar event”, nothing will happen, and then nobody will pay attention when it really counts the next time. Let’s hope it doesn’t become the boy who cried Wolf numbers.

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It is interesting that “The Sun Today” announced very early on that they didn’t think this event will be any cause for alarm. I would be curious what exactly made them change their minds. Not that I think warnings like this are a bad idea… On the contrary, I think it long past due. Just curious.
Cheers!

Ross

No need to worry – Kiehl & Trenberth showed the sun is too weak to affect earth much – the much larger radiation emanating from earth will easily repel the puny incoming radiation.

charles nelson

On the Armagh Observatory site you can see and read the actual hand written comment made by Mr Carrington as he took the readings on that evening in 1869.

crosspatch

What bothers me is that this was only an M2.5 event. Pretty “run of the mill”. It *looked* huge because we were looking at it with imaging technology we didn’t have before. So if we are going to do planned power cuts for M2.5 events, what are we going to do for an M5 event or even an X class event?
M class events don’t even make it into the list of powerful events. The top 15 events start at X9.0
If we are going to start shutting down the power grid for M class flares, there’s something really, really, wrong with our infrastructure.

jack morrow

Guess it’s time to spend a little of Obama’s “stash” on this problem, and it is something to try to prepare for. But- we are too busy with trying to hide the Weiner to consider anything important right now.

Bruce

The real problem is that there is no great stockpile of transformers sitting around to replace the ones that could get fried. It might be months or years to replace them all. And they are made in Asia, not the USA.

The Met Office? Your joking yeh?

GaryP

I believe the damage is caused by long period massive changes in the magnetic field. This causes large effectively DC currents to flow through long distance power lines that form a loop that sees a large change in the total flux passing through the loop. The DC current saturates the magnetic cores of the transformers so they no longer work effectively and they overheat. I believe it is the generated power that causes the damage and not the dc current itself. Shutting down the lines should be enough, but if the dc currents are large enough then the loop has to be opened to prevent damage.
I don’t believe there would be damage to local electronics except from brownouts. This is not like a EMP pulse where a extremely fast rise time causes large voltages to fry electronics before arcing and protective circuits can suppress the pulse induced on even short wires.

kramer

This is yet another news article about the sun causing these types of things that I have read over the last year or so. I find that interesting…

Utter, complete, RUBBISH!
Does anyone have ANY idea of what the INTENSITY of a lightning bolt hitting the power lines is like?
You know, when the light’s FLICKER during TS’s???? That’s 1,000,000 amp bolts hitting power lines and temporarily causing a GROUND FAULT.
Rarely does the bolt induce a current into the lines. (Usually only locally.)
Substations and 345, 161, 41, 22 and 4 KV lines (Did I miss any level?) have all sorts of protections on overvoltage, current spikes, etc.
Now a massive solar flare MIGHT, just MIGHT put a big enough spike out to cause damage to some PC’s and electronics. Much of which WOULD BE DAMAGED IF THE POWER WAS OFF, if the spike is big enough to jump insulated connections.
There are things called SURGE protectors (I have several..) and they don’t really care if the spike is from:
1. A power system fault.
2. A lightning bolt
3. A solar flare.
This is another Y2K.

Big Al

Strong solar events are rare, but they do happen. The Carrington event was a long time ago.
That being said, there was a solar storm in 1989 that took down the Quebec power system. One of the reasons it happened is that the ground in the Canadian Shield area is conductive and allowed heavy currents to flow into the power lines. This is one problem.
The other problem is the GPS system. It is a weak signal but I’m sure the satellites are hardened against radiation impulses. So the satellite may survive, but the signal would be worthless.
The problems with GPS bother me , at of this time the FAA is making a push to go to 100% GPS navigation for all aircraft. With no backup, a Carrington event would be a disaster for aviation!.

rbateman

It is my understanding that rock formations become induced and flow from one type to another (igneous to sedimentary?) in a Carrington Event. What is troubling about a very low activity Sun (like we have now) is that the flux continues to climb while other phenomena lag behind. I don’t know why it’s doing this, but it makes me think that energy is being held back that might result in a really big pop.

Crispin in Waterloo

Max, I think the average lightning strike is about 20,000 amps – that is what the distribution hardware is geared to handle – and it usually does.
Flares are quite capable of creating EMP-like voltage spikes. A friend of mine worked for years at NOAA programming a satellite that watches for incoming flares and her office issues warning to commercial operators of satellites. The practise is to shut them down and sometimes turn them in a ‘protected mode’ direction to prevent damage. The warnings are a fee-for-service that NOAA operates. The warnings are graded and taken seriously in the sky and on the ground.

Anything is possible

In the event of a really huge solar flare, such as the Carrington event of 1859, this would probably be a sensible precaution.
However, the cynic in me can’t get past the vision of the authorities wetting their pants every time something stronger than a “C”-class flare is observed, especially if shutting down the grids would help them meet their CO2 emissions targets…..

AncientOfDays

If we are going to be hit by the effects of a large solar event, we certainly ought to find out about it. The only problem is that I can’t discover what that event might be. TrueNorthist properly points us to The Sun Today site and the last entry I find there is for 6/7/2011, a bit old to give us much trouble and that was not a particularly powerful flare. http://www.thesuntoday.org/category/current-observations/
Solarham.com has some good graphics and they show that on 6/14 0005 UTC there was a B class flare, the smallest of solar flare potatoes and no danger to earth.
http://solarham.com/index.htm
Spaceweather.com lists a Class B flare and a more energetic Class C for 6/13 and might be talking about the same flare as solarham.com above. Not exactly civilization-destroying stuff.
http://www.spaceweather.com/
Lastly, NOAA does not suggest anything unusual happening on the sun. Their bulletin 6/13/2011 2200 UTC says, in part:
“Solar Activity Forecast: Solar activity is expected to be very
low for the next three days (14 – 16 June) with a chance for an
isolated C-class flare.”
http://www.swpc.noaa.gov/forecast.html
As pointed out above we are receiving benign B and C class activity. Astronomers grade solar flares in ascending order as B, C, M, and X. X class flares and their associated events make the sparks pop and destroy things. So, what is this business with the Independent’s report of “controlled power cuts” “in response to a warning of a possible powerful solar storm hitting the Earth” I sure would like to know because as nearly as I can tell not much is going on. For what it is worth, I eventually expect the Earth to catch another whopper solar event such as the 1859 Carrington X-class event and we won’t like it when it happens. I don’t this is it. So, what’s going on? Has the Independent fallen off the pier and hit its head? Is there something going on that our legislative representatives have neglected to tell us? Or is the Independent piece just a hypothetical with an unfortunate headline?

rbateman says:
June 13, 2011 at 8:24 pm
What is troubling about a very low activity Sun (like we have now) is that the flux continues to climb while other phenomena lag behind. I don’t know why it’s doing this, but it makes me think that energy is being held back that might result in a really big pop.
It may simply mean that the energy is still being released, but that the conditions that concentrate the magnetic field into visible spots is operating less efficiently.

Nev Turner

EVERY system in an aircraft that has a critical function has a backup. GPS is just one of several inputs into an aircraft navigation system. The basic input of the system is inertial navigation, which is completely independent of either GPS or ground based systems.
The quality of the GPS information is constantly monitored and predicted, and if it is suspect it is rejected and an alternative source is selected.
GPS navigation without backup is not going to happen any time soon in modern jet transport aircraft.

pochas

Nothing like keeping the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety). I think it is irresponsible to be raising such alarms without consulting the power companies, who have engineers whose opinions might be of interest. I’ll bet they have already evaluated this and the authors of the present work didn’t bother to find out. Ready, shoot, aim…

crosspatch

If we were to have another Carrington event we would have bigger problems than people’s electricity cut — like people’s telephones and televisions catching fire.
But this is a rather small event. There must be some other reason to want to cut power, maybe as some kind of exercise. This solar flare was a medium sized event, not the “monster” flare that the media has played it up to be. There were 13 M-class flares in Feb 2011 and 21 of them in March. Both months saw X class flares. So we have a smallish M-class flare that *might* make a glancing blow on Earth. So far this month the largest is M2.
There’s something more than meets the eye here.

tesla_x

Gents,
Here is your evening reading with a nightcap (sip).
http://www.empcommission.org/docs/A2473-EMP_Commission-7MB.pdf

crosspatch

The Quebec flare was an X19. In comparison, that flare was 76 times larger than this M2.5. There is no comparison between the Quebec flare and this one.
During the Carrington event, telegraph operators between Boston and Portland disconnected their batteries and used only “auroral current” for two hours in transmitting telegraph signals across the US. The “northern lights” were visible in Panama. The flare of October 2003 was an X28 and was still smaller than the Carrington event. That one was the largest observed during the space age.
Such flares probably happen fairly frequently. We know this because we have seen them. If they were rare, they probably wouldn’t have read about them.

Myrrh

Controlled exercise in destroying communication.

Past links to the Carrington event are important, http://wattsupwiththat.com/2008/05/07/a-reminder-to-us-flyspecks-on-an-elephants-butt/ is a good one.
Oh good, found and still online. http://www.spacew.com/gic/index.html has a photo of a transformer failure from the 1989 event that was so disruptive in Canada and brought one of the best auroral displays I’ve seen. This story has photos of damage to a single-phase generator step-up transformer at the Salem (New Jersey) Nuclear Generating Station.
Max Hugoson says:
June 13, 2011 at 7:06 pm
> This is another Y2K.
No – these sorts of transformers generally don’t have spares back at the factory, and there are few places that can wind them. That’s where the months to years to repair estimates come from.

crosspatch says:
June 13, 2011 at 9:00 pm
There’s something more than meets the eye here.
Like ensuring continued funding…

RichyRoo

could be like the Internet ‘kill switch’, the government want to be able to switch off the means of resistance? Maybe they really are idiots? I mean absent a Carrington event this is pointless, our grids have withstood 100 years of solar flares without major problems.

nc

I am a retired power system dispatcher. The issue is mainly with east west lines, the flux cutting across them. In British Columbia I was on shift one night when there was a solar flare which caused issues on the 500 KV line from Prince George to Terrace running west, high amperage with some protection operations or tripping of lines. In Quebec they had some major outages. We would get warnings of pending solar flares.

Andrew30

crosspatch says: June 13, 2011 at 5:46 pm
[If we are going to start shutting down the power grid for M class flares, there’s something really, really, wrong with our infrastructure.]
Hmm, what might be wrong with the UK electrical infrastructure?
How about thousands of huge coils of wire on top of 100 meter towers, in straight rows, connected to every computer in the country. That kind of infrastructure might do poorly in even a minor event?
Of course no one would actually deploy such a sensitive system, would they?
That would be a stupid long term plan, wouldn’t it?

John

Why are we reading about this now? The sun hasn’t been this quiet for 100 years. It was far more active from the late 1940’s to the early 2000’s. The decades of “Global Warming”. This cycle is extremely quiet. Again, given this, why are we reading this hype now? What new bit of propaganda can we expect now that the horrors of Global Warming have been shown to be government financed propaganda?

noaaprogrammer

If my electricity goes off, my UPS kicks in, keeping the computers running. Should I develop Y2.011K-compliant hardware to replace my dainty electronics?

Pete H

Nev Turner says:
June 13, 2011 at 8:55 pm
“The basic input of the system is inertial navigation, which is completely independent of either GPS or ground based systems.
GPS navigation without backup is not going to happen any time soon in modern jet transport aircraft”
Point taken Nev and my expertise is marine rather than aircraft but inertial navigation involves dead reckoning and a disadvantage of dead reckoning is that new positions are calculated solely from previous positions, the errors of the process (currents/wind etc )are cumulative, so the error in the position fix grows with time and each reading.
GPS has certainly “dumbed down” pleasure sailors and it makes me wonder how pleasure pilots stand up.

gacooke

I get my up-to-the-date solar weather news here:
http://www.solarham.com/

crosspatch

Leif Svalgaard says:
Like ensuring continued funding…

Exactly that crossed my mind and I posted it in some website, I think it was in possibly the UK. The notion was something along the lines of “why all this fuss over a middling flare that we have had dozens of so far this year, is someone’s project in danger of losing its funding?”.
Usually when I see some molehill metamorphosis going on, it is because someone’s funding cycle is coming to and end and they need to show how “valuable” it is. So they pay someone to “wow” the public with some pretty graphics and some ominous warning that the project must be continued lest we become defenseless against .
There is nothing “humongous” or “gargantuan” or even “unusual” about this flare. We generally get tens of them every month at this stage of a solar cycle. Folks are being taken for a ride.
Now, that was a great point raised above about coils on top of towers and all that. But why weren’t the flares in February or March worrisome enough to cut the power? We had more of them and they were larger. Something smells funny about all this.

After 2 years, we had a blackout on Saturday – for an hour. It sucks! I found out that most of the trolley bus drivers had an “alternative” source of energy (fossil fuels). When the computers and TV didn’t work, I wanted at least to vacuum the room. You won’t believe me. It didn’t work, either! 🙂
This is like the quote by the Slovak Greenpeace boss. She says that she didn’t need electricity because burning candles provided her with enough light while watching TV. 🙂
I am sure that if the electricity were disappearing often, people would be eager to throw other people from the window in order to fix the situation.

crosspatch

Oops, part of that got cut out because I used angle brackets. Should have been:
the project must be continued lest we become defenseless against [ near earth asteroids, magnetic field decay, solar flares, global warming, etc ]

Peter Jones

It’s interesting that the Sun’s behavior is so profound on our communications and power grid while we’re told that it is not the big driver of the changing climate.

Claude Harvey

As a retired electric power engineer I am delighted to see this issue taken seriously. In the 19th century, a massive flare welded telegraph keys with the resulting voltage induced on telegraph lines. Today, such an event would fry power transformers that are very long lead items for replacement. The possibility of fried satellites in an era of total dependence on them for our daily financial transactions is truly Draconian. There are lots of foolish worries in this world, but concern over this possibility is not one of them. As I understand it, there have been a number of such catastrophic flares over the past century and it has been our simple good luck that those flares were not focused in the earth’s direction.

LdB

To max and a few other as some people pointed out the damage to the tranformers is usually overheating you know fast moving charge flow, long stationary wire, right hand rule produces DC current sound familiar? As they said it saturates the core and it can overheat transformer much different effect to lightning strike which is high intensity but very brief and usually easily dealt with by the avalanche arrestors. The effect with events is well covered in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geomagnetic_storm
Of coarse a clever transformer designer and power company would have wound two reverse coils on the transformer core and fed two roughly equal length runs of wire so the effect was completely zero’ed out in the core simplicity never was either of these peoples strong point.
Wave to Lubus .. strange place to see you posting.

sibeen

I don’t see how a lot of people here are jumping up and down about closing down for a M2.5 event when the article specifically refers to a M5 event.
As for ‘frying our dainty electronics’, again I see no reference to an EMP in the article. Geomagnetic storms can cause huge problems for the electricity grid, especially in the higher latitudes, so taking preventative measures seems like a damm fine idea.

Gene Nemetz

OMG, just like Y2K!
;O)

The undying climate alarmist Met Office wants us to reduce our energy consumption whatever the cost to the individual or the nation and we’re going to hand them the off switch?
How stupid is that?

Massimo PORZIO

GaryP said @ June 13, 2011 at 6:03 pm:
“I believe the damage is caused by long period massive changes in the magnetic field. This causes large effectively DC currents to flow through long distance power lines that form a loop that sees a large change in the total flux passing through the loop. The DC current saturates the magnetic cores of the transformers so they no longer work effectively and they overheat. I believe it is the generated power that causes the damage and not the dc current itself. Shutting down the lines should be enough, but if the dc currents are large enough then the loop has to be opened to prevent damage”
I don’t believe that, because any power line has three conductors having currents phase-shifted 120° between them. An equal external induced current to the three conductor has no effect on the transformers because it is in-phase on each conductor.
The only dangerous current is the one that in case could flow through the three power lines and the ground.
About Carrington’s event: it affected the telegraph lines because they were one-wire long lines, so the induced surge flown through the ground of the transmitter and the receiver sides.

sibeen

Massimo, it is a DC current that is induced into the grid. Transformers really don’t like DC being injected into them and have a tendency to overheat, explode, melt down. Not what you really want to happen when getting a replacement may take months.

Leon Brozyna

$$$$$
Studies will be done, plans will be made, and SOP’s (Standard Operating Procedures) written for what to do in the event of a Carrington-type event. And, in several decades or a century, when such an event does happen, all those out-of-date SOP’s will be setting gathering dust in ops centers all over the place while transformers melt down. And, after experiencing blackout conditions that last months and years instead of hours or days, the finger-pointing will commence.
Human nature is so predictable.

Hans Åström

The problem is the Geomagnetically Induced Currents (GIC) in long High Voltage transmission lines. This problem is mainly existing at high latitudes North and South, mainly in the areas affected by the Aurora Oval or generally 45 – 90 degrees. The aurora ovals are excentric in relation to the geographical poles because the magnetic poles are not coinciding with the geographical poles and further the solar wind is “pushing” the aurora ovals to the opposite side (i.e. the dark side) of the earth. Thus the aurora oval can reach as far south as 30 degrees in NA but seldom below 40 – 45 degrees in central Asia.
The aurora and auroral currents are the result of the charged particles ejected from the sun during flares and CME:s, caught into the Earths’ magnetic field, especially if those mass ejections are directed straight towards the Earth.
The Auroral currents are fluctuating in strength and direction and thus influences the magnetic field of the earth which in turns induces sub-Hertz (or Quasi-DC) currents (GIC) in long transmission lines terminated at their ends into transformers with an earthed neutral. The sub-Herz current flowing through all phases simultaneously will magnetise the core of the transformer in one direction unsymmetrically and force the core into saturation every second half cycle of the AC, the cycle that generate flux in the same direction as the GIC. This will heavily increase the magnetising current and magnetising losses in the transformer core, in the worst case even overheating the core, maybe to the point where gas is developing in the oil at hot-spots and force the gas-relay to trip the transformer. Some designs like shell-type-, five-legged three-phase cores and banks of single-phase transformes are more prone to the phenomena that three-legged cores where the sub-Herz flux because of the common-phase (zero-sequence) nature of the GIC, has to close outside the core.
Although the GIC:s may not be large enough to cause overheating of the core, the assymmetry of the increased magnetising current will contain large numbers of harmonics causing distortion of the voltages and may cause false triggering by other protection equipment.
The problem can be remedied by temporarily increase the earthing impedance at the neutral earthing point or even temporarily disconnect the neutral if possible. Large serial capacitor banks in the transmission line is the best remedy for GIC.
Latest aurora plots here: http://www.swpc.noaa.gov/pmap/Plots.html
Watch out for GIC:s when the activity level is 10 and power in excess of 150 GW
Hans
OH6MY

Wait. I thought the sun just went silent. Don’t solar flares only happen on sunspots?

Jimbo

The proposed power outages should have the desired effect of opening people’s eyes to the potential future that awaits them.

Cold Englishman

Met Office stealing your wallet again!

stephen richards

Two things, you do not want any of the plonkers at the UK Met involved in anything to do with weather, solar or otherwise. second, at what point does the controlled outage become truly necessary and therefore not worse than the uncontrolled one. and yes I know all about saving transformers. In this part of France we turn off the local grid during violent thunderstorms to save the line and transformers but it is well controlled. Goes off in each section as the storm arrives and goes on again section by section as the storm departs. However, this has not prevented damage completely and I can’t see anyone associated with the US and UK government being capable of such radical thinking.

John R. Walker

Based on past performance I wouldn’t let the UK Met Office predict anything important and, still less, would I want anybody to act upon their predictions. This will be like the cock-up over volcanic ash – they got it wrong but screwed up millions of people’s lives anyway… Turning the grid off using the same mantra will kill people – usually the wrong people…

Robin Guenier

Hmm – so Max Hugoson thinks this is “another Y2K”? Well, Y2K was a real enough problem – largely fixed by a lot of boring hard work.