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Geomagnetic Storms Can Threaten Electric Power Grid

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  • Samantha Synder
    Geomagnetic Storms Can Threaten Electric Power Grid...08/14/03 by Mitch Battros (ECTV) Is this what happened to 30 million people today? The Mayor of New York
    Message 1 of 1 , Aug 14, 2003
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      Geomagnetic Storms Can Threaten Electric Power Grid...08/14/03
      by Mitch Battros (ECTV)

      Is this what happened to 30 million people today? The Mayor of New York
      hints of this possibility. Mayor Michael
      Bloomberg of New York City made the following statement: Today's events
      where "Probably a natural occurrence which
      disrupted the power system up there," referring to a power grid based in the
      Niagara Falls area.

      Disturbances caused by solar activity can disrupt these complex power grids.
      When the Earth's magnetic field captures
      ionized particles carried by the solar wind, geomagnetically induced
      currents (GIC) can flow through the power system,
      entering and exiting the many grounding points on a transmission network.
      GICs are produced when shocks resulting from
      sudden and severe magnetic storms subject portions of the Earth's surface to
      fluctuations in the planet's normally stable
      magnetic field.

      These fluctuations induce electric fields in the Earth that create potential
      differences in voltage between grounding points
      which causes GICs to flow through transformers, power system lines, and
      grounding points. Only a few amps are needed to
      disrupt transformer operation, but over 100 amps have been measured in the
      grounding connections of transformers in
      affected areas.
      Anatomy of a Blackout

      Previous storms associated with Solar Cycle 22 (the 11-year sunspot cycle
      that began in 1986) have had an unprecedented
      impact on electric power systems. The great geomagnetic storm of March 13,
      1989, plunged the entire Hydro Quebec
      system, which serves more than 6 million customers, into a GIC-triggered
      blackout. Most of Hydro Quebec's neighboring
      systems in the United States came close to experiencing the same sort of

      Less severe geomagnetic storm events in September 1989, March 1991, and
      October 1991 also hampered utility
      operations. GIC interactions with new technological devices such as large
      electric power controllers affected voltage
      regulation and caused undesired relay operations in the system equipment.

      In contrast to today's more severe solar storm cycle, the preceding,
      relatively quiet 30-year period led designers of electrical
      systems to overlook the possible influences of GICs. Conventional
      threats�such as high winds, ice loading, or lightning�did
      not cause the Hydro Quebec collapse. Rather, it was the consequence of a
      threat that had never been considered on a
      system-wide scale across the continental network.

      Many portions of the North American power grid are vulnerable to geomagnetic
      storms. Much of the grid is located in
      northern latitudes, near the north magnetic pole and the auroral electrojet
      current and in regions of igneous rock, a geological
      formation with high electrical resistivity (see figure.) Systems in the
      upper latitudes of North America are at increased risk
      because auroral activity and its effects center on the magnetic poles, and
      the Earth's magnetic north pole is tilted toward
      North America

      The network depends on remote generation sources linked by long transmission
      lines to delivery points. The effects of GICs
      build cumulatively over a large geographic scale, overwhelming the
      capability of the system to regulate voltage and the
      protection margins of equipment. The Hydro Quebec outage resulted from the
      linked malfunction of more than 15 discrete
      protective-system operations. From the initial event to complete blackout,
      only one-and-a-half minutes elapsed�hardly
      enough time to assess what was occurring, let alone intervene.

      Extensive blackouts are the nightmare of the power industry. Once power is
      interrupted in large metropolitan areas, diversity
      of electric use on the network is lost. When power is restored, all
      thermostatically controlled electric loads come back on
      simultaneously. This stress, added to the higher demands of many devices
      such as motors and transformers, can draw up to
      600% of normal load during restoration procedures.

      Such a blackout is also likely to cause transient voltage stresses and
      permanent damage to network equipment such as
      high-voltage breakers, transformers, and generation plants, which makes them
      unavailable for restoring power. Hours or days
      may pass before power can be restored. Oak Ridge National Laboratory
      assessed the potential impact of a widespread
      blackout in the northeastern United States from a geomagnetic storm event
      slightly more severe than the March 1989
      blackout as a $3�6 billion loss in gross domestic product. This figure does
      not account for the potential disruption of critical
      services such as transportation, fire protection, and public security. Other
      assessments placed the 1989 and 1991
      geomagnetic storm effects in a category equivalent to Hurricane Hugo and the
      San Francisco earthquake in their relative
      impact on the reliability of the electric power grid.

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      Mitch Battros
      Producer - Earth Changes TV

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