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When solar storms release solar flares and coronal mass ejections (CME) toward Earth, we can feel the effects here on the ground. They can interfere with Earth’s magnetic field and produce geo-magnetically induced currents. These currents impact our electric grid and can cause permanent damage to critical grid components, including high-voltage transformers.
While we can’t stop solar storms and CMEs, we can mitigate their effect on the electric grid.
The Office for Public Safety Research, First Responders Group has been working with NASA Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) to develop a forecasting tool for electric utility owners and operators to help mitigate the potentially damaging impacts of solar storms on the nation’s electric grid.
As part of that project, DHS S&T and NASA GSFC recently developed an Online Geoelectric Field Calculation Tool. By uploading historical data and a ground conductivity model, the tool calculates localized geoelectric field data to estimate expected geo-magnetically induced currents for specific locations within their grid. This information can be used by utilities to plan and prepare for solar storm events.
A prototype real-time forecasting tool is also being developed by this project.
“By providing accurate and tailored forecasts specific to a utility’s location, utility operators will be better informed to make operational decisions in preparation for potential damage caused by solar storms,” explained S&T’s Solar Storm Mitigation Project Manager Sarah Mahmood. “These decisions can range from rescheduling maintenance work or reducing load to even temporarily shutting down vulnerable grid components in severe cases to prevent permanent grid damage. Utilities will also be informed when it is ‘all clear’ and safe to resume normal operations.”
How much damage can solar storms do? A geomagnetic storm in March 1989 caused grid disturbances throughout North America. The most disruptive effects were experienced in Quebec, where the grid collapsed in less than two. Restoration of service took nine hours and cost $30 million. Additionally, the Northeast U.S. also experienced significant effects, including permanent damage to and caused damage to a high voltage transformer in a New Jersey nuclear power plant. In October 2003, a powerful series of storms around Halloween not only caused strong disruptions in Northern Europe and a regional blackout in Sweden, but they also damaged 12 transformers in South Africa, which is typically less susceptible to geo-magnetically induced effects due to its low latitude.
The online geoelectric field calculation tool is currently live and Mahmood said the project’s real-time forecasting capability should be transitioned to NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) by the end of 2016.