NASA scientists have their hands full keeping up with climate change data, and now they have a new challenge on their hands: helping to prevent blackouts caused by the next solar storm. The solution, called “Solar Shield,” is a new forecasting system in development, that would enable NASA to pinpoint specific transformers that could be affected by a solar storm. The early warning would give grid operators enough time to isolate the trouble spot and prevent more widespread damage.
Significant solar storms occur about once every hundred years, when a “storm cloud” from the sun hits the Earth with enough force to make our magnetic field shake. That sends electrical currents shooting through the ground and the sky. According to writer Tony Phillips, that can overload circuits and even melt transformer parts. One particularly severe storm known as the Carrington Event occurred in 1859, which among other things disrupted telegraph service. More recent events, in 1989 and 2003, were much weaker but still touched off numerous “power anomalies” and caused damage to transformers in Canada, the U.S., Great Britain and other countries.
Shielding Vulnerable Grids
The grid of high-voltage lines in the U.S. dwarfs the electricity infrastructure of 1859, and even compared to just 50 years ago it has increased ten-fold. What this means, of course, is that a solar storm anywhere near the magnitude of the Carrington Event could have catastrophic consequences, primarily due to transformer damage. Consequently, NASA scientists have focused their efforts on developing an early warning system that would provide time for engineers to disconnect any transformers that are likely to be in the line of fire. The result would be temporary, local blackouts, and the transformers could be restarted quickly at minimal cost, in sharp contrast to the long, expensive effort that would be needed to repair transformers damaged by solar storms.
Solar Shield – How it Works
Solar Shield involves gathering images of a solar cloud (also known as a coronal mass ejection) from NASA spacecraft, and generating a three-dimensional model. As the cloud nears the Earth, scientists can use the model to calculate its impacts and alert utilities. The concept sounds straightforward enough, but as Phillips reports, Solar Shield is still in the experimental stages. Though NASA has recruited a number of utility companies to install monitors, sufficient data is not yet available to validate the system, for the simple reason that solar activity has been relatively quiet in recent years. That could all change in 2013, when the next big round of storms is due.
Image: Figurine with shield by viZZZual.com on flickr.com.