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Sun Damage

Geomagnetic storms and the limits of human experience.

Fortnightly - June 2012

system, we don’t ever do anything unless we’ve studied the impacts of that.”

Here Cauley was alluding to a problem mentioned by other witnesses, such as Michael Cousins, head of energy resilience for the UK’s Department of Energy and Climate Change: “Hardening one part of our system may simply transfer the vulnerability to another.

“This is especially relevant to the UK, where its transmission network is heavily interconnected and undergoes frequent, continual reconfiguration.”

One thing NERC could do, said Cauley, was to find and identify what kinds of transformers might be the most vulnerable, and “ask the companies that have those to take some extra look at the risks of failure, whether they might think about accelerating a replacement schedule or closer monitoring of that equipment.”

And NERC’s vice president and director of reliability assessment and performance analysis, Mark Lauby, admitted the folly of touting weakness as strength:

“NERC recognizes that other studies have indicated … failure of a large number of EHV transformers.

“Though our results differ from previous studies … the uncontrolled collapse of the bulk power system is not an acceptable result.”

PJM’s Frank Koza, executive director for the RTO’s support operations, downplayed the implications of NERC’s report:

“When you say voltage collapse, you don’t have to say anything else. None of us wants to see that happen.”

A 90-Second Notice

For advance warning of impending doom, turn to the Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC), operated by NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration ( http://www.swpc.noaa.gov), with its system of alerts and advisories, and its various indices of space weather severity. One example is the “K index,” which measures disturbances in the geomagnetic field, but which isn’t especially useful in predicting GIC activity, as that will depend on many factors, such as grid topology, how transmission facilities are connected to ground, and even the local geology—soil and rock strata—which affect ground impedance. And yet NOAA can’t issue a truly definitive warning until the coronal mass ejection—CME, the massive plasma, or cloud of gas in a magnetic field—reaches the orbit of NASA’s Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE), a satellite launched in 1997 and parked a million miles out in space, at the solar LaGrange point (where there’s net zero gravity between Earth and Sun). The ACE analyzes a CME and reports on its “Z Component,” or the orientation of its magnetic field.

As the SWPC’s program coordinator William Murtagh testified at FERC, the biggest storms and CMEs move fast, leaving as little as 20 minutes warning after the storm’s initial encounter with ACE. But that’s the wave front. In most cases, Murtagh said, “it’s several hours into the storm before we get the significant impacts.” But the 1989 storm that induced GIC in Canada’s Hydro-Quebec grid predated ACE and, as DHS witness Pugh noted at the conference, left system operators with only 90 seconds to react—not enough time to prevent a massive blackout.

Solar storms correlate roughly with an 11-year cycle of sunspots and reversals of the poles of the sun’s magnetic field, and the period of maximum activity—the solar