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October 17, 2011

Forecasting and Fail-Safe Grid Planning Could Avert Calamity If Solar Superstorm Strikes



Imagine this: A giant fireball of plasma and high-energy particles escapes the Sun and hits the Earth and its magnetic shield. It wipes out the electric grid—including lights, computers, transportation, hospitals, and banks — not just for a few days, but for months or years. What’s worse, it’s not science fiction; it’s a prediction by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and its National Center for Atmospheric Research  (NCAR).

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With the planet due for another Solar Superstorm like the one that hit on September 1,1859 — only much more catastrophic, because people were not so reliant on electricity in that era — policymakers and utilities must immediately begin coordinating efforts to protect the electrical grid, prepare system operators, and automate procedures, a Vermont Law School  (VLS) study recommends.

What would a law school know about Solar Superstorms? This particular one has been ranked number one by U.S. News & World Reports for the past three years in the area of environmental law courses, including energy law and policy, conservation of natural resources, sustainable development, global warming, and more.

Richard Fisher, head of NASA's Heliophysics Division, explains what it's all about:  "The sun is waking up from a deep slumber and, in the next few years, we expect to see much higher levels of solar activity. At the same time, our technological society has developed an unprecedented sensitivity to solar storms. The intersection of these two issues is what we're getting together to discuss."

The National Academy of Sciences framed the problem two years ago in a landmark report entitled "Severe Space Weather Events—Societal and Economic Impacts." It noted how people of the 21st-century rely on high-tech systems for the basics of daily life. Smart power grids, GPS navigation, air travel, financial services, and emergency radio communications can all be knocked out by intense solar activity. A century-class solar storm, the Academy warned, could cause 20 times more economic damage than Hurricane Katrina.

But it’s not all bad news, according to the Vermont Law School. In a study, titled "Not Your Father's Y2K: Preparing the North American Power Grid for the Perfect Solar Storm," published in the Electricity Journal  this month, the school contends that much of the damage can be mitigated if managers know a storm is coming. Putting satellites in “safe mode'” and disconnecting transformers can protect these assets from damaging electrical surges.

"While it may be difficult during this time of fiscal austerity to imagine devoting substantial funds to a threat that we have never had to face, a comprehensive plan to prepare for a severe solar storm will cost far less now than will addressing the catastrophic impacts to the North American electricity grid when the perfect solar storm finally arrives," said the study authors, Christopher Cooper, senior research fellow, and Benjamin K. Sovacool, Ph.D., visiting associate professor, at VLS's Institute for Energy and the Environment.

"Electric utilities and transmission system operators need not wait passively for the perfect solar storm," the article says. "A series of eight recommendations, adopted as part of a comprehensive strategy, could address many of the threats a large solar storm imposes on critical parts of the North American bulk power system."

The study's recommends that the United States should:

For more information, read the article's abstract. Copies of the full article are available from the authors.


Cheryl Kaften is an accomplished communicator who has written for consumer and corporate audiences. She has worked extensively for MasterCard (News - Alert) Worldwide, Philip Morris USA (Altria), and KPMG, and has consulted for Estee Lauder and the Philadelphia Inquirer Newspapers. To read more of her articles, please visit her columnist page.

Edited by Rich Steeves
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