Doug Alert: The Sky Is Falling

May 1, 2012
My associate Rick Bush long ago introduced us to Dougs: Dumb Old Utility Guys. We are all around the electric power industry, albeit in decreasing numbers.

My associate Rick Bush long ago introduced us to Dougs: Dumb Old Utility Guys. We are all around the electric power industry, albeit in decreasing numbers. It seems that Chicken Little is also alive and well, especially in newspapers, but sometimes in industry publications and sometimes in the form of “industry experts” who seem intent on scaring Doug into some form of action. It is probably only a coincidence that the action sought is to spend decent amounts of money for said industry experts to study the situation.

While at DistribuTECH, toward the end of January, I noticed that there were several stories in the popular media about the “massive solar flare headed toward Earth.” Wow! This is pretty cool stuff. Actually, the neatest part of these stories were the creatively powerful lines: “A powerful flare erupted from the sun unleashing a plasma wave that may supercharge the Northern Lights for sky watchers in high latitudes this weekend.”

What could be cooler than a plasma wave being unleashed on the earth? And, sure enough, there were a lot of very nifty pictures of Northern Lights. There was usually some reference to the sun being in the middle of an 11-year solar “weather” cycle and that the peak of activity is expected in 2013.

This all starts to get tricky and involve the power grid when press releases like one from EPRI end with a suggestion (or worse) of possible doom: “Last week, the sun hurled billions of tons of plasma at up to 5 million mph toward Earth, which produced a dazzling light display in northern regions of the world. Radiation from the explosion made the 93-million-mile trip to Earth within 34 hours after the solar explosion. The event put the nation's utilities on alert for possible [my emphasis] disruption of the power grid.”

Yes, anything is possible.

For several years, industry experts have made a big deal about geomagnetically induced currents (GIC) disrupting this nation's power grid and actually destroying large power transformers. With the lead time to replace transformers, the projection is that this could [my emphasis] cripple the power delivery system for most of a year with ripple effects into the economy and the health and safety of the country. (Note: Anything could happen.)

Now, there's no doubt about it, GIC is real, and there have been serious failures attributed to this effect of solar flares. Actually, Dougs were rudely awakened in 1989 when GIC caused a generator step-up transformer at a nuclear plant in the Northeast to fail. About the same time, a similar storm caused a widespread blackout in Québec. And, more recently, there have been transformer failures in South Africa attributed to GIC. So, all of this does not “signify nothing.” But, let's get a grip here: The sky isn't falling, no matter how nifty a headline that might make.

It is at least a little bit extreme for a leading power industry publication, IEEE Spectrum, to share on its cover “How a Solar Superstorm Could Take Down Power Grids EVERYWHERE.” On the inside, the story was titled: “A Perfect Storm of Planetary Proportions.” I know that the publishing adage is “If it bleeds, it leads,” but planetary? Really?

Enthusiasts of the impending doom scenarios from the solar “weather” activity have seized on “The Carrington Event” of 1859. Notwithstanding that there are no scientific records, there are reports of this event that state with certainty that NASA scientists have said the flare was the largest documented solar storm in the last 500 years.

There is usually some reference to a telegraph operator being shocked and fires being started. Oh, my! And now, making an enthusiastic leap forward by about 150 years — without being encumbered by any real documented facts — some wizards of smart have postulated that a Carrington-magnitude solar flare could cause the power grid on earth to have a proverbial meltdown.

Dougs responded to that 1989 event. When I was at EPRI in the 1990s, my buddy Ben Damsky managed the research project that activated the SUNBURST system. This system alerts utilities when there is solar activity that might represent a challenge to the grid. The challenge is the induction of a DC ground current on transmission lines. These currents, if large enough, can pose a danger to the large power transformers connected to the lines. The R&D also suggested protection schemes for these events.

A February 2012 NERC report on the effects of GIC on the bulk power system concludes that the most likely result from a severe geomagnetic disturbance event is voltage instability. Among the 33 recommendations for mitigation is an assessment of vulnerability. I think Dougs can take care of this.

One little-mentioned fact is that not all lines are susceptible to GIC. It is specifically a risk at extreme northern and southern latitudes. Thus, Québec, the Northeast United States and South Africa are unsurprising locations for damage. It is hardly a planetary event, and this hardly constitutes “everywhere.”

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