Navigant Research Blog

Solar Storms and the Electricity Grid

Kerry-Ann Adamson — March 29, 2012

March passed for most with little terrestrial evidence of the storm raging above the atmosphere. So this time we got away with nothing more than some spectacular pictures of the coronal mass ejections – i.e., solar flares.  Increasingly, though, electricity transmission firms are working with professional astronomers to be warned of the next big solar storm.

The solar cycle lasts between 9 and 14 years, and during the so-called Solar Maximum, solar flares and sunspots increase in frequency and energy.  These massive bursts of solar plasma and charged particles create geomagnetic storms when they hit the earth’s atmosphere.  Although it’s thought unlikely that we would face another solar super-storm anytime soon, the frequency and intensity of solar storms is on the rise and is forecast to peak sometime in 2013.

These geomagnetic storms have the potential to knock out satellites, disrupt airplane navigation systems, and overload the electricity grid.  That’s exactly what happened in 1989, when a solar flare saturated power transformers in Quebec, Canada, taking out 9.5 gigawatts from the system instantaneously.  That was in 1989, before the ubiquitous Internet, before smart phones and tablets, before laptops in every home.

Today, we rely on the continuous free flow of high-quality electricity to provide heat and power to our homes and offices and to power all of the gadgets we use on a daily basis.  Power outages are all too common already, as shown in the chart below.

So what can we do? Apart from becoming an off-net survivalist, for a more rational response is to create more distributed power generation.  Often when we talk about DG it is more in terms of efficiency, stability and making the best use of local resources.  But what it could also be used for is to create something of a self-healing network.

In a DG network of multiple islands, with each island slightly overlapped the next, if one was knocked out, by weather, inquisitive animal, or solar activity, each of the neighbouring islands could temporarily pick up the missing load until the system was fully repaired.  Sounds simple, and it’s definitely not a new idea.  But like many things this is an idea whose time has yet to come.  Why now?  Renewables, efficient conversion technologies, such as fuel cells and advanced batteries, a range of energy storage options, and an increasing number of people and policies are aligning to create a window of opportunity.

We would need to systematically and deliberately create an island-based DG network, based on the increasing knowledge of what the smart grid could provide and of the potential for linking renewables, micro- generation, energy storage and the smart grid to create a much more resilient network.

So maybe this month’s solar storm was a heaven-sent catalyst for change.  If we are to continue to depend on the flow of electrons for our basic needs, we must ensure that the electricity grid can cope with everything we face, including solar eruptions.

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