Solar Storm Threat to Overhead Power Lines

RETA has reported earlier on the potential impacts of solar storms on the world’s overhead high voltage power line grids. More recently, the subject of solar storms has been receiving more interest from the media and others. This well-written article by Steve Elwart appears in WND.

Solar storms have and can cause major geomagnetic disturbances (GMDs) when storms on the sun’s surface shoot out electrically charged particle streams toward earth and interact with earth’s magnetic field. As a result, electromagnetic pulses (EMPs) could be generated that would send geomagnetically induced electric currents (GICs) through overhead electricity transmission lines and transformers, knocking out entire high voltage power grids.

The largest solar storm recorded was in 1859 when numerous sunspots and solar flares were recorded over a 6-day period. The resulting geomagnetic storm caused aurorae around the world and produced light so bright that it turned night into day. Telegraph systems all over North America and Europe failed and even shocked telegraph operators. In 1989, a major GIC caused wide-spread power outages and entire grid blackouts in Quebec and New Jersey – 6 million people were without power for 9 hours.

Scientists and governments fear major failures of high voltage grids in 2013 when the solar storm cycle is expected to reach its peak. Partly in response to this fear, about a year ago the U.S. Congress passed the Secure High Voltage Infrastructure for Electricity from Lethal Damage (SHIELD) Act to protect the American power grid from a GMD generated by a solar storm. In follow up, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is proposing new regulation standards to address the potential impacts of a major GMD.

Some U.S. government agencies fear that a geomagnetic storm in the near future could cause permanent damage to large transformers that could result in prolonged power outages because delivery times for some of these high voltage components take months to years from the time they are ordered. When all factors are considered, a major GMD could result in over 130 million Americans without power, and the National Research Council of the National Academies concludes that a major GMD could cause widespread, long-term losses to the U.S. estimated at $1-2 trillion over a 4-10 year period.

As Elwart writes for WND, “Not everyone, however, favors these coming regulations stemming from the SHIELD Act. According to Dr. Peter Vincent Pry, executive director of the Task Force on National and Homeland Security, ‘The electric power industry doesn’t want it. They have a huge and powerful lobby. Even though there are a lot of people in the electric power industry who understand the threat and want to do something about this, unfortunately, the smart engineers who work for the electric power industry are not in Washington as lobbyists…The electric power industry operates in the 19th century regulatory environment’.”

RETA certainly agrees that the majority of the electricity transmission industry operates under old and out-dated legislation and rules, and does little to protect the infrastructure assets that electricity consumers ultimately pay for. If the industry was truly interested in protecting transmission infrastructure over the long term, they would bury high voltage power lines. Properly installed underground lines are not susceptible to the negative impacts of solar storms (Refabrica, Quanta Technology), and when capital, maintenance and transmission loss costs are combined over the life of a high voltage line, buried lines are cheaper than overhead lines. Unfortunately, within the electricity transmission industry, the more money that is spent on infrastructure, including maintenance and replacement, the greater the profits to the transmission companies. The majority of transmission companies espouse the virtues of continuing to build ugly old-fashioned and out-dated overhead towers and lines – which are like dinosaurs – whereas newer, smarter, safer and more efficient technologies are available such as burying lines – which are like the mammals and birds that eventually out-competed the dinosaurs. Isn’t it time we moved from the Mesozoic Era to the present?

~ by RETA on October 23, 2012.

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