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Space weather generates electrical currents in Earth's atmosphere. Those currents can induce electrical currents in the electrical power distribution system. Large space weather "storms" can interfere with the normal flow of electricity in the grid.
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Image courtesy John G. Kappenman, Minnesota Power, Duluth, Minnesota.

Space Weather Effects on Electrical Power Systems

Space weather "storms" can cause problems for the systems we use to generate and transmit electrical power here on Earth. In extreme cases, large space weather events can even cause massive blackouts over large areas. In March of 1989 six million people in eastern Canada lost their electrical power for nine hours or longer because of such an event.

Our electrical systems are designed to use alternating current (AC) electricity. Space weather disturbances can cause large flows of direct current (DC) electricity in power transmission wires. Electrical systems use very high voltage electricity to transmit power over long distances from power plants to peoples' homes and to businesses. However, high voltage electricity is dangerous, so the power is converted to lower voltage before it is delivered to homes and other users. Transformers are devices that convert high voltage electricity to lower voltage electricity.

Transformers work fine with AC electricity, but can be damaged or destroyed if too much DC electricity flows into them. That's what can happen during big space weather storms. If many transformers fail at once, the whole electrical system over a large area can go down. That's how space weather can cause a blackout.

Last modified January 19, 2010 by Randy Russell.

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Windows to the Universe, a project of the National Earth Science Teachers Association, is sponsored in part by the National Science Foundation and NASA, our Founding Partners (the American Geophysical Union and American Geosciences Institute) as well as through Institutional, Contributing, and Affiliate Partners, individual memberships and generous donors. Thank you for your support! NASA AGU AGI NSF