Space weather storms can cause lots of damage to electrical power systems, costing lots of money. Electrical engineers are learning how to protect these systems from damage caused by geomagnetic storms.
Click on image for full size
Image courtesy L. J. Lanzerotti, Bell Laboratories, Lucent Technologies, Inc.
The Cost of a Blackout Caused by Space Weather
In March 1989 a space weather storm caused the failure of the entire HydroQuebec electrical power system in eastern Canada. Six million people lost electricity for nine or more hours.
The blackout of the HydroQuebec power grid taught us a lot about how much a solar storm can cost. The loss to HydroQuebec was in excess of $10 million dollars. The cost to HydroQuebec's customers was estimated in the tens to hundreds of millions of dollars. The loss of power to 6 million people during a wide-area blackout puts the cost of this disaster in the same category as hurricanes and earthquakes.
The costs of a large-scale blackout, regardless of the cause, go far beyond monetary losses. During such an event critical public services are disrupted, including such things as public transportation and security systems. Blackouts that happen to occur during winter cold snaps can be life-threatening due to the shutdown of heating systems. Even heating systems that use other forms of energy are reliant on electricity to operate thermostats and burner controls. Depending on the types of power plants involved, a blackout of this scale could potentially last from hours to days.
As power grids get larger, longer, and more complex, their susceptibility to space weather induced ground currents increases. Failure of these grids is not just an inconvenience, but can have major economic impacts and can potentially result in loss of lives. Better prediction of space weather events would allow power companies to take steps to prevent the types of failures that resulted in the HydroQuebec blackout.
Shop Windows to the Universe Science Store!
Our online store
includes issues of NESTA's quarterly journal, The Earth Scientist
, full of classroom activities on different topics in Earth and space science, as well as books
on science education!
You might also be interested in:
As a strong hurricane heads towards a vulnerable coast, people take precautions - boarding up houses, packing the car, and evacuating. These massive storms can spell disaster for people in hurricane prone...more
The expression "on solid ground" is often used to describe something as stable. But sometimes the solid ground underfoot is not stable. It moves as Earth’s tectonic plates move. Sometimes it moves gradually....more
Power grids were not designed to fail completely and be started-up all at once. The basic problem is that it takes energy to produce energy. Hydroelectric, steam and nuclear power plants all require energy...more
Electric currents in Earth's atmosphere can induce currents in our planet's crust and oceans. Electromagnetic induction works on a grand scale during space weather disturbances. Currents as large as a...more
The transformer is not a power source. It functions like a lever to convert a small voltage pushing a large electric current into a large voltage pushing a small electric current or vice versa. The power...more
The Sun is surrounded by a "bubble" in space called the heliosphere. In a sense, we Earthlings live within the outer atmosphere of our Sun. The solar wind fills the heliosphere with energetic...more
Earth's global magnetic field generates a huge cavity or bubble in space, the magnetosphere, which shields our planet from most of the solar wind. Some solar wind particles do leak in and combine with...more