This is a close-up view of a part of a transformer that was damaged by space weather. The transformer overheated and caught fire.
Click on image for full size
Image courtesy of Public Service Electric and Gas and Peter Balma.
How Space Weather Can Damage Transformers
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 in an electric circuit is equal to the voltage multiplied by the current. For a perfect transformer, all the power that enters comes back out. If the transformer is not perfect, a portion of the power that enters is converted to heat.
The transformer is intended for use only with an alternating current while the current induced in the power lines as a result of space weather disturbances is a direct current. The transformer, which usually operates with 99% efficiency, begins to malfunction. Magnetic flux ceases to be concentrated inside the iron core of the transformer and impinges on regions that were not designed to withstand this. Power begins to be converted into heat. The transformer moans and creaks loudly and overheats. Oil fires and melt-down of transformer components can occur. This happens not just to one transformer but at the same time to all affected transformers on the grid. Some transformers may burn up. Others experience significantly shortened lifetimes following damage during magnetic storm events but don't fail outright.
Shop Windows to the Universe Science Store!
Our online store
includes fun classroom activities
for you and your students. Issues of NESTA's quarterly journal, The Earth Scientist
are also full of classroom activities on different topics in Earth and space science!
You might also be interested in:
There are two types of electrical currents that can flow through wires: direct current (DC) and alternating current (AC). Direct current (DC) flows in the same direction all the time through an electric...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 force of magnetism causes material to point along the direction the magnetic force points. This property implies that the force of magnetism has a direction. As shown in the diagram to the left, the...more
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...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
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...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