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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.

Last modified February 26, 2009 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