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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.
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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.

Last modified February 17, 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 is sponsored in part through grants from federal agencies (NASA and NOAA), and partnerships with affiliated organizations, including the American Geophysical Union, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Earth System Information Partnership, the American Meteorological Society, the National Center for Science Education, and TERC. The American Geophysical Union and the American Geosciences Institute are Windows to the Universe Founding Partners. NESTA welcomes new Institutional Affiliates in support of our ongoing programs, as well as collaborations on new projects. Contact NESTA for more information. NASA ESIP NCSE HHMI AGU AGI AMS NOAA