Risk Management & Space Weather:
Are You Ready?
trical disturbances barraged power
grids for several hours. On the Hydro-Quebec grid, a number of pieces of
equipment sustained damage, including two transformers that had to be
removed from service.
In New Jersey, a $12 million
generation step-up transformer at
the Salem nuclear plant suffered
permanent insulation damage.
The cause? A powerful geomagnetic storm triggered by a blast of
magnetized plasma from the Sun.
The magnetic storm spawned electric currents in the ground and in
power lines—currents which rapidly
incapacitated key power-grid components. As a result, schools and many
businesses were closed for the day, and
grid customers tried to stay warm at home.
Luckily, within nine hours, power was
restored to most customers in Quebec. The
Salem nuclear plant also was fortunate.
They were able to install a spare transformer within a “short” six-month timeframe.
Over the next two years there were
12 transformer failures in North America suspected to be related to the storm.
The outage was a chilling reminder of
continued on page 21
BY NICOLE HOMEIER, KYLE BEATTY
& JAMES MARTIN GRIFFIN
WITH MODERN society’s ubiquitous reliance on the electrical grid, “space
weather”—such as a severe solar
storm—can wreak havoc on the elec-tric-power supply and trigger losses
from business interruption and damaged physical assets.
While power outages from space
weather are low-frequency events,
they have the potential to cause crippling long-term damage.
In fact, the risk of grid-power
outages due to space weather fits the
profile of a market-changing catastrophe such as Katrina, the 9/11 attack,
or the Japanese earthquake and tsunami.
Each was unprecedented and believed to
be very unlikely—until it occurred.
BUT EXTREMELY HIGH-SEVERITY
The most-severe space-weather event in
recorded history happened in 1859. Intense solar flares were accompanied by
huge coronal-mass ejections (CMEs) that
created the largest geomagnetic storms
on record. Telegraph operators received
electric shocks, and telegraph lines melted.
Auroras were seen all over the globe.
If an event of similar magnitude were
to occur today, experts estimate it would
take down more than half the power grid
and damage so many transformers that it
would take years to recover.
Such catastrophic events are rare,
but how rare? According to records of
past events, Earth experienced an occurrence in the last approximately 150 years.
Therefore, the yearly chance of occurrence is 1 in 150.
But this estimate ignores the physical
details. A rigorous analysis may show that
we have simply been lucky (or unlucky) in
the past. And it does not take a repeat of
the 1859 event to cause catastrophic loss.
■ MAGNETIC OUTBURSTS
Defining Space Weather
SPACE WEATHER is a general term describing conditions in space that affect the Earth and our technological systems. Geomagnetic storms, which
can not only cripple the electrical grid
but also corrode oil and gas pipelines, are
only one aspect of space weather.
Solar flares can disrupt radio com-
munication, aviation communication,
and navigation, and they can interfere
with the GPS signals used in our posi-
tioning and timing technologies.