WEB EXCLUSIVE: Potential Impact Of Solar Flares

For this week’s Web Exclusive, TFM conducted a Q&A with Eric Gallant, energy management services consultant for Schneider Electric, on the topic of solar flares and the potential impact on the power grid and facility equipment. The sun is currently at the peak of its 11 year solar cycle, making 2013 and early 2014 a period of high solar flare activity. Solar flares occur when built up magnetic energy on the sun’s atmosphere is suddenly released, and even small or mid-scale solar flares can cause electrical surges, over-current conditions, and power outages.web exclusive

Q. What are solar flares, and how do these affect technology on earth? When will the “threat” from solar flares dissipate?
A. Solar flares are huge explosions that occur in the sun’s corona. These explosions can send massive plumes of charged matter and energy into space. These plumes of energy and matter are known as Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs). A CME can travel through space at speeds in excess of 1,800 miles per second and can carry an astonishing 1.6×1012 kilograms of mass.

When the energy from a CME encounters the Earth’s magnetic field, the collision is known as a solar storm. The most obvious effect of a solar storm is spectacular northern and southern lights. However, these colliding energies can also cause damage to a variety of near-Earth and Earth based technologies.

Near-Earth technology systems such as satellites and other spacecraft are particularly vulnerable to direct damage from solar storms, as they operate outside the protection of the Earth’s magnetic field and atmosphere. These technology systems are often exposed to the full force of adverse space weather and can experience component failure, service interruption, and even catastrophic failure.

solar flares
The arc of light heading towards the Earth is a coronal mass ejection (CME), which impacts the Earth’s magnetic field, causing magnetic storms.

Earth based technology systems are also vulnerable to damage. Under the influence of a solar storm, the Earth’s magnetic field becomes compressed and distorted. These changes to the magnetic field can cause current to be induced to electrical transmission grids, land based communication systems such as telegraph or telephone lines, and pipelines and railways. This induced current can cause significant damage to components of this infrastructure including blown transformers, fires, and increased rates of corrosion.

The sun enters a phase of increased activity every 11 years. This active phase peaks with an event called the Solar Maximum (or Solar Max). The Solar Max for the current solar cycle is expected during late 2013/early 2014.

As we approach the Solar Max, the sun will produce an average of three CMEs per day. During less active phases the occurrence of CMEs drops to one every five days. As a result, the threat of damage solar storms is never completely gone. However, the likelihood of a potentially disastrous event will begin to lessen later in 2014, when the sun cycles out of its peak activity period.

Q. Is there a reasonable chance that a solar flare could affect today’s power grid significantly?
A. Yes, the chance of a solar flare having a significant impact on today’ power grid is high. As the sun approaches its Solar Max later this year, the occurrence of solar flares and CMEs will rise, increasing the likelihood that the energy from one of these events will collide with the Earth’s magnetic field. If this were to happen, we could potentially experience widespread electrical surges and blackouts.

The Earth has been affected by solar activity (both minor and severe) several times throughout the recent past, and small grid failures and transformer damage are fairly common. Most recently, in 1989, a solar storm caused the collapse of the Hydro-Quebec electric grid. A more destructive solar flare incident, known as the Carrington Event, occurred in 1859 and caused significant damage and fires in telegraph stations across the country. Space experts warn that a solar storm of the same magnitude as the Carrington Event could cripple the modern national power grid, with resulting power outages potentially lasting for weeks or months.

Q. Beyond surges or blackouts from utilities, do solar flares have the potential to harm equipment internally?
A. Unlike electromagnetic pulses (EMPs), which are short, high intensity events, solar flares are longer in duration and usually only generate currents in very long (180+ miles) conductors. As a result, only large technology systems such as electrical grids, transcontinental pipelines, and telephone systems are typically vulnerable to solar storm damage.

However, there is some evidence that some solar flares have a sudden, high intensity component to the energy that they carry. This energy could potentially mimic the effects of an EMP. Additionally, in response to the stresses placed on the electrical grid by a solar storm, utility companies often perform a series of switching events and load transfers. These switching events can cause harmful electrical transients that cause power supply damage, drive failures, and board failures in unprotected information technology (IT) infrastructure.

Q. How do solar flares threaten facility systems? At the facility level, what might the aftermath of a major solar flare event look like, assuming no precautions have been taken?
A. In the worst case scenario, a massive solar storm could cause long-term, widespread power outages and disruption of communication technologies including radio, telephone, and satellite based systems.

In addition, unprotected facilities could experience damage to electrical infrastructure and powered devices as harmful electrical surges and transients propagate through the utility power service. Business continuity would be tremendously affected and monetary losses could be significant.

Q. Is there anything facility management professionals can do to protect themselves from solar flares, and if so, what steps could they take?
A. There are a variety of technologies that can prevent the worst effects of a major solar event from compromising facility continuity. These include:

Emergency Generators: The electrical outages caused by a major solar storm could be long-term. In order to maintain facility performance, backup generators and fuel can provide on-site power generation until utility power can be restored.
Transient Voltage Surge Suppressors (TVSS): A robust TVSS system can mitigate the effects of the power surges and spikes caused by solar flares. A well designed TVSS protection strategy will employ surge suppression at multiple levels, including service entrance switchgear, distribution switchgear, and point of application.
Uninterruptible Power Supplies (UPS): A high quality, on-line, double conversion UPS system can mitigate the effects of harmful electrical transients (the most common and damaging type of power surge or spike). In addition, a UPS will provide much needed battery runtime that will allow IT systems and facility equipment to be shut down properly or for standby generators to start in the event of a power outage.

As a manner of practice, facility managers should also be mindful of the resources NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) have developed to predict adverse space weather. These services can often provide days of warning before the effects of a coming solar storm strike, enabling the implementation of last minute protection measures.