Saturday, October 20, 2012

Oak Ridge National Laboratory, California energy company have paper on the danger of solar geomagnetic storms

Oak Ridge National Laboratory has an important PDF booklet (198 pages), “Geomagnetic Storms and Their Impact on the U.S. Power Grid”, by John Kappenman, with (free) PDF link here

Although the booklet is on the ORNL website, the author comes from Metatech corporation in Goletaa. CA (near Santa Barbara, ironically mentioned in another book review recently on  Sept. 19).  The link for that company is here

The booklet is even more detailed than a similar paper by the National Academy of Sciences reviewed here Aug. 9, 2012. It comprises four major chapters:  (1) Overview (2) Details of the 1989 geomagnetic storm that caused major power failures centered in Quebec (3) Assessment of threat from extreme geomagnetic storms, and (4) specific assessments of predicted damage to large transformers

There are a couple of buzzwords:  “GIC” means geomagnetically induced current, “MVAR” is a mega unit of reactive power, and “EHV” (Extra high voltage) transformers.  Previously we've discussed "coronal mass ejections" from solar storms (popularly called "solar flares", a bit of a simplification).
Here’s the “bottom line” (it sounds like an oncologist’s prognosis):  On P. 110 (Page 1 of Section 4), the paper states that a severe geomagnetic event could knock out 70% of the nation’s power grid (an event many times the size of the August, 2003 outage in the northeast), and that some sections of the country could face several months without power.  The risk is pervasive throughout different latitudes, but the nature of risk becomes more diffuse (related to “ring effects”) at more southerly latitudes.  One significant problem is the logistical difficulty in re-manufacturing and transporting EHV transformers, which are huge and cannot be fit onto normal highways.  This was a bit of a problem in some parts of the mid-Atlantic in 2003 after Hurricane Isabel.  Homeland Security has a paper on the EHV issue here

There were some outages in the US from the 1989 incident, and they would have been severe from a similar event in 1921.  The most severe known geomagnetic event in history was the “Carrington” storm in 1859, before the nation had a power grid.

On P. 120, the paper compares its findings with those of the NAS.

As with NAS, ORNL regards a major geomagnetic storm a much more likely scenario than a high altitude EMP blast launched by a terrorist, and perhaps less catastrophic, but still extremely damaging to the US (or to any region of the world affected) economically.  Automobiles and personal electronics would probably not be affected by a geomagnetic storm.

Geomagnetic storms have occurred during the lowest phase of the sunspot cycle.  The paper somewhat disagree with opinions from other authorities (like NASA) that the danger is necessarily greatest as sunspot activity increases in 2012 and 2013.

Wikipedia attribution link for picture of Knoxville, TN, near Oak Ridge.  I last visited the area in October 1991, and previously in June 1988.  

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