Grid Failure in 2012?

"It is midnight on 22 September 2012 and the skies above Manhattan are filled with a flickering curtain of colorful light. Few New Yorkers have seen the aurora this far south but their fascination is short-lived. Within a few seconds, electric bulbs dim and flicker, then become unusually bright for a fleeting moment. Then all the lights in the state go out. Within 90 seconds, the entire eastern half of the US is without power.

A year later and millions of Americans are dead and the nation's infrastructure lies in tatters. The World Bank declares America a developing nation. Europe, Scandinavia, China and Japan are also struggling to recover from the same fateful event - a violent storm, 150 million kilometers away on the surface of the sun."

The above quote is from the article Space storm alert: 90 seconds from catastrophe that was published in New Scientist. It describes what could happen in 2012. Is it fiction or fact?



NASA Report

NASA recently released a report detailing a study by The National Academy of Sciences entitled, "Severe Space Weather Events - Understanding Societal and Economic Impacts."

Basically, the report asks what would happen if a strong storm, were to occur today or as many predict it will in 2012?

Interconnectedness

In the United States and much of the developed world, the interconnected links between our power systems, communication, financial systems, infrastructure, transportation are widespread, as the following Homeland Security diagram illustrates:

All these systems rest on the electric power grid. "Electric power is modern society's cornerstone technology on which virtually all other infrastructures and services depend," the report notes.

Yet it is particularly vulnerable to bad space weather. Ground currents induced during geomagnetic storms can actually melt the copper windings of transformers at the heart of many power distribution systems. Sprawling power lines act like antennas, picking up the currents and spreading the problem over a wide area.

The 2012 Event

On average, the polarity of the sun reverses itself every 11.1 years. This last happened in 2001, and the next polar shift is expected in 2012. When the magnetic polarity is opposite to that of the earth it set up a situation where a strong current is generated through the grid system and even through certain parts of the earth.

Is this a coincidence that the Mayan calendar also ends in 2012? Or did they know something we haven't quite figured out yet? Personally, I tend more toward thinking it is just a coincidence.

I also tend to think the Mayan prediction about 2012 is not an end of the world prediction as some believe, but the shift to a new age – but I digress.

Usually, just before and just after the solar polar shift there is a noticeable increase in solar flares, coronal mass ejections, solar and geomagnetic storms. Like earthquakes – most of the times these events cause only minor problems (e.g., the geomagnetic storm in 1989 that knocked out the electric grid in Quebec and cut power to 6 million people for around 9 hours).

Occasionally however, the storm can be much stronger, last for days and the effects more widespread - such as happened in 1859 – which was experienced over much of the world (at that part that Telegraphs at that time), which acted as big antennas to amplify the effect.

What will happen in 2012 with all the installed wiring we now have?

Risks

Some scientists, engineers, utility owners and some military planners are concerned that we are particularly vulnerable right now to any major solar storm. These concerns can be classified into the following areas:

1) The magnetosphere (caused by the magnetic field of the earth) helps protect the earth from the worst effects of these solar storms. Unfortunately, scientists have now identified there are two big holes in the magnetosphere and are concerned that the impact of any solar storm on the earth could be greater as a result. Sort or like a perfect storm scenario developing for 2012.

2) Typically, power grids are made to withstand isolated problems (e.g., a tornado knocking down lines, a hurricane, an earthquake, etc.) but a solar storm typically hits over a wide spread area and becomes a multi-point problem, which can cause cascading failures. In effect, the 180,000 miles of power lines (US only) act as a giant antenna – picking up current. As the lines carry AC current and the geomagnetic storms produce a DC current – this can cause equipment already weakened by previous events, frequent transfers of power, weakened capacitors, etc. to cease to function.

For an excellent analysis of the vulnerability of the US power system to solar weather, and what could likely happen in 2012 – click here for more information.

3) We already depend on satellites for our communications, GPS, weather forecasting, etc. If a major solar storm were to develop in 2012, or at any other time, it would pose a triple risk for satellites and the services they provide:

First – solar storms can reduce the effectiveness of the solar panels on the satellites - which aren't protected by having an atmosphere to absorb most of the intense radiation bursts. Generally, this isn't a big problem because we now have enough experience to anticipate such changes and tend to build satellite arrays that are large enough to continue to provide power even if their efficiency is eroded in solar storms. But still, it could cause a more rapid decline in the satellite's power - and given the number of satellites - this could turn into a significant problem if these needed to be replaced -- especially if we on the ground are dealing with major electrical outages.

The second problem is more bothersome, in that solar storms can increase the drag coefficient of the atmosphere causing the satellites to lose altitude. Coupled with a loss of power, that could affect our ability to track the satellites - this alone would be a serious reason for concern.

The third problem is interference with signals sent to and from the satellites. For example, a solar storm that disrupted our GPS positioning could cause major problems with air and ship traffic, not to mention all the drivers that depend on GPS to get them to where they want to go.

Imagine the world in 2012 without Power and Electricity?

If worse came to worse – and there was a major grid failure in 2012 – it could affect more than just our televisions, lights, and appliances. The water pressure would gradually diminish and cease. Refrigerated foods would go bad within a day. Phones and communication systems are down. Gasoline pumps are down. Heat and air conditioning systems go off. Banks and ATM machines are shut down – not to mention the financial markets. Food re-supply chains break down from lack of fuel.

The worst part is, it could take many months or much longer, to get the power back up depending on the extent of the damage and the number of transformers that have melted from the solar radiation. There are only a tiny fraction of spare transformers on hand compared to the potential damage that could occur. The challenge would be building new transformers and parts without immediate power! Manufacturing plants would have to be outfitted with powerful generators in order to build what would be needed first, and so on. It would be a slow process.

In the meantime, what do you think would happen to society without power, water, food, and fuel? It’s not a pretty picture. People will begin dying off by the end of the first week, those without a minimal storage of water or those who live in regions where water is not immediately available to them. Desperation will result in a rampage of crime with hoards searching for food and water. Within several weeks, a complete civil breakdown will be underway as mass migration out of the major cities creates extremely dangerous conditions while people search for food, water, and supplies. You get the idea.

Nowadays our society is much more dependent on electrical devices for our survival, especially for communication, lights, computers large and small, radio and tv, Wall Street, banks, sewage systems, transportation, weather satellites, GPS, and defense. Satellites would be fried to a crisp. Physicist Michio Kaku said that we would be thrown a hundred years into the past.

The National Academy of Sciences has said that the solar flares could incapacitate 300 important transformers within 90 seconds and cut power for 130 million people. They said that during the first year after the solar storm, the damage could be as high as $2 trillion. Recovery time could be as long as 4 to 10 years.

No civilization could recover from an impact of this magnitude.

How Likely is the 2012 Scenario?

It's quite likely that there could be regional power outages in 2012 - maybe sooner, maybe later. This has happened on numerous occasions in the past – but they were repaired and power was restored within hours or days in most cases. It's also possible that a severe storm could hit – because this too has happened in the past and therefore could happen again.

The truth is that we are still learning about the sun and have a long way to go before we can reliably predict when a solar storm will erupt and reliably predict what impact it will have.

At present, utility companies rely on the data from the ACE satellite and some software programs that help them spot potential problems and take some evasive actions. The problem is it might already be too late for the utilities to prepare.

What's the Solution?

What's the solution? The NASA report ends with a call for infrastructure designed to better withstand geomagnetic disturbances, improved GPS codes and frequencies, and improvements in space weather forecasting (no surprise there as they probably need support for funding – which is a really good idea since we all want to keep our electricity on and this is the best way to protect the grid at present).

On the infrastructure side – I did read an interesting interview in Wired Magazine where the "expert" recommended building and installing 5,000 "washing-machine-sized" resistors to help protect the most vulnerable transformers. He said it's possible to do this by 2012 - and would only cost around $150 million (about the same as transformer insurance).

However, they also went on to mention that the political will and support for protecting our grid also needs to be encouraged – as part of any overall energy legislation / renewable energy planning.

It also turns out that adding more renewable energy systems to the grid is also helpful (e.g., the European system is much less vulnerable to solar storms than the US or Chinese power grids).

From a personal perspective, having your own independent source of power could really come in handy in the event of a protracted problem with the grid in your region. This can either be a full roof-top based system – with grid cutoff capability, or a solar generator to provide electricity for your most important electrical systems. Besides providing peace of mind as a back up system – such systems also can save money, and provide extra reliability for your most electrically sensitive equipment (e.g. your computer equipment).

Some people suggest building a Faraday cage to protect your electronics from any electrical surges that might flow through the grid, and others recommend preparing an emergency plan and stockpiling resources (food, water, etc.).

Although I've never had much personal success with political activism, I think lobbying in favor or more renewable energy support, and investment / infrastructure improvement of the electrical grid really makes a lot of sense – it may be too much to anticipate success at the national level – but I would think that your chances of success with the most vulnerable New England states would be met with some positive reaction and support.

In short - it's another good reason to go solar before 2012.

Protecting Your Electronics

There is plenty of information on the Internet right now about super solar flares and CMEs, some good and some not so good. Understand that most of the information available about how to mitigate damages or protect your electronic equipment is derived from mathematics, and is still only theory. Even though the math has been proven in other circumstances and situations, no one has actually tested it with a super solar flare or CME. And you can only do so much to "harden" your environment before your preparations become too much of a hassle and interferes with everyday living.

However, the popular belief is that you can construct a "Faraday cage" and put whatever you want protected inside of it, and it will be protected - such as radios, a small television, and communication equipment. A Faraday cage is nothing more than a metal box or mesh wire screen where all ends meet each other to form a tight metallic seal. Some theorize that even chicken wire with its very large open weave would work just as well as a solid metal box. Nothing you put inside the box should come in contact with the box itself or the mesh, and no metal wires should be run in or out of the box. A quick and easy approach would be to put what you want protected in a cardboard or wooden box and then wrap it with aluminum foil. Some people have lined rooms with chicken wire and are very careful about what goes into the room. Some say an airplane is a perfect example of a well-constructed Faraday box because of the high amount of static electricity generated on the exterior "skin," which is made of aluminum. Aircraft are actually struck by lightning fairly regularly, and nothing inside gets damaged.

However, even if you can protect your electronic equipment - you'll still need a source of electricity to power it ... which is where having a solar installation, or even a back up solar generator would come in handy (Learn More).

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