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Dodging solar storms
March 20, 2014 10:48 AM   Subscribe

FYI, we came close to losing the power grid back in 2012. What we? Oh, just the planet.
posted by Brandon Blatcher (40 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite

 
the future seems really warlord-prone, lately
posted by angrycat at 10:57 AM on March 20 [12 favorites]


A wake up call. To do exactly what? If the Sun wants to hurl plasma at the Earth, ain't nothing humans can do to stop it. Ordinary weather regularly knocks out the power grid, but the cost of putting it underground cannot be justified in most places. Low risk high consequence events don't compete well with all other spending.
posted by three blind mice at 11:04 AM on March 20 [1 favorite]


A wake up call. To do exactly what?

To put in bigger surge protectors, natch.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:11 AM on March 20 [5 favorites]


To do exactly what?

fund things like solar sheild and help industry coordination efforts.
posted by Dr. Twist at 11:15 AM on March 20 [4 favorites]


Which coincidentally I'm just about to do. Bought a nice beefy panel based whole house surge protector plus one for the incoming coax. Wasn't specifically thinking about solar storms though.
posted by Hairy Lobster at 11:15 AM on March 20


A wake up call. To do exactly what?

Check that all your low-tech camping equipment is in good shape, and make friends with a farmer?
posted by Greg_Ace at 11:16 AM on March 20 [14 favorites]


I think the appropriate paradigm to think of here is not "power surge," it's "electromagnetic pulse (EMP)".

Surge protection doesn't help if the local power station is offline, and all the traffic lights, and 911, and cellphones and the cell towers, and the pumps that get water to your house, and the power inverter connected to your off-grid solar cells...

One hopes that at least on the military end of things they've got dumb & reliable mechanical backups for their smart electronics, and faraday shielded bunkers full of useful crap for rebooting civilization. Because on the civilian end of things, even the goldbug survivalists are pretty crap about their EMP shielding (please note: I want them rebooting civilization even less).
posted by ivan ivanych samovar at 11:22 AM on March 20 [4 favorites]


I assume that since GPS is military system it is fully hardened against EMP events like this, right?
posted by monotreme at 11:29 AM on March 20 [1 favorite]


This is why my house is clad in 10-mil grounded copper foil.

Also I have circumscribed an elder sign completely around it. This may be a sign that the Great Old Ones are returning.

They say "when the stars are right..." but they forget to mention that the sun is, of course, a star.
posted by GuyZero at 11:32 AM on March 20 [9 favorites]


We should blow up the Sun. Get it before it gets us.
posted by Poldo at 11:33 AM on March 20 [30 favorites]


All my stuff says "UL Listed" on the back, so I'm good.
posted by bondcliff at 11:35 AM on March 20 [3 favorites]


Surge protection doesn't help if the local power station is offline, and all the traffic lights, and 911, and cellphones and the cell towers, and the pumps that get water to your house, and the power inverter connected to your off-grid solar cells...

It does if you use your surge protector as a sort of improvised flail weapon when it comes time to prove yourself in Thunderdome.
posted by burnmp3s at 11:41 AM on March 20 [24 favorites]


Well hell, at least enjoy it if the Sun Blows Up Today.
posted by Nanukthedog at 11:49 AM on March 20 [1 favorite]


A wake up call. To do exactly what?

Industrial sized electrical equipment has a dearth of manufacturers, a slow production process and long waits on back ordered parts. The problem wouldn't be all of the shit we have blowing up, it would be the glacial speed of replacement parts being built.

If anything, it should be a wakeup call for the executives (of the power companies and the United States) to sit down and say "what's our plan to rebuild every transformer and substation in America on short notice?"

* Where are the most important places to get transformers to in order to get power restored to the most people as quickly as possible?
* Which industries would need to be quickly staffed and which industries could equipment and staff be commandeered from to scale production of needed parts by orders of magnitude?
* Do we have the ability to scale in the absence of electric arc furnaces? Do we need a strategic stockpile of copper, steel or other important industrial metals?

With the strategic weaknesses identified in the grid already and some people apparently making a dry run this isn't really something you want to ignore and let nature be nature.
posted by Talez at 11:50 AM on March 20 [21 favorites]


A lot of improvements went into place after a big flare in 1989 caused a very bad horrible no good day for Hydro Quebec, as I recall. That flare was big enough to provide some really substantial geomagnetically-induced DC current (and DC voltage differential), which caused huge stresses on the gear at either end. It was the first time that we had both 1. a really big solar flare, and 2. really *really* long transmission lines running north-south, which is more susceptible to the GIC than east/west (because the earth is a magnet moving through an electrical charge).

But it has to get better-protected, or we are so fucked.

Unfortunately, like other kinds of infrastructure, it's really not getting the love and upkeep it needs.
posted by rmd1023 at 11:50 AM on March 20 [2 favorites]


Isn't this something that we've discussed before?
posted by humanfont at 11:51 AM on March 20 [1 favorite]


So, basically, if the planet had just been somewhere else in 2012, there could have been catastrophic social break down and misery for billions. The Mayans were almost on that!
posted by Atreides at 12:04 PM on March 20 [9 favorites]


So how do they build transformers when the lights are out at the factory?
posted by double block and bleed at 12:15 PM on March 20 [2 favorites]


By receiving geomagnetic storm alerts and warnings (e.g. by the Space Weather prediction Center; via Space Weather satellites as SOHO or ACE), power companies can minimize damage to power transmission equipment, by momentarily disconnecting transformers or by inducing temporary blackouts. Preventative measures also exist, including preventing the inflow of GICs into the grid through the neutral-to-ground connection. (Source, via)
posted by beagle at 12:25 PM on March 20 [3 favorites]


So how do they build transformers when the lights are out at the factory?

Transformers: less than meets the eye?
posted by Welcome to Hell, Fred at 12:26 PM on March 20 [1 favorite]


Previously on the Great Auroral Storm of 1859.
posted by Toekneesan at 12:45 PM on March 20


More on Solar Shield.

A question for folks who might be familiar with the project (or the utilities) - what do the grid operators do (or what are they supposed to do) with the warnings once received? The project looks to be about pinpointing areas of greatest risk after a CME; I'm just not clear on what's supposed to happen in the 30-45 minutes of time after a warning comes over the wire. Shut everything down for a bit and wait? Prepare for the failures, but know in advance how to deal with the aftermath?

Inquiring minds and all that.
posted by jquinby at 12:55 PM on March 20 [1 favorite]


Or, hey, I can look two posts up to what beagle has written.
posted by jquinby at 12:56 PM on March 20


double block and bleed: "So how do they build transformers when the lights are out at the factory?"

Day shift?
posted by chavenet at 2:12 PM on March 20 [3 favorites]


what do the grid operators do (or what are they supposed to do) with the warnings once received?
Nothing sexy: they just unplug things. When the transformers are connected to miles and miles of power lines, the lines act as giant antennae-for-EMP, which is where the energy comes from that feeds into the transformers and overloads them. Disconnect them from the lines, and you have to sit through a blackout for a couple hours, but you also get to plug them back in and turn everything on afterwards.
posted by roystgnr at 3:03 PM on March 20 [5 favorites]


Are there actual cases of these "preventative" blackouts happening? I've just never heard of any blackouts explained as being preventative due to a space weather event. Or is this just a conceptual "well you could in theory turn off things if you knew it was coming".
posted by kiltedtaco at 3:26 PM on March 20 [1 favorite]


A wake up call. To do exactly what?

Get rid of your solid state equipment and get into vacuum tubes.
posted by TrialByMedia at 4:58 PM on March 20


We should blow up the Sun. Get it before it gets us.

Yeah! What has that seething ball of hate ever done for us, anyway?
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:18 PM on March 20 [1 favorite]


I'm too old for a new Dark Age now. So y'all hold off with that at least another 30 or 40 years for me please.
posted by ob1quixote at 5:29 PM on March 20 [1 favorite]


So, basically, if the planet had just been somewhere else in 2012, there could have been catastrophic social break down and misery for billions. The Mayans were almost on that!

Well, if you look at it that way, then the 2012 turn of the Mayan Calendar is just a kinda metaphor which applies the framework of the Classic Maya Collapse to us, give or take a few years.
posted by ovvl at 5:30 PM on March 20 [1 favorite]


If anything, it should be a wakeup call for the executives (of the power companies and the United States) to sit down and say "what's our plan to rebuild every transformer and substation in America on short notice?"

^H^H^H "what's our plan to maximize profit from such a crisis?"
posted by gingerest at 5:43 PM on March 20 [2 favorites]


I assume that since GPS is military system it is fully hardened against EMP events like this, right?

Even if the satellites are, the ground-based control centers that keep them running smoothly may not be—and in a catastrophe scenario, we might not be able to keep those centers staffed and administrated anyway. Their orbits need to be continually adjusted to keep the system accurate, and without that maintenance, the system will gradually become less and less accurate.
posted by escape from the potato planet at 6:03 PM on March 20


*Makes note to go buy the latest Rand McNally road atlas*
posted by Greg_Ace at 7:20 PM on March 20


There's so much public spending on preparation and planning we should be doing right now to prepare for the future and the longer term survival of humanity, and yet, we're all rushing as fast as we can for the exits instead (which is funny because there are none). We need to get over it and get on with it.
posted by saulgoodman at 8:01 PM on March 20 [1 favorite]


So, if we got hit by another Carrington-level event, are we talking about just disrupting satellite communications and damaging equipment like electrical substations amd telephone exchanges that are connected to really long wires? Or are we talking about totally ruining anything electronic that isn't inside a Faraday cage? Both would be catastrophic, obviously, but one is clearly much worse than the other and I'm not sure which is on offer. Are we looking at a global disaster, or an actual apocalypse?
posted by Scientist at 8:19 PM on March 20


So, if we got hit by another Carrington-level event, are we talking about just disrupting satellite communications and damaging equipment like electrical substations amd telephone exchanges that are connected to really long wires? Or are we talking about totally ruining anything electronic that isn't inside a Faraday cage?

The EMP from nuclear weapons can be strong enough to fry even unconnected electronics but components would need to be turned on or at least plugged into the grid to be affected by the EMP from a CME.
posted by scalefree at 11:23 PM on March 20


It's ok though, because private sector utilities know about this issue now, and will be taking steps to build in redundancies and hardening their facilities.
posted by sneebler at 5:06 AM on March 21


...releasing energies equal to about a billion hydrogen bombs.

Meh. I've seen worse.
posted by crazylegs at 6:58 AM on March 21


An update on Government efforts to mitigate the potential impact of geomagnetic storms

Order 779 in May of 2013 instructed NERC to begin a 2 phase planning process. The first phase of regulations are going to be issued this month (march 2014) and cover the details of the operational plans for how electricity providers will mitigate damage and respond to a geomagnetic event. The second phase will specify the types of testing and certifications providers will have to conduct to demonstrate their ability to mitigate these storms.

This is a bit like Y2K. There is a real threat here, but there is also a lot of activity going on to ensure that should this event occur we are not facing months without electrical power.
posted by humanfont at 7:06 AM on March 21


Well, that would have been unfortunate.
posted by homunculus at 8:20 PM on March 22


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