-- Chris Kimmerle is a Reuters market analyst. The views expressed are his own - -
By Chris Kimmerle
NEW YORK, August 17 (Reuters) - Like a high-altitude nuclear explosion, a geomagnetic storm (GMS) spawned by solar flares has the ability to shut down electricity transmission/ distribution systems and damage computers on Earth.
With the 11-year solar cycle entering a peak period, there is increased risk of GMS and ground induced currents in the transmission system.
Grid operators and satellite communications do not appear ready for the worst-case GMS scenario, which, while highly improbable, could include prolonged blackouts and massive disruption to the U.S. economy.
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Japan's recent nuclear disaster, the U.S. government and the power industry are now taking the risk more seriously.
Unlike man-made nuclear bursts, geomagnetic storms are natural phenomena, occur on a periodic basis and can have continent-wide impact.
GMS result from the interaction of solar wind and the earth's magnetic field. They are the hurricanes of the magnetosphere and can develop almost instantaneously, have complex widespread geographic implications and last for one or more days.
Solar wind intensity increases during periods of high solar activity - solar flares, coronal holes, and disappearing filaments. While frequently coinciding with peaks in the solar cycle, large geomagnetic storms can occur any time.
While the probability of a widespread blackout is low, in 1986, 1989 and 1991 storms caused significant disruptions to power transmission systems across North America and around the world. The 1989 storm caused a blackout that covered all of Quebec and was felt over much of the U.S. The blackout cost millions of dollars in lost productivity and recovery costs.
The bad news: The combination of increased reliance on information technology for grid management, increases in line voltage and increasing distances between power generation sites and centers of consumption are compounding the risk of serious problems for the nation's power supply from a major storm.
There has been little incentive to reinforce the transmission system against a low probability, high impact event, even when the economic exposure is in the trillions of dollars.
Despite long being aware of the exposure, The North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) is only now working to "identify the need to assess the current capability of the bulk power system to withstand these severe-impact scenarios and to enhance restoration plans and procedures."
The good news: GMS are often accompanied by spectacular aurora borealis displays. Widespread power failures would knock out the lights in major urban and suburban areas, creating opportunities to watch the northern lights in the dark.
A FEMA PLANNING SCENARIO
In October 2010 the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) and other domestic and international agencies participated in a workshop on managing critical disasters. Under one planning scenario, an intense GMS occurred in the Northeast and Northern Europe. Within an hour of onset a cascading power outage spread across the eastern and mid-Atlantic United States and eastern Canada.
In the exercise, electric transmission system step-up transformers and transmission transformers were damaged and repairs took weeks to months to complete. The loss of power in turn caused losses of water distribution, sewage disposal, hospital care and phone service as well as fuel resupply problems. Satellite and cell phone services were also disrupted.
The worst-case scenario solar storm lasted 24 hours. Many populated areas were without power for months. Full recovery of the U.S. power grid took six months.
An unlikely event? Probably ... but not without precedent.
GEOMAGNETIC STORM DAMAGE
A 2003 geomagnetic storm caused power outages in Sweden and significant transformer damage in South Africa.
On March 13, 1989, a solar flare left six million people in Quebec without electricity for nine hours. The disruption rippled across the U.S. Northeast, upper-Midwest, mid-Atlantic region, and disrupted transmission system operations as far west as southern California.
In 1859, before the modern power transmission system, a mega GMS caused major disruptions to the then state-of-the-art telegraph communication systems.
The mid-19th century storm was the largest in modern history and may have provided the base case for the FEMA workshop. If it were to happen today, the economic impact would run to several trillion dollars -- dwarfing the damage caused by the Chernobyl, Katrina, and Fukushima Daiichi disasters combined.
Unlike atmospheric weather events which can be forecast and tracked by meteorologists, geomagnetic storms have sudden onsets, can cover continent size areas and cause almost simultaneous multi-point failures allowing almost no time for systems to respond, let alone reset.
The 1989 Quebec GMS caused a voltage depression that overwhelmed the grid's automatic voltage compensation equipment. The result was an instantaneous wide area "voltage collapse." Five James Bay hydroelectric stations were tripped at once, causing a 30% loss of Quebec's "spinning" power generation. Unable to withstand the loss, the system collapsed within 90 seconds. Recovery took nine hours.