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Power Space Science

What We Can Do About Massive Solar Flares 224

Posted by kdawson
from the resistance-may-not-be-futile dept.
Reader resistant sends in an update to our discussion a month back on the possibility of violent space weather destroying power grids worldwide during the upcoming solar cycle. Wired is running an interview with Lawrence Joseph, author of "Apocalypse 2012: A Scientific Investigation into Civilization's End," and John Kappenman, CEO of electromagnetic damage consulting company MetaTech. The piece brings two new threads to the discussion: the recently discovered presence of an unusually large hole in Earth's geomagnetic shield, magnifying our vulnerability, and possible steps we can take over the next few years to make the power grid more robust against solar flares and coronal mass ejections. There's also that whole Mayan 2012 thing. Quoting John Kapperman: "What we're proposing is to add some fairly small and inexpensive resistors in the transformers' ground connections. The addition of that little bit of resistance would significantly reduce the amount of the geomagnetically induced currents that flow into the grid. In its simplest form, it's something that might be made out of cast iron or stainless steel, about the size of a washing machine. ...we think it's do-able for $40,000 or less per resistor. That's less than what you pay for insurance for a transformer. [In the US] there are about 5,000 transformers to consider this for. ... We're talking about $150 million or so. It's pretty small in the grand scheme of things."
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What We Can Do About Massive Solar Flares

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday April 26, 2009 @02:47PM (#27722655)

    We must blow up the sun. But we must be quick, since there's only about 12 hours of darkness a day during which we can do it.

  • by Chasmyr (1261462) on Sunday April 26, 2009 @02:50PM (#27722675)
    So, he has determined a doomsday scenario that his company can prevent for $150 million? Lets think about that for a minute...
    • by phillymjs (234426) <slashdot&stango,org> on Sunday April 26, 2009 @03:12PM (#27722825) Homepage Journal

      Let's see, $150 million that the energy company executives can use to line their pockets, or to pay for something to prevent a disaster that might not really happen anyway but would cause damage that would be much more expensive to fix than prevent, and would cause utter chaos in the nation for an extended period of time.

      There's only one outcome here. I don't know about you, but I'm gonna start outfitting my house like Chuck Heston's in The Omega Man.

      ~Philly

      • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

        by maxume (22995)

        You aren't thinking deep enough. Clearly the guy also has interests in companies that sell survival gear.

    • Cheaper too.

      Give me 100 million dollars and I will pray to whichever deity you prefer to protect ALL the transformers in the entire world.
      Fuck... I'll even throw in a good word for finding a cure to your favorite disease.
      Well... actually your LEAST favorite disease but you know what I mean...

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by BeanThere (28381)

      So if somebody is trying to sell you insurance, do you also assume that risks don't exist?

      Whether or not the risk is real enough is something for scientists/physicists/engineers to determine; it has completely independent of whether or not somebody stands to make money from it. People have been making money selling solutions to actual problems for a very long time; the presence of a financial incentive doesn't automatically mean snake oil, as you seem to presume. In fact, the presence of financial incentive

    • by Maelwryth (982896)
      I wouldn't exactly call it a doomsday scenario. These flares happen fairly often. The last one to disrupt power was in March 1989 but there was a bigger one [nasa.gov] in April 2001 that missed us.

      Can't wait for discovery channels "doco" on the star in the east being solar flares hitting Jupiter though. :)
      • by True Grit (739797) * <edwcogburn@nosPaM.gmail.com> on Sunday April 26, 2009 @08:52PM (#27725237)

        I wouldn't exactly call it a doomsday scenario. These flares happen fairly often.

        The NASA funded report that is linked to from TFA is talking about a "Coronal Mass Ejection" [wikipedia.org] which is different from a solar flare, though they are sometimes both created by the same underlying event.

        Basically a giant ball of high energy plasma (ionized gas) that is shot out of the Sun, sometimes reaching speeds of 1/3 that of light. Note that a fast CME would give us almost no warning time at all, even if we had detectors close enough to the Sun at the time to detect it. Detecting a CME is not as easy as noticing a solar flare, never mind the problem of determing how large/dangerous it is, then calculating whether or not its going to hit the Earth.

        The last one to disrupt power was in March 1989 ...

        A more relevant example would be the "1859 Solar Superstorm" [wikipedia.org]. This was a solar event that generated both a CME (that hit the Earth) and multiple solar flares. If an event like this happened *now*, with our extreme dependence on so many things electrical and electronic, it would be a first class catastrophe. That is not hype, although it would not be a "life-ending" kind of catastrophe, it could very well be a "life-as-we-know-it-now-ending" kind of catastrophe.

        Note that a large CME could impact the Earth over several days, as the 1859 event did, so we are also talking about a potential *global* catastrophe, not a regional one.

        Finally, TFA also links to another recent NASA report about a huge hole just discovered in Earth's protective magnetic shield, so the important point to take away from TFA is that we are about to enter a period of Solar Maximum [wikipedia.org] with a gaping hole in the only shield which protects us. Getting hit by a large CME now, with that hole in Earth's magnetic shield still present, would lead to a *really* bad day for humanity.

    • by True Grit (739797) * <edwcogburn@nosPaM.gmail.com> on Sunday April 26, 2009 @07:50PM (#27724837)

      So, he has determined a doomsday scenario that his company can prevent for $150 million?

      He didn't "create" the doomsday scenario involved here, others, including scientists, have been considering this problem for awhile now. Note that TFA has links to two scientific reports that are entirely unconnected with the MetaTech CEO, one is from NASA itself, and the other is published by the National Academies and was funded by NASA.

  • by ElMiguel (117685) on Sunday April 26, 2009 @02:58PM (#27722735)
    So their "fairly small resistors" are about the size of a washing machine? I'm sure that's pretty good in the power grid industry, but I'd hate to know what they call "huge resistors".
  • by religious freak (1005821) on Sunday April 26, 2009 @03:00PM (#27722765)
    When I hear our need for resistors to limit the damage of massive solar flares uttered in the same sentence as "the whole 2012 thing", the credibility for anything either one of these guys says is gone as far as I'm concerned.

    I don't think they know what "science" is.
    • I suppose it's good marketing practice if you're trying to sell electromagnetic damage prevention equipment to fans of Coast to Coast AM or the History Channel. They love them some 2012 "science."

      I would say it's not such a great tactic if you're trying to sell to engineers, but let's face it: education doesn't protect you from teh stoopid. Surely most people here know at least one educated person that takes such things seriously.

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Jesus_666 (702802)
      Actually, this is fairly sound. Archaeologists recently decyphered a Mayan text that details the need for large, blocky capacitors in 2012. The text also goes on about how those capacitors would be about half as high as a man and require completely new materials, either in cast or hammered form. It was all very professional.
      • by Jesus_666 (702802)
        Note: Yes, the "resistor" in there is intentional. The Mayans messed up their calculations and wanted to use resistors instead of capacitors. Their faulty energy physics were one of the factors invonved in the downfall of their civilization. (In contrast, the European settlers made not a single wrong assumption about how to counteract solar flares messing with the electrical infractructure.)
    • by Shark (78448)

      Actually, I think properly done science would not show any bias whatsoever even if they mentioned little green men worshiping the great BoingBoing.

      Proper science would only look at the observed facts.

      The kind of science you are referring to is more in line with the 'scientists' who called Galileo crazy or the man-made (or not) global warming crowds.

      To discredit a genuine scientific (or otherwise) theory because some religious/spiritual bozos are running around screaming about something similar (in this case

    • When I hear our need for resistors to limit the damage of massive solar flares uttered in the same sentence as "the whole 2012 thing", the credibility for anything either one of these guys says is gone as far as I'm concerned.

      It is unfortunate that we have this coincidence between the Mayan Long Calendar "prediction" for 2012, and the fact that we're entering a Solar Maximum period (which will peak in 2012) with a gaping hole in our planet's magnetic shield and a civilization extremely dependent on an electrical infrastructure that is itself extremely vulnerable to the effects of a large geomagnetic storm.

      I leave it up to you as to whether you should ignore the latter just because of the former.

      I don't think they know what "science" is.

      "They" in this case aren't scientists, and aren't pretending to be. Note however that "they", and TFA, are all referring to scientific reports from NASA and the US National Academy of Sciences to base their ideas on.

      I don't know about you, but I *do* think that NASA and the US National Academy of Sciences know what "science" is.

  • The myans? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday April 26, 2009 @03:03PM (#27722777)

    Come on. Anything and everything this article has to say is now more-or-less worthless because of that bit.

    • by dunelin (111356)

      Actually, the Mayan reference is in the original article along with the links that kdawson appropriated for the article summary. Note to editor: a quote is not the only thing due credit. How about giving credit to Wired for the links too?

  • EU safe? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by AigariusDebian (721386) <aigariusNO@SPAMdebian.org> on Sunday April 26, 2009 @03:21PM (#27722891) Homepage

    As far as I know, the electrical grid in most of EU have always been protected against that. When government companies manage the grid according to set technical standards, it mostly is better managed than private contractors, that build as little as possible and as cheap as possible.

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Somehow, I doubt they're protected in the same way, since these resistors are still in the "conceptual design phase".

      I have to say, "Put up or shut up".

    • by BeanThere (28381)

      Oh bulldust, the electricity grids in many other countries were built by governments and are not protected - how on earth can you possibly claim that the EU represents proof that governments are automagically pure and saintly and do things right, when almost every other country is a glaring counter-example that disproves your point? This borders on insanity.

      I put forth that if it's true what you claim, that it's been 'done right' in Europe, it probably has more to do with the fact that it is simply in the c

    • by profplump (309017)
      Don't you want the grid to be built as cheaply as possible? Isn't that the point of the standards -- to define the lower bound on function?
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by True Grit (739797) *

      As far as I know, the electrical grid in most of EU have always been protected against that.

      Sure about that? [newscientist.com]

      From the above link:

      Neither is Europe sufficiently prepared. Responsibility for dealing with space weather issues is "very fragmented" in Europe, says Hapgood.

      Europe's electricity grids, on the other hand, are highly interconnected and extremely vulnerable to cascading failures. In 2006, the routine switch-off of a small part of Germany's grid - to let a ship pass safely under high-voltage cables - caused a cascade power failure across western Europe. In France alone, five million people were left without electricity for two hours. "These systems are so complicated we don't fully understand the effects of twiddling at one place," Hapgood says. "Most of the time it's alright, but occasionally it will get you."

  • "Since the beginning of time, man has yearned to destroy the sun. I shall do the next best thing: block it out. "

  • by SamMichaels (213605) on Sunday April 26, 2009 @03:29PM (#27722947)

    Unless I missed it, TFA left out the technical details of the problem and was filled with FUD language instead.

    From what I saw on wiki [wikipedia.org], it's a quasi-DC current. Why can't we just install massive inductors that give high impedance to 60hz and pass DC? Wouldn't that cost less than $45k? Don't we already have static drain chokes? How does this affect current lightning protection shunts (or when they say the protection circuits pop, is that to what they're referring)?

    Linemen chime in!

    • by usul294 (1163169)
      Suppose you had a massive inductor, that was say 10H, in order to make a 60Hz filter you would need like a 100 ohm resistor, which in order to make to survive the huge currents/voltages while maintaining low impedance would need to be a big block of iron
    • by butlerm (3112)

      Any inductor with sufficiently high impedance at such a low frequency would almost certainly cost *far* more and be significantly larger than the equivalent resistor setup. If the connection point was a line designed to carry 60 Hz an inductor would be the only way to go, however here the connection point is a neutral, so an inductor that filters out 60 Hz signals is overkill.

    • by PPH (736903) on Sunday April 26, 2009 @04:07PM (#27723221)

      No. Not inductors. Ideally, we want to provide the 60 Hz currents a low impedance path to ground, but block the DC currents. DC currents saturate iron core devices (transformers, generators, etc.) and can cause damage. Resistors limit both AC and DC currents, which is a trade-off. Ideally, a capacitor could block DC but allow AC to pass. But capacitors suitable for these voltage levels are VERY expensive.

      In reality, simply adding resistors here and there is not the total answer. Although the DC currents will be reduced, the resistors can only dissipate power for a short time. And while they do so, they create a DC voltage drop which itself can cause equipment failure. What is needed is the addition of DC current sensing and protective relaying to trip breakers and protect the system. Sure, you'll have an outage. But one that may only last hours or a few days. Not the weks or months it will take to repair damage. Few utilities implement this kind of sensing, and then only on major lines. So they can't characterize their systems' DC current components during either 'normal' operations or solar storms.

      • What we need it to 'ground' the Earth to some other object - say Mars - and let that take the hit, or cover the Earth in tinfoil.

      • High voltage capacitors are available - how about bead condenser, model AB 619. It has a breakdown voltage of 33,000 volts. Available from Electronics Service, Unit No. 16.

  • by VinylRecords (1292374) on Sunday April 26, 2009 @03:35PM (#27722993)

    "Apocalypse 2012: A Scientific Investigation into Civilization's End"

    So many things wrong with this title...first of all, the word Apocalypse derives from Greek 'Apokálypsis' which basically means 'lifting of a veil' or revealing something that was previously hidden to the majority of the population. Currently apocalypse enters into most people's lexicon in the biblical sense referring to the end of days (aka revelation).

    2012...well I think we've all seen the movie (trailer). The Mayan calendar puts the end of time at approximately December 21, 2012. But that's not even the Mayan's interpretation of 2012...it just some projected wish that has exploded into popular culture. Many Mayan scholars simply think that the Mayans were simply going to reset the calendar on that day back to zero.

    Either way the scientific exploration to the end of our planet or species (which are different things and scenarios) should avoid religious or theological possibilities (because they aren't real).

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ultimate_fate_of_the_universe [wikipedia.org]
    Heat death of the universe and the big crunch are the two most likely scenarios (don't worry you won't be around for either of them). Heat death is basically where the universe becomes void of heat and motion and there is nothing left but immobile objects. The other best theory is the big crunch, basically where gravity pulls all objects together from existence into one singularity.

    I always though that that singularity would interact with infinite absolute zero and most likely creates another big bang. If this is true then that would mean it could have happened an infinite number of times before, meaning time is an infinite loop and everything has happened before an infinite number of times and will happen again.

    I haven't studied hard science in an academic environment for a while (I went to an amazing science oriented public high school) as I did my undergraduate studies in......sports broadcasting...so here's my disclaimer: some things above might be paraphrased or summarized incorrectly (I did my best).

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Risks_to_civilization,_humans_and_planet_Earth [wikipedia.org]
    This article covers almost everything. Natural disasters occurring from earth (earthquakes, floods, global warming), to space based (gamma ray bursts, impact events), to human based events (nuclear war), to diseases and pandemics, and even things like an A.I. taking over or a singularity from nanotechnology taking over all life (search wiki for Grey goo), and then of course there is the probability (though unlikely) of aliens obliterating our planet.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Extinction_of_human_beings [wikipedia.org]
    There was a recent poll on Slashdot asking everyone when the last human would be born...
    http://slashdot.org/pollBooth.pl?qid=1749&aid=-1 [slashdot.org]
    http://slashdot.org/pollBooth.pl?qid=1751&aid=-1 [slashdot.org]

    Oh...here comes my boss time to submit and get back to cutting Mets footage.

    • by kohaku (797652) on Sunday April 26, 2009 @04:00PM (#27723141)

      Many Mayan scholars simply think that the Mayans were simply going to reset the calendar on that day back to zero.

      Referred to in Mayan texts as "The Great Mayan Integer Overflow".

      • Amusing. :P

        But in all seriousness, it's a positional number system.
        They would have simply *gasp* added a digit.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by DeadDecoy (877617)

      The other best theory is the big crunch, basically where gravity pulls all objects together from existence into one singularity.

      I dunno if I'd subscribe to the big crunch theory -> infinite loop, mostly because runs counter to the idea of losing energy. Either creating the universe costs energy or creating a giant gravity well costs energy, and one of those is the lowest state of equilibrium. Granted though we, as a species, are very ignorant as to the mechanisms of gravity, and there could be a cosmological perpetual machine out there, but it seems to run counter to the theories we have learned so far.

      Heath death seems more l

    • Heat death is basically where the universe becomes void of heat and motion and there is nothing left but immobile objects.

      The way I understand this scenario is that even immobile objects will have dissipated and there will be no energy left at all even in the form of mass.

  • by qwerty shrdlu (799408) on Sunday April 26, 2009 @03:35PM (#27722999)
    Oh, wait...
  • Just make sure they happen at night.

  • Balderdash (Score:5, Informative)

    by anorlunda (311253) on Sunday April 26, 2009 @04:06PM (#27723207) Homepage
    The solution is to use a Delta-ungrounded-Wye transformer where needed to prevent ground currents. After the 1980's incidents, power engineers in the USA and Canada reviewed the need for these transformers and put them in where needed. The solar flare problem should therefore be solved already. Can you cite a power system engineering qualified source who thinks there is still risk?
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Technician (215283)

      The Y Delta is in use in some of the BPA substations. In some places the Delta end is compromised by the use of reactors to compensate for power factor.

      The Lugo line at the ElDorado with the viral video of the 500 KV jacobs ladder is one of the locations using PF correction inductors. The ~ 100A arc is to the reactor. To prevent DC flow, the reactors can be taken offline, but the power factor would by itself cause voltage regulation problems on lines with a high power factor.

      http://www.youtube.com/watch? [youtube.com]

  • After seeing the movie Knowing [wikipedia.org]. I couldn't help but think how screwed Humanity would be if the planet would be in the Wrong Place, at the Wrong Time. It would take about another 5 Billion years for Earth to get back to what it is today, but even that Polyanna [wikipedia.org] concept wasn't good enough. When it comes down to cold reality, only if humanity becomes a space faring culture will things like ELE [wikipedia.org] be unfortunate, but survivable.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by ScrewMaster (602015) *

      After seeing the movie Knowing [wikipedia.org]. I couldn't help but think how screwed Humanity would be if the planet would be in the Wrong Place, at the Wrong Time.

      After seeing the movie Knowing, I couldn't help but think that I wanted my nine dollars back. As end-of-the-world scenarios go, that one was pretty weak.

  • I mean, the only thing we could do if there is a major solar outburst is (cue funny music): "duck and cover! [youtube.com]"
  • Nobody looks at the real problem here:

    The earth's core is slowing down and cooling off, causing a drop in the strength of our magnetic field.

    Who's got the plan that injects boatloads of energy into the core in such a way that both increases its temperature significantly AND boosts the speed of its spin? That would fix us for hundreds of thousands of years, and yet nooooobody talks about it.

    These patchwork fixes allow us to ignore the REAL problem. ;)

  • "From this, on to our new segment: 'Shit that's never going to happen!'" :D

    So are we Fox News now? Because IMHO TFA drips with sensationalist scaremongering. Or am I missing something here? (Not a rhetorical question.)

    • by WCguru42 (1268530)
      Well, to file this under "Shit that's never going to happen!" is probably not correct considering there's a very high likelihood that there will be solar flares in the future. Whether or not we need to take action to protect against it is another thing. But I would say that the world is going to end in 2012 because the Mayans say so is probably "shit that's never going to happen!" I guess we only have to wait three years.
  • by Cow Jones (615566) on Sunday April 26, 2009 @05:38PM (#27723921)

    At the risk of having my geek card revoked, I'll admit that I don't know zilch about solar flares and their impact on electronics. What concerns me the most is how my stored data will be affected. Hardware can be replaced, but data is volatile and (I presume) also susceptible to the sun's random bursts.

    Will by HDDs keep their data? Is it important whether they're connected to the grid at the time of the flaare? Can solar flares harm optical media?

    What good are backups on magnetic media (tape or disks or otherwise) if a single large flare could wipe them all out?

    Please tell me I'm worrying about nothing...

    CJ

    • Not ever (Score:3, Funny)

      by fnj (64210)

      Will [m]y HDDs keep their data?

      Never. Not with perfect, or even adequate, reliability. Not after a mega solar flare, and not before a mega solar flare either. Your data can disappear irretrievably in a millisecond at any time, by the very nature of hard drives.

      Hope you keep three, or better yet more, copies of every piece of data, on separate media. Preferably different kinds of media. And in different geographical locations. Deep underground, but air conditioned.

      And I hope you refresh all the copies of all the data to new media at

    • by ColdWetDog (752185) on Sunday April 26, 2009 @08:05PM (#27724933) Homepage
      You're really worried about your porn, aren't you?
    • by Minwee (522556)
      Don't worry. All of your porn will be safe.
  • The Wired reference is garbage. Mayan predictions? Million kilovolt transformers? That's a billion volts, into fantasy and beyond. And of course, this is a kdawson story.
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by True Grit (739797) *

      Million kilovolt transformers?

      They're probably talking about the new (created within the last year by various manufacturers) 800-kV transformers (in other places 750kV is listed) that were made specifically for China's new electricity distribution projects. All prior transformer substations are rated somewhere south of 500kV.

      That's a billion volts, into fantasy and beyond.

      Well, first, these things are rated by their manufacturers at 800kV, which might be a conservative rating, for all we know they might be able to handle 1000kV right now, albeit with some risk, and second, since it

  • It's well known that Nickel Ass Cage can save us from any plot as long as he has ingested enough vallium so. he. can. say. his lines. All you need is good looking female supporting actor yelling 'save the children' and we will be saved.
  • by cdn-programmer (468978) <terrNO@SPAMterralogic.net> on Monday April 27, 2009 @02:29AM (#27726881)

    Solar Cycle #24 is about 2 years late and the sun is unusually quiet. We really don't need to worry much about solar flares. The thing is when solar cycles are late this means the next solar cycle typically is very quiet. Solar Cycle #25 has already been predicted to also be very quiet.

    So for the next 20 years solar flares may be practically non-existent.

    What this means is that we can expect an increase in high energy cosmic radiation.

    Expect more bit flips in circuitry.

    Expect shorted and cooler summers and longer more intense winters. This is due to the increased cosmic radiation creating nucleation points for water vapor condensation which will increase cloud cover. Increased cloud cover reflects more energy into space so the surface cools.

    Anyone who is perceptive might note this is the opposite of global warming.

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