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Power Companies Brace For Solar Storms 111

Posted by timothy
from the but-the-ice-cream-is-dripping-everywhere dept.
Hugh Pickens writes "Three large explosions from the sun over the past few days have prompted U.S. government scientists to caution users of satellite, telecommunications and electric equipment to prepare for possible disruptions over the next few days that could affect communications and GPS satellites, leave thousands without power for weeks to months, and might even produce an aurora visible as far south as Minnesota and Wisconsin. 'The concern is if the electric grid lost a number of transformers during a single storm, replacing them would be difficult and time-consuming,' says Rich Lordan, senior technical executive for power delivery and utilization at the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI). The largest solar storm in recorded history was in 1859, when communications infrastructure was limited to telegraphs. Some telegraph operators reported electric shocks, papers caught fire, and the Northern Lights appeared as far south as Cuba and Hawaii. The first of the three solar explosions from the sun already passed the Earth on Thursday with little impact and the second is passing the Earth now and 'seems to be stronger.' "We'll have to see what happens over the next few days," says space weather scientist Joseph Kunches. '[The third storm] could exacerbate the disturbance in the Earth's magnetic field caused by the second (storm) or do nothing at all.'"
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Power Companies Brace For Solar Storms

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  • Excuse (Score:4, Funny)

    by DarkOx (621550) on Monday August 08, 2011 @08:17AM (#37020646) Journal

    Reads like something from the Bastard Operator From Hell's excuse calendar

    • Re:Excuse (Score:4, Interesting)

      by oneiros27 (46144) on Monday August 08, 2011 @10:41AM (#37022060) Homepage

      Technically, yes, it was:

      It's friday, so I get into work early, before lunch even. The phone rings. Shit!

      I turn the page on the excuse sheet. "SOLAR FLARES" stares out at me. I'd better read up on that. Two minutes later I'm ready to answer the phone.

      "Hello?" I say.

      "WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN, I'VE BEEN TRYING TO GET YOU ALL MORNING?!"

      I hate it when they shout at me early in the morning. It always puts me in a bad mood. You know what I mean.

      "Ah, yes. Well, there's been some solar activity this morning, it always disrupts electronics..." I say, sweet as a sugar pie.

      "Huh? But I could get through to my friends?!"

      "Yes, that's entirely possible, solar activity is very unpredictable in it's effects. Why last week, we had some files just dissappear from a guys account while he was working on it!"

      "Really?"

      "Straight Up! Hey, do you want me to check your account?"

      "Yes please, I've got some important stuff in there!"

      "Ok, what's your username..."

      He tells me. Honestly, it's like shooting a fish in a barrel. Twice. With an Elephant Gun. At point blank range. In the head.

      Unfortunately, the excuse doesn't work when your boss also reads BOFH, is a solar physicist, and the project scientist for three the satellites mentioned in these articles.

      • by RockDoctor (15477)

        He tells me. Honestly, it's like shooting a fish in a barrel. Twice. With an Elephant Gun. At point blank range. In the head.

        Unfortunately, the excuse doesn't work when your boss also reads BOFH, is a solar physicist, and the project scientist for three the satellites mentioned in these articles.

        I think the solution to your ... dilemma ... is in rearranging the last couple of lines. Unless, of course, your Boss already has his own elephant gun, double-barrelled and is standing just behind you.

        Looking at

  • Invasion

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday August 08, 2011 @08:24AM (#37020682)

    The frequency and alarm with which these "OMG!!! Solar storm coming!!!" announcements are made, and the almost total lack of anything perceptibly happening, is quickly becoming a boy-who-cried-wolf situation. It's rather like tornado sirens going off just because there's a nasty storm dropping hail... it happens so frequently that everyone just ignores them, and what good is there in an early warning system if people have been conditioned to disregard it?

    • One of my compact fluorescents let the magic smoke out last night... That's something... Possibly not related.
      • One of my compact fluorescents let the magic smoke out last night... That's something... Possibly not related.

        That's nothing. I had to reboot my MacPro! It's either Solar Flares or the End of the World is Nigh Upon Us!

      • That sounds nasty. Breathing vaporized Hg and all that. Any mad as a hatter symptoms?

        • by BluBrick (1924)

          Any mad as a hatter symptoms?

          Well, he is posting to slashdot...

        • Only if the glass is broken. As long as the glass is intact there is no greater danger than another electronic component burning out.
  • Cell service, too (Score:4, Informative)

    by Matt_Bennett (79107) on Monday August 08, 2011 @08:26AM (#37020696) Homepage Journal
    Cellular service from CDMA providers Sprint could be disrupted as they use GPS trained oscillators to ensure synchronization between towers. Others could be affected as well, but I'm not sure of all that they use for time synchronization. I'd be suprised if they didn't use GPS, as GPS makes an extremely accurate clock very, very, cheap and low power. Sprint uses CDMA which needs decent time synchronization. It is very possible for CDMA to run without a good time reference, but it takes longer (really it's a tradeoff with time, power and hardware) to start up- why a GPS takes some finite amount of time to find your position, for example.
    • Just curious, if these systems have decent clocks (I have some servers that NTP-sync once a week and have clock drift compensation, that's all (free) software on regular PC hardware, and it's only off by a tiny fraction of a second after a week) how long could the network stay up if all the towers lost the GPS signal?

      • Re:Cell service, too (Score:4, Informative)

        by Cyberax (705495) on Monday August 08, 2011 @09:00AM (#37020914)

        We're talking about microsecond-accuracy clocks. Even good quartz clocks drift too fast.

        There's the same problem in synchronous optic networks - endpoints _must_ be perfectly synchronized or it doesn't work at all. That's why communication companies are the biggest buyers of precise atomic clocks.

        The problem is, a lot of endpoints now use simple GPS receivers and not atomic clocks.

      • Re:Cell service, too (Score:4, Informative)

        by Matt_Bennett (79107) on Monday August 08, 2011 @09:04AM (#37020964) Homepage Journal
        Realistically, the accuracy of NTP is in the millisecond range, not close to what you need for CDMA. There is a standard (IEEE1588) that can get you to better than a microsecond, but that requires a specialized hardware PHY. GPS can give you continuous accuracy on the order of hundreds of nano-seconds easily, and it's not a huge expense to get to 10s of nanoseconds.
        • by tzanger (1575)

          Actually it's not the PHY that's special for IEEE1588, it's the MAC. It has "fast path" hardware which can accurately timestamp/send out IEEE1588 frames.

          • Yup- I should have known this- I didn't think my answer through. The link between MAC and PHY is pretty deterministic and shouldn't affect timing. I don't know why I didn't make that inference.
    • by SrJsignal (753163)
      You'd be correct, except you're not. Sprint (and anyone who really cares about time sync) doesn't use "cheap, low power" GPS time synchronization. They use relatively expensive rubidium backed gps trained oscillators which give a stability of 5x10^-11 seconds / month stability without gps lock. All these systems need is to have been synchronized to gps at some point, once they have that they are good to go for a long time as long as they don't lose power. They aren't using some ghetto cell phone gps clo
  • Then fix it... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Arlet (29997) on Monday August 08, 2011 @08:28AM (#37020710)

    Why are the power companies warning us ? There's nothing we can do. It's their responsibility to keep the grid running, not ours.

    If it takes so long to get a replacement transformer, they should have ordered a couple years ago, and kept them as spares.

    • by freaxeh (1962440)
      Considering that one like the 1859 Solar Storm could wipe out 50% of all transformers in the USA, that would be a pretty large and costly pile of rotting transformers to keep on spare "just incase".
      • by Arlet (29997)

        Maybe they can think of other solutions too. Perhaps the grid could be shut down and transformers removed from the power lines before they got ruined. Or built transformers with higher DC tolerance. But yeah, if there is no other option, keeping a large number of rotting transformers on spare is still a better idea than hoping another 1859 won't happen again.

        • than hoping another 1859 won't happen again.

          There is no need for hope. The storms passed and as you can see, nothing happened. Slashdot is just once again days late to the party.

          • by Arlet (29997)

            There is no need for hope. The storms passed and as you can see, nothing happened.

            I wasn't just talking about this particular storm. We'll need the grid for the next couple of solar cycles as well, and it would be smart to take the necessary precautions before the next killer CME is already on its way to Earth.

            • by Desler (1608317)

              Yes, and yours are apparently unnecessary precautions since as we can see, nothing happened. If you want to foot the bill for all those $10 million dollar transformers, go ahead. Just don't lump us in with hiked up energy bills due to your overreactions.

              • by Arlet (29997)

                Yes, and yours are apparently unnecessary precautions since as we can see, nothing happened

                Well, then we don't need all those silly warning stories either, if nothing is ever going to happen anyway.

                • by Dunega (901960)
                  Feel free to ignore them then. I'd rather know that something could happen, even if there was nothing I could do about it.
          • by freaxeh (1962440)

            than hoping another 1859 won't happen again.

            There is no need for hope. The storms passed and as you can see, nothing happened. Slashdot is just once again days late to the party.

            http://www.solarstorms.org/SRefStorms.html [solarstorms.org]

            mmm, I like to err on the side of caution, especially when history paints a different story.

      • Keep in mind we are talking about the largest transformers that are found at substations close to the power plants themselves. There are enough spare transformers in stock to replace any neighborhood 'pole pigs' that fail. These are the ones you will see on the utility pole outside your house. Even the larger transformers that are on the outskirts of town where a main feed line comes in and branches out are quite common. The worry is the REALLY HUGH transformers that feed the cross country lines.

        • by cusco (717999)
          To expand on this comment a bit . . . the really big transformers, switches and relays are all custom-made with backorder times of 3 months to >1 year. The utilities generally carry one or two of each type as spares, but when the primary and spare are gone that's it until the replacement is built. There are only a couple of companies that make them, so if you have a dozen go up in smoke, either by solar or terrorist activity, the utilities are SOL for a **LONG** time. And no, there's no way around this
      • by Bengie (1121981)

        Year ago I read about this stuff. There is a relatively cheap and simple fix that allows high DC current to short strait to ground instead of going through the transformer.

        Too bad our government hasn't cared to enforce the use of such devices to protect us from a nation wide black out if a solar storm did hit us.

        • I think you mean high DC voltage:
          High DC voltage can be shorted to the ground with a quite spectacular arc or with a MOV (lightning arrestor).

          High DC current can be stopped by using a fuse, but fuses are usually to slow to protect from a direct lightning strike (it takes a fraction of a second for the fuse to melt). The voltage driving said current can be shorted fast enough.
    • by Anonymous Coward

      Substation power transformers are large, expensive items ($5-10,000,000 each) which are tailored to a specific site. They will have different ratings, cooling needs, impedances and connections. So your solution is to duplicate every one of these?
      I'm sure the utilities would be happy to buy double, but are you willing to pay extra on your electricity bill?

      • by Arlet (29997)

        So your solution is to duplicate every one of these?

        My solution is to ask the power companies to take care of the problem, in the most efficient way possible. If there's a better way than buying double, they are more than welcome to use it.

        For instance, the replacement could be a slightly different type, as long it could provide a reasonable service during the time it takes to repair it properly.

        And of course, if the electricity bill must go up, then it must go up. It still beats a one-year power outage whi

        • by Amouth (879122)

          So your solution is to duplicate every one of these?

          My solution is to ask the power companies to take care of the problem, in the most efficient way possible. If there's a better way than buying double, they are more than welcome to use it.

          ...

          the cheapest and most obvious solution is for them to disconnect transmission lines from sub stations ahead of the storm and ground them - then after it has passed reconnect. to do this on a large scale would take days head of the storm and days behind.. so best case ~1-2 weeks.

          personally i'd be fine with it.. but i have this odd feeling that most of the rest of the world wouldn't.. it's that lovely instant gratification feeling that people seem to have..

          • by Arlet (29997)

            Probably the outage could be shortened by adding more accurate warning and measurement systems, so you only need to disconnect transmission lines when its really necessary.

            Even if that means a few days, that's better than letting it fry out, and have an even longer blackout.

            • by Amouth (879122)

              I agree - or they could even put in transfer switches so that they could do it faster - either way it is the option of turning power off to the consumers.. which for the safty and longevity and cost is the logical thing to do - but because people/consumers are not rational - this won't happen and instead we will fry transformers and replace them all in the name of instant gratification.

              • by cusco (717999)
                The grid won't take it. Shut down half a dozen major transformers in a region without adequate preparation and you'll be melting transmission lines (literally) as the automated systems don't have the brains to adapt correctly. Of course if the transformers blow up on their own simultaneously you still have the same situation, I suppose . . .
                • by Amouth (879122)

                  i wasn't in anyways thinking you would have them quick flip on/off but rather be designed to facilitate being disconnected - right now transmission lines are not meant to be disconnected at either end.. there for that task would take considerable time and manpower.

    • by Rich0 (548339)

      I read an article about this problem back in the 80s, actually. At that time the concern was that a well-organized terrorist (or foreign - remember this was the cold war) attack could take out the power grid for a long time.

      A typical city does not have a lot of redundancy in its substation network - it can lose one or two, but not more than that. And, when power goes out it is usually due to breakers tripping or things like that - not deliberate attack.

      The threat model in the article was a bunch of infilt

  • For those not well-versed in US geography :

    as far south as Minnesota and Wisconsin.

    is somewhere between 42.5N and 49N.
    This range pretty much includes all Europe (except Portugal/Spain/Italy/Balkans), Russia, Mongolia, and Northern parts of China & Japan.

    • by dtmos (447842) * on Monday August 08, 2011 @09:01AM (#37020934)

      This range pretty much includes all Europe (except Portugal/Spain/Italy/Balkans), Russia, Mongolia, and Northern parts of China & Japan.

      This is correct, but it's not correct to assume that people in these areas can expect to see an auroral display just because one is visible in Minnesota. Auroral displays are responsive to geomagnetic [noaa.gov], not geographic, coordinates, and the geomagnetic coordinates swing south over North America and north over Asia. One would have to be above 60N (geographically) to see an auroral event in Asia visible in Minnesota at 45N.

  • Even better. . . (Score:5, Informative)

    by dtmos (447842) * on Monday August 08, 2011 @08:47AM (#37020812)

    might even produce an aurora visible as far south as Minnesota and Wisconsin

    The submission is so old, we can say what really happened. Aurora were visible in the United States as far south as Utah [spaceweather.com], Colorado [spaceweather.com], and Nebraska [spaceweather.com]. (Tip-'o-the-hat to SpaceWeather.com [spaceweather.com].)

  • For all the potential "fire and brimstone" these solar storms have the potential to cause, they still have yet to achieve the level of destruction and disturbance to our power and communications infrastructure as copper scrappers.

    I can count at least three incidents this year where I was affected by scrappers removing copper that was in-use (communications and power). I can't think of one instance in my entire life (30 yrs) where a solar storm has caused me a disruption.

  • by freaxeh (1962440) on Monday August 08, 2011 @08:53AM (#37020858)
    I always thought that the 1989 Quebec Solar Storm was a good example of what might occur: http://www.nasa.gov/topics/earth/features/sun_darkness.html [nasa.gov]

    In space, some satellites actually tumbled out of control for several hours. NASA's TDRS-1 communication satellite recorded over 250 anomalies as high-energy particles invaded the satellite's sensitive electronics. Even the Space Shuttle Discovery was having its own mysterious problems. A sensor on one of the tanks supplying hydrogen to a fuel cell was showing unusually high pressure readings on March 13. The problem went away just as mysteriously after the solar storm subsided.

    http://www.ips.gov.au/Educational/1/3/12 [ips.gov.au]

    Service restoration took more than nine hours. This can be explained by the fact that some of the essential equipment, particularly on the James Bay transmission network, was made unavailable by the blackout. Generation from isolated stations normally intended for export was repatriated to meet Quebec's needs and the utility purchased electricity from Ontario, New Brunswick and the Alcan and McLaren Systems.

    By noon, the entire generating and transmission system was back in service, although 17 percent of Quebec customers were still without electricity. In fact, several distribution-system failures occurred because of the high demand typical of Monday mornings, combined with the jump in heating load after several hours without power.

    So... It caused a cascading effect, just like the most recent New York blackout, scary stuff if it occured across even a marginal size of the USA.

  • You'd think in this day and age that things like transformers and the grid could be either shielded against EM radiation or simply add things like surge protectors or circuit breakers to the grid designed to withstand solar storms (or nukes even).

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      It certainly could be shielded - I believe a lot of military hardware is, but it is similar to earthquake proofing buildings in that it is hideously expensive. So without government regulation (evil, evil regulation...), companies that run on profits will certainly not spend the money to protect their systems for an event that might happen once every 100 (?) years. Considering that they aren't able (or willing) to spend the money to improve the infrastructure to deal with 'normal' use (cascading blackouts a

    • Remember the problem isn't the transformers themselves. They aren't getting hit with enough directly to cause a problem. It is the thousands and thousands of miles of wire having current induced in them, which then goes to the transformers.

      If you have a suggestion for how to shield all that, for a cost that is reasonable, well I'm sure they'd love to hear it.

      If all they had to do was shield large transformers, well that might be done but it isn't that simple.

      In terms of surge suppressors, do you understand

      • by dissy (172727) on Monday August 08, 2011 @10:44AM (#37022110)

        Not so easy to put a surge protector on that. I don't even know how you'd design an effective one at that level, much less how much it'd cost.

        For the "low" amperage lines that operate under a few thousand amps, they actually do make surge fuses rated for that amperage. They are pretty interesting, using a special mixture of basically sand. At a high enough amperage level, the sand melts into glass and expands destroying the connectivity metal and turning into a non-conductor.

        Granted, these are more like fuses than surge suppressors, and need replacing after being 'blown', but they do protect the low end transformers.

        For the very long transmission lines at high amperage however, I do not believe there are any solutions in place to handle that type of energy.

        Either way, your point stands. What we can do about the problem is very limited, and requires manual intervention with a lot of lead time.

    • by rkflash (2432522)
      You can deploy ground-induced current monitors on transformers and tie it in to a protection scheme of your choosing, so it's not as if there's no options whatsoever.
    • EM shielding won't help as it's not that the transformers themselves are directly affected ...

      The long power lines act as antenna, so it comes in as a surge in the normal input (or feedback from the output). I know it's not cost-effective to re-string every power line with something that's shielded (and that in turn could reduce the transmission ability, as they don't like making power cables more than about 5cm thick, so you minimize wind and ice loads).

      So, you'd have to put in some sort of a surge suppre

      • by rkflash (2432522)

        As for circuit breakers ... wasn't that what took out the whole north-east when Ohio lost a section of their grid?

        Yes it was, because the circuit breakers/protection were the only things that did their job properly that day

    • by Rich0 (548339)

      In a word, deregulation causes this sort of problem.

      The old model was cost-plus. The utility creates a plan for how they'd like to operate, and how much electricity should cost to pay for it. The Public Utilities Commission would approve the plan. Then everybody follows the plan and you get charged the state-approved rate for your electricity use.

      Typically these plans would include some level of redundancy/protection/etc so that the whole country wouldn't be in the dark ages if a tree shorted out one tra

    • Bonus... first to mention surge protectors.

      Wait a couple hours then go and buy some
      for the home (I want to get mine first).

      One problem is that in large numbers they will trigger breakers and
      fuses knocking out power in large areas that will then trigger surges in
      other areas. The good news is that your flat screen TV might
      survive but there will be no wall power or TV transmissions
      to watch.

  • by niktemadur (793971) on Monday August 08, 2011 @09:07AM (#37020998)

    On Google News, IBT's headlines on the subject are:
    Massive Solar Storm Could Cause Catastrophic Nuclear Threat in US
    as well as
    Severe Solar Storm to Create Global Chaos and Complete Darkness
    and
    Solar Storm Watch: Could This be Armageddon?

    It's not even about "whoever screams the loudest gets the attention" anymore, it's just a loud, hollow mindset, by default. Sheesh.

    • by arth1 (260657)

      Solar Storm Watch: Could This be Armageddon?

      Nah, that's in October, innit?

  • This is hurting my brain a little. How do we know a third storm is coming when it's traveling at the speed of light toward us? Don't we detect storms by seeing them from earth, when the EM radiation has already traveled here? I'm guessing maybe we have sensors closer to it? Also doesn't it only take 8 minutes for sunlight to hit the earth?
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      This is hurting my brain a little. How do we know a third storm is coming when it's traveling at the speed of light toward us?

      The photons from a solar storm (primarily, the x-rays) travel at the speed of light.

      What's damaging, though, are the charged particles (primarily protons) emitted by the sun. These do not travel at the speed of light.

      So you see it coming before it gets here.

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      A photon is the basic unit of light and all other electromagnetic radiation (radio waves/etc), it has no mass, and travels at the speed of light. When the Sun produces a Coronal Mass Ejection (CME), the key word is "mass" -- on average a CME contains about 1.7 billion tons of matter. Matter cannot travel at the speed of light. So 8 minutes after the CME, the photons arrive and you can observe that there was a CME. But the actual mass usually takes 1 to 5 days to arrive here from the Sun.

    • by mortonda (5175)
      There is actually mass involved. See: https://secure.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/wiki/Coronal_mass_ejection [wikimedia.org]
    • by afaiktoit (831835)
      Its not the EM radiation, its the shit load of particles hitting the earths magnetic field that comes later.
    • by Bengie (1121981)

      Not at the speed of light, but quite fast. Talking only hours to travel 92 mil miles

  • by Joey Vegetables (686525) on Monday August 08, 2011 @10:24AM (#37021828) Journal
    Could these storms have interfered with WiFi? I had a few days during which I could not get my home network to work at all, in spite of maximum 40 foot / 13 meter distances between router and PCs, and trying pretty much every legal WiFi channel available. I'm in northeast Ohio. As of this morning things are gradually returning to almost-normal.
  • People of the earth can you hear me? ...

    We are expecting ships to come in one by one.

    Oh, it's over? damn. They snuck in.

  • by powerlord (28156) on Monday August 08, 2011 @11:31AM (#37022826) Journal

    FTFS:

    '[The third storm] could exacerbate the disturbance in the Earth's magnetic field caused by the second (storm) or do nothing at all.'"

    Oh ... is that why my TV is suddenly picking up the ISS.

    I figured it was just a new odd run of Big Brother.

    I LOVED the episode where they voted the astronaut off the station at the same point the Solar Storm passed through! Gave him super powers he used to swing back and exact his revenge. ... no ... wait ... that was just a troubled fever dream from lasagna too late. So hard to keep track whats "reality" TV.

  • Good thing we have stories like this to disable our awareness as the government prepares full-scale communism as the only solution to the problems that their small-scale communism caused.

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