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A Carrington Catastrophe

January 11, 2013

My February 28, 2012 article, Geomagnetic Storm  described the catastrophe that a large magnetic storm, equivalent in size to the solar storm in 1859, i.e., the Carrington event, could cause.

Put simply: A geomagnetic storm of that size would probably cause the grid to collapse so that all the people in the northern part of the United States, together with Canada, would be without electricity for months, if not a year or two.

The potential for this to be a civilization-ending event in the United States and Canada, and possibly Northern Europe, with possibly 200 million people from Boston to Seattle going without electricity, food, water and sewage treatment etc. for months, or possibly a year or two, is great if action isn’t taken.

FERC held a technical conference in April, 2012 to address the issue. Experts from the government and industry explored the probable outcome of a Carrington-like event, with disagreement over how devastating a collapse of the grid might be.

The North American Electric Reliability Corp. (NERC), which reports to FERC on reliability issues, had said the collapse of the grid would occur in such a way that induced currents wouldn’t destroy transformers or other equipment. This was vigorously contested by most of the other participants of the technical meeting.

There are 300 high voltage transformers that are in danger of a Carrington-like event. If NERC is wrong, which could easily be the case, many of these transformers would be destroyed by induced currents. Without spares, of which there are only a few, the grid would be out of service while new transformers were being built, which could take over a year.

In listening to the technical discussion, which lasts for over four hours1, it would seem that the NERC hypothesis is Pollyannaish.

Trying to prepare for a Carrington-like event is extremely difficult. No one knows whether the Carrington Event was a once in a two century event, once in a millennium event, or once in a ten thousand year event. But some other large events, roughly 40% the size of the Carrington Event, have occurred in 1921 and in 1989. The 1989 event caused the grid in Quebec, Canada to fail.

NOAA issues a watch when there is a large solar flare on the sun. It takes roughly 17 hours for the storm to reach a satellite from which the severity of the storm can be predicted. It then takes approximately twenty minutes for the storm to impact the earth’s magnetic field. The satellite in question is fifteen years old, with a replacement not seen until 2014. Without that satellite, the severity of the storm cannot be predicted.

Further complicating the issue is that large storms can occur during weak parts of the solar cycle, rather than just during peak periods. We are entering the peak period of the current cycle.

In addition, it’s not known precisely how the transformers and other equipment, such as generators and circuit breakers, will fail from the induced current or from harmonics, so it’s currently not possible to establish design and test standards for transformers to ensure they won’t fail.

A Carrington-like event will almost assuredly occur sometime in the future … perhaps next week, next year, or perhaps not for a hundred years.

But when it occurs, if we haven’t taken action to either prevent failures or replace failed transformers and other equipment, we face the prospect of the end of civilization as we know it in the United States.

This is far more important than global warming. We are wasting our time and effort on trying to prevent temperatures from rising, which, even if they did, could be compensated for.

There currently is no defense against a Carrington-like event and Congress should get involved and force resolutions of the questions raised in the FERC meeting.

Note:

1. The link to the FERC technical meeting is at http://bit.ly/10QQksb

2. The January issue of Power Magazine had an article on Black Swan events, of which a Carrington-like event would qualify.

3. The book, The Sun Kings, by Stuart Clark, provides a description of the Carrington Event, as well as an excellent history of astronomy.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Garry Buttner permalink
    January 11, 2013 2:34 pm

    Donn,

    Happy New Year.

    Fascinating article….despite that fact that I am (or maybe was!) a EE and worked in Power Transformer in Pittsfield as a manufacturing foreman…I had no knowledge of the Carrington event or the very real possibility of the recurrence of such an event.

    I gather from your paper that switch gear would trip, and the large steam turbines could be damaged….since it takes about 48 hours to bring them down. However, when we had the blackouts in the mid 60s and again in the 70s it seemed to me that there was some damage, but once the generation station were off line they could be shut down properly. Is that correct?

    Also, would it be possible that the gas turbines and hydro power generation stations would be spared since they are cycled routinely?

    Thanks for the your research and interesting article.

    Best wishes, Garry

  2. January 11, 2013 3:38 pm

    Gary.
    Happy New Year.
    As an ME I learned much of my EE by osmosis and on the job. I understand the induced ground currents and how they can damage high voltage transformers, but I’m not as clear about generators and switchgear. The FERC meeting referenced the possibility of generator and switchgear failures, but didn’t go into detail.
    One mention was made of a grounded Y connection on a synchronous generator, but it wasn’t discussed in any detail.
    I doubt the mere tripping of a generator would cause failure, as this happens occasionally anyway. The key thing there is to keep oil flowing to the bearings and to keep the turbine generator rotating slowly to prevent warping the shaft. It’s the flow of current that’s the issue.
    I’d be interested in anything you might learn about potential failures from induced ground currents. NERC wasn’t as adamant about the problem as the others in the meeting.
    The geomagnetic storm report mentioned in the notes is at http://www.oecd.org/dataoecd/57/25/46891645.pdf
    It provides additional background information.
    The description of the 1859 event in The Sun Kings is fascinating reading.
    My main concern is that FERC and the others really get answers to the questions raised in the FERC meeting. Since the 1989 event caused the Quebec grid to fail, there is certainly justification for obtaining answers, sooner rather than later.
    Good to hear from you.

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