Monday, November 9, 2015

United States Seeks to Protect the Grid, Unveils National Space Weather Strategy and National Space Weather Action Plan

The United States government has just announced the framework for a plan to protect the power grid from a major solar storm. The two documents, officially known as National Space Weather Strategy and National Space Weather Action Plan, detail a 6-part plan details preparations that need to be made in 6 areas to better protect the grid. For people in the know (many people don't even know that solar and space weather exists at all), this comes as belated but welcome news considering that the government's previous strategy was one of keeping its fingers crossed and hoping the run of good luck would continue.

So, why should you care about space weather and the grid?

First up, space weather. For anyone who didn't know that space weather even existed, here's proof that it does in a form that just about everyone has heard about: the aurora, also known as the Northern Lights.

The aurora are caused when the energized particles from the Sun come into contact with Earth's upper atmosphere. When the charged particles hit Earth, they react with the atoms in Earth's upper atmosphere, which become energized themselves and then give off the photons we see as the Northern Lights. Why are the lights different colors? Each individual type of atom gives off a different glow when energized.

Needless to say, no harm can come because of the aurora, which represent a gentle shower on the scale of space weather severity. But what about a solar hurricane? What would one of those look like?

Answer: the Carrington Event.

The year was 1859 and it was during this year that the Earth was subjected to the strongest solar storm ever recorded. Named after Richard Carrington, the astronomer first to discover the storm's origin was a series of sunspots, the storm was so strong that aurora were visible over Hawaii and telegraph lines caught fire around the Sun-facing side of the world. Needless to say, 1859 electronic technology was limited to the telegraph as even the incandescent light bulb was still 2 decades in the future. So, in the case of 1859 electronics vs. the solar superstorm, the storm literally fried the only electronics we had at the time.

In the event of a power blackout today, for ordinary people, having to do without a cell phone, satellite TV, and GPS would be an annoyance. For policymakers, who have finally seen the light in regards to taking action to keep us out of the dark, the real worry is the nation's electrical grid, which flawlessly (most of the time) supplies power to 360+ million Americans every day. Do you take your electricity for granted? Most of us do. Do you ever have to worry about whether that light will come to life when you flip the switch? Probably not. Needless to say, we are lucky to live in a modern nation where such luxuries are seen as necessities and taken as just being part of the way the world works.

As for what could happen if a Carrington-magnitude event hit today, things wouldn't be pretty.

Worst case scenario: transformers, power lines, and capacitors all across the nation get fried, the grid goes down, and power could be out for months, putting us back to a largely preindustrial way of life until the power eventually gets restored. Total cost: up to $2.5 billion on the high range of the estimates.

Next up, our nation's electric supply system, commonly known as 'the grid.'

For all of our wealth and technology, some analysts warn that our power grid is both out-dated and severely lacking in safety measures designed to prevent a rolling blackout. The grid was not built with a master plan, rather it was added to and modified as our appetite for electricity increased, the service area expanded, and technology improved. Result: an electrical hodgepodge of sorts supplying power all across the nation. Why the mix of old and new? Money. It would be simply too expensive for the power companies to update their service areas all at once and the customers? The call center lines would probably be alight with angry customers over any service disruptions (probably only in the hours) brought about by the updating. End result: leave things be and fix them when something goes wrong. It doesn't take an engineer to see that our nation as a whole has been rather neglectful of its power supply system, without which we would be transported over 100 years back into time.

Well, now things may be starting to change.

In the new The White House documents, these specific actions are what are called for: 1) Establish benchmarks showing how commonly severe space-weather events occur; 2) Improve the ability to respond to, and recover from, such events; 3) Reduce or eliminate vulnerabilities to flares and geomagnetic storms; 4) Improve predictions about impacts on critical infrastructure; 5) Improve forecasts of space-weather events, and knowledge of space weather more generally; and 6) Increase international cooperation (because impacts of extreme events will likely be felt across the globe).

Now, while it is good that our leaders are finally starting to take the much overdue task of insulating the grid seriously, one must remember that the White House proposal is just that, a proposal. As with all government spending, any bill authorizing money for fortifying the grid must originate in the House of Representatives.

Hopefully those in Washington DC, the town that can't agree on anything, will come to their senses and set aside the funding to protect the grid, which is something anyone with any common sense would agree is a good idea.

Humble Requests:

If you found this informative (or at least entertaining), help me pay my bills and check out my Examiner pages for space news, cleveland photography, national photography, and astronomy for more great stuff.

If you think this was cool, why not tell a friend?

For something even better, follow this blog.

No comments:

Post a Comment