Nav: Home

Space weather, EarthScope, and protecting the national electrical grid

December 12, 2017

It's not often geology and national security wind up in the same sentence. Most people don't think about electrical power in connection to either the ground under their feet or solar flares overhead, but Dr. Adam Schultz of Oregon State University, and EarthScope Magnetotelluric Program Lead Scientist, says that connection presents a clear and present risk that power utilities need to consider.

"A big induced current in power-transmission lines that takes down high-voltage transformers would be a major disaster," Schultz said. "EarthScope is materially helping the U.S. build resilience against space weather on critical infrastructure such as power grids." The EarthScope Magnetotelluric Transportable Array, part of the USArray, is an observatory of instruments that measures Earth's naturally occurring electric and magnetic fields. Space weather is the flow of electromagnetic radiation given off by the sun, including extreme events such as coronal mass ejections that can intersect Earth's orbit, impacting electric fields on Earth.

Schultz underscores threats from possible attacks as well. "There is a similar risk from man-made geomagnetic disturbances caused by electromagnetic pulse (EMP) weapons that resemble natural space weather events, although with even greater intensity and more concentrated local impacts," he said.

At the 2017 American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting, Schultz will present recent research that examines a real-world example of 3D mapping of the crust and mantle of the contiguous U.S. from EarthScope data. The project looks at ground electric fields in the northwestern U.S. arising from space weather events, and shows data for reactive power loss at two different ends of a power line--and how it deviates dramatically from power-agency models.

Only recently have federal energy regulatory bodies required electrical utility companies to incorporate electromagnetic characteristics of the ground surrounding power lines when assessing risk to the power grid from space weather events. These events can cause widespread damage, such as the 1989 geomagnetic disturbance that caused the power grid in Quebec to collapse, and a high-power transformer at a nuclear power station in New Jersey to explode.

Power companies currently use large, regional-scale 1D estimates of crust and mantle electrical conductivity for vulnerability assessments, but these can lead to erroneous results because they are not based on current state-of-the-art knowledge of 3D structure. This can lead the electric utilities to consider some high-voltage transmission line transformers to be at risk of failure from space weather events when they may not be, and conversely could lead to under-protection of at-risk transformers that the 1D vulnerability assessment indicates are not at risk.

"The consequence of getting this wrong can be significant," Schultz said. "There are very few spares available for the 2,200 high-voltage transmission line transformers that power the U.S. grid. Each transformer is custom designed, hardly any are built in the U.S., and the lead time for obtaining a replacement can be up to three years. A wide-scale, cascading failure of these transformers during a large solar storm event or EMP weapon attack can lead to massive disruption of the economy and of essential services for large sections of the U.S. population."

Schultz's method uses information on 3D ground electrical structure, largely from the EarthScope program, but also drawing on other magnetotelluric surveys, which provides crucial information that 1D methods miss. "There is a fundamentally different relationship between magnetic and electric fields than shown in 1D models," he said. "1D imposes unrealistic, non-physical conditions that can be off by 1000s of percent from reality."

Schultz found some surprising results in his northwestern U.S. project. Previously, the assumption was that the biggest surge of geomagnetically induced currents (GICs) on a transmission line due to a space weather event would happen at the peak of the geomagnetic disturbance. However, depending on the 3D conductivity structure of the crust and mantle in the region of the transmission line, the time at which the ground electric field is of greatest intensity varies along different sections of the transmission line.

Another surprise came when Schultz's 3D research showed that in addition to the intensity of the ground electrical field, the direction of the field matters as well. He found that a ground electrical field parallel to a power transmission line will generate a geomagnetically induced current in the line, while a perpendicular orientation will not. So even if a section of power line experiences a peak ground electric field at a given time, if the field isn't pointed in the right direction, it might not impact the power grid, whereas a less intense field oriented in the right direction might impact the grid. This is a far more complicated reality than used in vulnerability assessments previously employed by the power industry, with profound implications for grid reliability.

Being able to reliably locate where ground conductivity could increase or decrease hazards along power lines has power companies paying attention. Using 3D mapping for power-grid assessments could help determine the most vulnerable sections of a power grid line, and potentially help inform power-flow management in real time.

Schultz's research has applications beyond space weather: atmospheric nuclear testing or directed hostile action causes electromagnetic pulses that can damage power grids. Schultz recently gave a talk in Washington, D.C. about the methods for 3D mapping of ground electrical fields for risk assessment, and it received strong interest from a number of agencies.

"In the long run, I think this is one of the more significant results to come out of EarthScope in terms of impacts on society because of the applications for overhauling how we assess our electrical grids, and the impact that has on all other critical infrastructure that depends on access to reliable power," Schultz said.
-end-
AGU PRESENTATION INFORMATION
Wednesday, 08:36 - 08:50 | Location: 243-244
SH31D-03 Mitigating Space Weather Impacts on the Power Grid in Real-Time: Applying 3-D EarthScope Magnetotelluric Data to Forecasting Reactive Power Loss in Power Transformers

CONTACTS

Adam Schultz, Professor; Oregon State University; Adam.Schultz@oregonstate.edu

EarthScope National Office:

Beth Grassi, Science Writer/Public Information Officer; bagrassi@alaska.edu; EarthScope booth #1929

About EarthScope:

EarthScope is a program funded by the National Science Foundation whose goal is to decipher the structure and evolution of the North American continent. In 2011, the project topped Popular Science's "The 10 Most Ambitious Experiments in the Universe Today" list. Visit EarthScope at earthscope.org or on Social Media: Facebook: facebook.com/EarthScope Tag:@EarthScope \ Twitter: twitter.com/EarthScopeInfo Tag: @EarthScopeInfo \ Instagram:  instagram.com/earthscopeinfo/ Tag:#earthscope.

EarthScope National Office

Related Space Weather Articles:

Space weather model gives earlier warning of satellite-killing radiation storms
A new machine-learning computer model accurately predicts damaging radiation storms caused by the Van Allen belts two days prior to the storm, the most advanced notice to date, according to a new paper in the journal Space Weather.
Space Weather causes years of radiation damage to satellites using electric propulsion
The use of electric propulsion for raising satellites into geostationary orbit can result in significant solar cell degradation according to a new study being presented at the Royal Astronomical Society's National Astronomy Meeting.
Historic space weather could clarify what's next
Historic space weather may help us understand what's coming next, according to new research by the University of Warwick.
Satellite measurements of the Earth's magnetosphere promise better space weather forecasts
A Japan-based research team led by Kanazawa University equipped the Arase satellite with sensors to study the convoluted interactions between high-energy particles in the inner magnetosphere and the Earth's electric and magnetic field.
New network is installed to investigate space weather over South America
Magnetometer network identifies magnetic field disturbances that can cause interference in electronic appliances, power grids and satellite navigation systems.
Space weather, EarthScope, and protecting the national electrical grid
Geomagnetic disturbances from solar storms or electromagnetic pulse weapons pose a high risk to the electrical power grid.
NASA Ppotects its super heroes from space weather
When astronauts travel in space they can't see or even feel radiation.
NASA mission surfs through waves in space to understand space weather
NASA's Van Allen Probes have observed a new population of space sound waves, called plasmaspheric hiss, which are important in removing high-energy particles from around Earth that can damage satellites.
Space weather events linked to human activity
Human activities, like nuclear tests and radio transmissions, have been changing near-Earth space and weather, and have created artificial radiation belts, damaged satellites and induced auroras.
Space weather model simulates solar storms from nowhere
A kind of solar storm has puzzled scientists for its lack of typical warning signs: They seem to come from nowhere, and scientists call them stealth CMEs.
More Space Weather News and Space Weather Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Climate Mindset
In the past few months, human beings have come together to fight a global threat. This hour, TED speakers explore how our response can be the catalyst to fight another global crisis: climate change. Guests include political strategist Tom Rivett-Carnac, diplomat Christiana Figueres, climate justice activist Xiye Bastida, and writer, illustrator, and artist Oliver Jeffers.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#562 Superbug to Bedside
By now we're all good and scared about antibiotic resistance, one of the many things coming to get us all. But there's good news, sort of. News antibiotics are coming out! How do they get tested? What does that kind of a trial look like and how does it happen? Host Bethany Brookeshire talks with Matt McCarthy, author of "Superbugs: The Race to Stop an Epidemic", about the ins and outs of testing a new antibiotic in the hospital.
Now Playing: Radiolab

Speedy Beet
There are few musical moments more well-worn than the first four notes of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. But in this short, we find out that Beethoven might have made a last-ditch effort to keep his music from ever feeling familiar, to keep pushing his listeners to a kind of psychological limit. Big thanks to our Brooklyn Philharmonic musicians: Deborah Buck and Suzy Perelman on violin, Arash Amini on cello, and Ah Ling Neu on viola. And check out The First Four Notes, Matthew Guerrieri's book on Beethoven's Fifth. Support Radiolab today at Radiolab.org/donate.