As we continue to fight the effects of the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, businesses increasingly rely on digital solutions and communications networks.
But what if those systems were taken out by nature?
There’s a real risk that a geomagnetic storm triggered by a burst of solar energy could overwhelm our power grids, shutting down cell towers and crippling worldwide communications.
Scientists are working to protect our connections by using space-based research to learn about the sun’s energy. Experts are also doing everything they can to safeguard power stations against the effects of solar storms.
What Is a Solar Storm?
The sun occasionally releases pent-up energy in the form of a blast of plasma called a coronal mass ejection (CME) or solar flare. CMEs can dramatically change Earth’s magnetic field, which can cause power grids to fail as equipment is affected or destroyed.
If this happened today, the disaster would knock out power plants, transmission lines, and substations for entire regions or cities. Huge swaths of the world's population could be without power for weeks at a time, leading to health crises, food shortages, and devastating economic effects.
Across the U.S. federal government, over 25 different programs are working on ways to prevent solar storms from damaging our power grid.
What Can Be Done to Protect Against Solar Storms?
Rob Manning, vice president for transmission at the Electric Power Research Institute, says that utilities are already working on solutions. Some organizations are building capacitor banks that can absorb and dissipate excess energy. Electricity-dampening devices called Faraday cages can also surround critical equipment and provide protection against currents.
The U.S Department of Energy (DOE) is also building flywheels that can physically drain excess energy from the grid by spinning faster or slower.
However, none of these solutions is perfect. “There are some devices that will ground that current out and remove it from the system, but it creates some unintended consequences,” Manning says. “It’s like taking a drug that fixes a problem you might have, but it has unintended side effects.”
The best way to prevent the disastrous effects of solar storms is to predict them in advance. The Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) provides crucial data about the timing and speed of solar bursts, and even better warning systems are in development. With proper warning, power systems could be shut down safely to reduce or eliminate the risk of overload.
In 2019, the National Science Foundation also started releasing images from the Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope, the world’s most powerful solar observatory. The telescope is one of the solar astronomy projects that are part of the overall effort to protect our planet from the effects of a catastrophic solar flare.
Solar storms powerful enough to wreak havoc on electronic equipment strike Earth about every 25 years. The last major solar flare was recorded in April 2001, which was more powerful than the 1989 one that disrupted power grids in Canada. Luckily, the flare was not aimed directly towards Earth.