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Solar flares expose utility grid's vulnerability

By Donna Donnawitz
March 8, 2012
On March 6, violent solar flare storms affected the sun, thrusting plasma blasts from the celestial body at speeds reaching 4 million miles per hour. According to a recent Fox News report, the affects of these flares will be felt on Earth within approximately 2 days from the original event, and will likely have a major impact on the atmosphere.

The report said utility systems will be among the areas most affected by the event. Two of the solar flares are especially noteworthy. One of them is considered the largest flare since 2006. As the affects of these storms reach Earth, experts anticipate substantial geomagnetic storms, which have the potential to create severe surges in power lines, shutting down parts of the power grid around the world.

Joseph Kunches, a space weather scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, told the news source that utility providers have already been notified of the heightened level of risk that could leave people without power for an extended period if repairs cannot be completed in a timely manner.

According to the report, the flares will also have an impact on global positioning devices and other satellite-based technologies, as the geomagnetic storms will likely disrupt communications and many radio-based systems.

Kunches told Fox News that the event featured a number of smaller, but still significant solar events before the two major eruptions took place. The solar storm will likely impact Earth for approximately 24 hours, with locations outside of the atmosphere and near the poles seeing the strongest and earlier affects of the storm. However, Kunches said that recent activity points to significant potential for more flares in the near future, which could extend the risk.

Events of this nature expose the severe limitations of the current mainstream power grid. The technology has gone largely without upgrades for almost a century, leading to an infrastructure that is vulnerable to complete failure even if an error occurs in one small area. Smart grid can overcome this, and is rapidly being embraced by more utility providers. In the case of solar flares, smart grid would be able to identify when a surge happens and automatically adjust power distribution to prevent the affects from spreading. This would allow for minimal outages and faster response from maintenance workers.

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