[EAS] A Perfect Storm of Planetary Proportions

Peter J. Kindlmann peter.kindlmann at yale.edu
Sun Feb 5 23:52:39 EST 2012

Dear Friends and Colleagues -


Just when you've recovered from power outages from Hurricane Irene 
and an October blizzard, I send you an IEEE Spectrum article on the 
much more serious possibilities from a major solar storm. I think you 
will agree that it makes sobering reading.

Solar storms happen in 11-year cycles and we are due for one this 
year or early next. The coronal mass ejections that always happen 
during such cycles and cause the damage won't necessarily include one 
in the direction of earth, but that's the risk. The last major such 
storm blacked out all of Quebec province in 1989. A much stronger 
previous such in 1921 mostly just fried telegraph circuits, the main 
vulnerability then. But in the author's estimation, from such data as 
there is, it was about ten times as strong as the 1989 event.

The EHV (extra high voltage) portion of the power grid is the prime 
vulnerability, particularly its highly specialized transformers. At 
present these are not protected against such damage, though the 
author discusses how they could be. Consider this disquieting 

"Of all the parts of the power grid, high-voltage transformers are 
among the most likely to fail in a geomagnetic storm and also among 
the most difficult to replace. If a big storm were to knock out 
several hundred transformers in one fell swoop, manufacturers 
wouldn't be able to supply replacements quickly-there is no global 
stockpile. EHV transformers, which can handle voltages of 345 kV or 
higher, weigh about 200 tons and cost about $10 million each. 
Building one requires exquisite, near-artisanal craftsmanship, 
including meticulously hand winding the paper-tape insulation around 
the copper winding at the transformer's core. One EHV transformer can 
take several weeks to assemble and test, and it takes years to train 
skilled assemblers. Even the largest transformer plants can build 
only about 30 to 50 per year. With the shortage of skilled labor and 
specialized materials that would likely accompany a prolonged 
blackout, simply maintaining that level of output would be a 
challenge, never mind ramping up new production."

So if you're thinking of getting yourself a better generator, this 
might be an extra impetus. You might need a large stockpile of fuel 
for it.

If the above URL goes stale, email me. You'll also find it elsewhere. 
A simple Google search on the title shows that it has been picked up 
by many groups, and places selling survival equipment. It may even 
become part of some "end of the world" scenarios.


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