Prepare for Solar Flares with Proper Power Protection

August 01, 2013

By Mae Kowalke - Power Protection Contributor

An electrical engineer from Washington came to dinner last night, and he had a sober warning despite the Syrah on our table.

Had we heard about the danger of solar flares, he asked? They could cripple the power grid at any time. Worse, this natural phenomenon had shown its power in 1859, literally setting power lines on fire and crippling electrical infrastructure. It was more than just a wild doomsday scenario—it was only a matter of time.

Our guest scared us with a worst-case scenario the way a camp counselor might frighten children with a ghost story, but solar flares really are a concern unlike ghosts.

The 1895 solar flare disaster, called the Carrington Event for those want to Google (News - Alert) it, is not the only time in recorded history that the sun has hit the earth with large amounts of energy and particles from a solar flare. As recently as 1989 a less powerful solar flare struck Canada and brought down the Hydro-Quebec power grid. Solar flares in 1989 caused so much tripping of power equipment that it almost brought down the Northeast Power Coordinating Council (NPCC) and the Mid-Atlantic Area Council (MAAC), and caused permanent damage to a generator step-up transformer at a nuclear station in New Jersey, according to a Lloyd’s report.

Solar flares are dangerous because the particle emitted during a solar flare event from the sun create strong magnetic fields because of their high velocities. These fields induce currents in conducting materials such as the cables that carry electricity. These additional currents can overload the electric grid and trigger a voltage collapse or damage a significant number of extra-high voltage transformers.

“The probability of a significant solar event that affects our power grid is very high,” Eric Gallant told Data Center Journal recently, a consultant energy management services at Schneider Electric (News - Alert).

“Our sun is currently in a very active phase,” he added, mirroring the warning from my electricity-savvy dinner guest. “Solar flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs) are occurring on a regular basis. If the energy from one of these solar events were to squarely strike the Earth’s magnetic field, we could experience widespread electrical surges and blackouts.”

There’s no way to prevent a solar flare, of course, but there are steps that businesses can take to minimize the damage if a solar flare were to wreak havoc, according to Gallant.

First, use transient voltage surge suppression (TVSS). A TVSS system can greatly reduce the effects of the power surges and spikes that often accompany a solar flare. If well-designed, it will suppress surges at multiple levels.

Second, use uninterruptible power supplies (UPS). High-quality UPS systems will mitigate the effects of harmful electrical transients. It also will provide battery run time that will allow IT systems to be gracefully shut down or standby generators to start in the event of a power outage.

Third, consider an on-site emergency standby generator in cases where power failures quickly translate into substantial lost revenue. The electrical outages caused by a major solar storm could be long term, so businesses that need power should consider preparing for a prolonged outage if a bad solar flare struck.

My dinner guest definitely won the award for best story of the night with his talk about the potential dangers of a solar flare, but unfortunately his story might not be fiction.