Solar Flare Impact on the Electric Grid: There’s More to the Story

Last week’s Insight (see Geomagnetic Storms Could Blow Away the Power Grid: Fixes are Possible When And If We Get Concerned Enough) discussed the potential of impacts of geomagnetic induced currents (GIC) on the power grid. I expressed the opinion that the utility industry usually takes major preventive action only after a disaster strikes, and that we weren’t doing enough to protect the North American grid.

I immediately got a number of thoughtful responses from engineers who felt that the article seriously neglected the amount of organized work that has been going on behind the scenes to protect the system. Even the IEEE Spectrum article I referenced was written by a consultant that they felt might stand to gain by promoting GIC concern.

Looking back over the article I have to agree that they are right! In trying to make a point I went over the top.

For some idea of how much work is going on behind the scenes, read the comments by searay60 on the March 5 Insight. You can also check out the February 2012 NERC report that my friend and colleague, Vito Longo, Technical Editor of T&D World, alerted me to.

I still hold to the stand that we, as an industry, are way too slow on dealing with threats that may someday severely bite us. I think, as an industry, we’re too complacent about physical security of critical grid components (see also Cyber-threat or Cyber-hype?) Having been involved in the process, I think we ramped up too slowly in response to the 1989 Canadian GIC incident. Looks like we’re catching up, but we’ve been lucky that the solar storms in the interim (including the one going on as I type) have been mostly non-issues.

But I also know that there are hundreds of utility engineers, mostly underpaid and underappreciated, often working on their own initiative, who continue to give us the best power system in the world. They're very aware of the GIC issues and they're on top of it.