Ross: Could a massive solar flare wipe out our energy grid?

Jul 19, 2023, 7:52 AM | Updated: 9:52 am

solar flare energy grid...

The sun sets behind power lines as people row on Tempe Town Lake during a record heat wave in Tempe, Arizona on July 18, 2023. Swaths of the United States home to more than 80 million people were under heat warnings or advisories, as relentless, record-breaking temperatures continued to bake western and southern states. In Arizona, state capital Phoenix recorded its 17th straight day above 109 degrees Fahrenheit (43 degrees Celsius), as temperatures hit 113F (45C) Sunday afternoon. (Photo by Patrick T. Fallon / AFP) (Photo by PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images)

(Photo by PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images)

I was spending Tuesday afternoon, as I often do, listening to a congressional hearing. Yesterday’s featured hearing was about the electrical grid and keeping the lights on in a disaster.

Of course, they discussed cyber security threats from China and Russia and domestic threats from our own home-grown yahoo attacking substations. But then Rep. Gary Palmer of Alabama, a former engineer, brought up a particularly ominous-sounding threat I hadn’t heard about before.

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“Are you all familiar with the Carrington Event?” Palmer asked.

The Carrington event – was a solar flare. But not just any solar flare. And once I knew where to look, it was all over the internet.

“The 1859 Carrington event, the largest geomagnetic storm in history…it culminated in a gigantic cloud of highly charged particles,” different articles tell me.

It was named for an amateur skywatcher in London named Richard Carrington, who was observing sunspots September 1, 1859, when he was temporarily blinded by a flash of light.

And the next day – not only was there a brilliant Aurora Borealis extending as far south as Cuba, but the telegraph wires in London started catching fire!

He realized that the solar flare was responsible, and now it bears his name.

Today, NASA satellites routinely document these things, in fact, the latest Coronal Mass Ejection, as it’s called, will make its closest approach to Earth tomorrow. But the question at yesterday’s hearing was whether the grid can handle the kind of direct hit that happened in 1859. Rep. Palmer quoted a study by Lloyds of London on what the after-effects of that would be today.

“Lloyds of London did an analysis of how it would impact North America if we had, or the United States in particular, if we had a guaranteed level of that,” Palmer said. “And they think that possibly as many as 40 million people would be without power for a few weeks, up to two years.”

So he put the question to Sam Chanoski of the Idaho National Laboratory, whose job is to know the weak points in the grid. Are you ready?

“Yeah, we have identified the most critical types of infrastructure, which are certain types of power transformers based on their design, so that we know where they’re installed, and with that, we can plan around them,” Chanoski said. “Sometimes you have enough time that you do have a number of hours where you can adjust the system to be less susceptible to something like this.”

I believe that means yes, they are ready, and if they can get a few hours notice, they can protect those weak points, and the lights will not go out for two years.

So I am very happy to hear that.

But I have my gas generator and my Smith Corona, just in case.

Although I’m not sure if I have two years of gas. Or a working typewriter ribbon.

Listen to Seattle’s Morning News with Dave Ross and Colleen O’Brien weekday mornings from 5 – 9 a.m. on KIRO Newsradio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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Ross: Could a massive solar flare wipe out our energy grid?