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FERC, NERC work to prepare smart grid for potential significant shocks to transmission supply

SUBNET Solutions Inc | Friday, June 10, 2011

NASA officials are warning government officials about the susceptibility of the U.S. power grid to events thousands of miles away from Earth, according to a published report.

The New York Times reports that a massive burst of solar wind that erupted from the sun Tuesday will not affect the U.S. smart grid, but that it serves as a preview of what could come in the future. NASA officials are worried about the threat of solar flares and the effect they could have on the U.S. smart grid as they are projected to become more prevalent in 2012 through 2014.

The next peak cycle of sunspot activity is predicted for 2012 through 2014, according to NASA's head of solar shield detection at the Goddard Space Flight Center, Antti Pulkkinen. Scientists affirm that as sunspot activity increases, the storms bring with them the ability to generate powerful shocks to transmission lines, which could potentially damage the transformers tasked with managing power flow over high-voltage networks.

Currently, critical infrastructure protection (CIP) regulations are not prepared for an onslaught of sunspot activity, Pulkkinen said. The North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) warned about the threat in 2009, in a report that detailed the ability of such geomagnetic activity to cause significant problems in the transmission and distribution of electricity.

"Geomagnetically-induced currents on system infrastructure have the potential to result in widespread tripping of key transmission lines and irreversible physical damage to large transformers," NERC found in a 2009 report.

In a worst-case scenario, such a cosmic event could cause people across the U.S. to suffer through long disruptions in the power supply network. In fact, researchers estimate that the stockpile of spare transformers could fall well short of replacement needs, with many large cities like Boston or New York potentially going without power for months or even years.

"If the solar storm of 1921, which has been termed a once-in-100-year event, were to occur today, well over 300 extra-high-voltage transformers could be damaged or destroyed, thereby interrupting power to 130 million people for a period of years," Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) director of electric reliability Joseph McClelland said during a recent testimony.

Industry watchers recommend that utilities move to upgrade their substation and management systems to the latest available technologies to ensure that timely changes can be made if such an event were to occur.  

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