Solar Storms a Threat to the High Voltage Transmission Grid

I touched on the topic of electro-magnetic pulses and their devastating impacts on the high voltage power grid about a year ago on The Power Line.  The transformers that manage voltage on our transmission grid are very vulnerable to these pulses, normally caused by solar flares, and could take down huge parts of US and world electrical systems for days on end.  Solar flares come in cycles, and our dependence on electronics and grid reliability has grown in the last decade, which was also a very calm period in the cycle of solar storms.

Power companies and RTOs claim that they have everything under control, but many engineers aren’t so sure.  NASA predicts major solar flares in 2013 and 2014.  There is a good story in the Washington Post this morning about how the new cycle of solar storms is already beginning.

The article points to what happened during a relatively minor period of solar activity in 1989 as a sign of what is to come in the next few years:

In 1989, the grid got its most severe solar test, and sections did not fare well. A solar storm one-tenth the strength of the 1859 event triggered a cascade of failures in Quebec in just 90 seconds. Several million people went without power for nine to 12 hours, causing hundreds of millions of dollars in damage. In South Africa, the storm destroyed huge transformers.

Each the size of a house and costing several million dollars, transformers are the grid’s weak spots. They boost the voltage of electricity for transmission along high-voltage lines, but they also absorb extra loads coming down those lines. During the 1989 event, two of South Africa’s transformers overheated and fried during the storm, while nine more failed within a year, said Mark Lauby, a vice president at NERC.

Given the vulnerability of our existing high voltage transmission infrastructure, is it really such a good idea to be building more, bigger and more interconnected high voltage transmission lines?  Wouldn’t it be a much more prudent plan to be distributing our generation capacity much closer to where power is needed to reduce the impacts of electro-magnetic pulses?