Healthy Economy

Solar Storms

Extreme flares could threaten the electrical grid

Adam Schultz
Adam Schultz

With a $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation, researchers in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences and the College of Engineering aim to develop an early-warning system to protect the electrical grid from currents generated in the ground by extreme solar storms. They are collaborating with leading electric utilities, a big-data company and the U.S. Geological Survey.

Such storms are known as “Carrington Events” after British astronomer Richard Carrington, who documented the connection between these solar activities and impacts on Earth. In 1859, an extreme solar storm generated brilliant displays of northern and southern lights. Telegraph systems failed and in some cases gave shocks to operators.

If such an event were to occur in the United States today, the risk to the economy from the widespread and sustained failure of the electrical grid has been estimated at $1 trillion.

The methods being developed can also help protect the power grid against damage from electromagnetic pulses from the detonation of nuclear devices above the atmosphere, an area of growing concern.

Led by Adam Schultz, professor in CEOAS, the project aims to enable utilities to take protective actions and to minimize damage to critical infrastructure. The project builds on 3-D variations in the electrical conductivity of the Earth’s crust and mantle obtained from the OSU-managed, NSF-funded EarthScope Magnetotelluric Program. It also uses algorithms developed at OSU that assimilate real-time data from magnetic observatories and data from a system of high-speed power sensors installed at specific locations to monitor current, voltage and frequency. These sensors provide a near real-time picture of what is happening in the electrical system.

Schultz manages the National Geoelectromagnetic Facility at Oregon State with funding from the National Science Foundation. He also leads the Magnetotelluric Program for Earthscope, an NSF initiative to explore the structure of the North American continent.

By Nick Houtman

Nick Houtman is director of research communications at OSU and edits Terra, a world of research and creativity at Oregon State University. He has experience in weekly and daily print journalism and university science writing. A native Californian, he lived in Wisconsin and Maine before arriving in Corvallis in 2005.