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Protecting the Power Grid From Solar Storms

New spacecraft will aid forecasts of space weather

3 min read
Protecting the Power Grid From Solar Storms
STORM WATCH: A March 2012 solar flare looks impressive but caused no problems here on Earth.
Photo: Solar Dynamic Observatory/NASA

It can happen: Every so often the sun emits an explosive burst of charged particles that makes its way to Earth and, under just the right conditions, wreaks havoc on power grids. A powerful geomagnetic storm in March 1989 blacked out the entire province of Quebec, leaving millions of customers in the dark and damaging transformers as far south as New Jersey. Lately the question being debated in space weather circles is: Are we prepared for a repeat, or a storm 10 times worse—like the 1859 solar superstorm? 

Thanks to two new satellites, we might be better prepared than ever. The Deep Space Climate Observatory [pdf], which will measure the solar wind at the Sun-Earth L1 Lagrange point, some 1.5 million kilometers from Earth, is set for launch next year. L1 is a gravitational sweet spot ideal for observing the sun because it’s never shadowed by the moon or Earth. Also slated for 2014 is an experimental solar-sail mission dubbed Sunjammer, which will fly
 more than a million kilometers closer to the sun than L1 and could become the basis for a space-weather early-warning system.

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This photograph shows a car with the words “We Drive Solar” on the door, connected to a charging station. A windmill can be seen in the background.

The Dutch city of Utrecht is embracing vehicle-to-grid technology, an example of which is shown here—an EV connected to a bidirectional charger. The historic Rijn en Zon windmill provides a fitting background for this scene.

We Drive Solar

Hundreds of charging stations for electric vehicles dot Utrecht’s urban landscape in the Netherlands like little electric mushrooms. Unlike those you may have grown accustomed to seeing, many of these stations don’t just charge electric cars—they can also send power from vehicle batteries to the local utility grid for use by homes and businesses.

Debates over the feasibility and value of such vehicle-to-grid technology go back decades. Those arguments are not yet settled. But big automakers like Volkswagen, Nissan, and Hyundai have moved to produce the kinds of cars that can use such bidirectional chargers—alongside similar vehicle-to-home technology, whereby your car can power your house, say, during a blackout, as promoted by Ford with its new F-150 Lightning. Given the rapid uptake of electric vehicles, many people are thinking hard about how to make the best use of all that rolling battery power.

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