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Professor Afshin Rezaei-Zare talks about Solar Storms and Their Impacts on Society and Technological Systems

Professor Afshin Rezaei-Zare talks about Solar Storms and Their Impacts on Society and Technological Systems

December 15, 2022- In the latest Emerging & Systemic Risks Monthly Lectures of Y-EMERGE, DHEUSeR Research Cluster & CIFAL York on December 15, 2022​, Professor Afshin Rezaei-Zare talked about Solar Storms and Their Impacts on Society and Technological Systems via virtual webinar.

Dr. Jianhong Wu, director of Y-EMERGE opened the webinar and encouraged the attendees to attend more of the lectures.

This phenomenon, according to Zare that is coming from the sun has four main types including Solar Flares, Coronal Mass Ejection, Geomagnetic Storm, and the Solar Particle Event. 

Defining each one, Solar Flares are a series of large explosions in the sun’s atmosphere caused organizing of magnetic field lines, and they are bursts of electromagnetic radiation. It travels with the speed of light that takes about eight minutes to reach earth which is also the speed of solar flares; Coronal Mass Ejection is a massive burst of plasma from the sun; Geomagnetic Storm is generated by the interaction of the sun’s outbursts with the earth magnetic field; and Solar Particle Event includes protons, electrons and heavy ions with high energy in the range of some kilo electron volts to Mega, Giga electron wall.

In 2003, Zare recalled the blackout that happened in the US which also affected Toronto where the estimated cost was 4 to 10 billion dollars and Hurricane Katrina that happened in 2005 where the estimated damage cost was 81 to 125 billion dollars. 

“This led to a study in 2008 that compared and estimated the cost due to a severe geomagnetic storm to the US power grids. They found out that the cost will be between 0.6 to 2.6 trillion dollars, and this is only in the US, not in other countries. The full recovery which is also very important Is that it will take four to 10 years, and at least for the early a couple or 3 weeks after a storm,” Zare explained.

He further explained that one day without power already poses a problem, what more if the power is out for two to three weeks.

“This is why the US Department of Energy especially Federal Energy Regulatory Commission or FERC. They asked us what do we know about this phenomenon and the answer was nothing. So they issue this Order 779 in 2013 and ask North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) to develop the standard with high priority and as an urgent act and they developed the standard for the industry which all the industry should follow and be complied with,” Zare said.

These two standards, EOP 10 and PPL 007, one of them is for operation and the other is for planning, and all power utilities should perform some studies, and mitigation approaches to implement regularly. Each five, or six years, they have to do those analyses and show their system is immune to the GMD or Solar Storm effects.

He said that after that, it caught more attention and gave more information to the public, to take calls to bodies and parties to develop more methods and tools.

“Before that, there was no sign of such a tool in the commercial software. In Hydro One, we were a kind of pioneer in this research, we developed in-house tools and software and due to that NERC was interested in at least using it and making it available to the public, to the power utilities. Everyone can use it for the assessment of geometric disturbance on their power systems,” Zare added.

Prof. Zare showed a video of Coronal Mass Ejection from the sun which was exploding and releasing a huge amount of plasma and charged particles toward the little outer space, and videos of solar storms occurring in different years from 40 years until 2005.

He mentioned the two major events recorded, the 1859 Carrington Event which is the strongest recorded Solar Storm to date, and the 1921 geomagnetic storm which was a little bit weaker.

“The most recent of the same is the Hydro-Quebec Blackout wherein the complete system went blackout and this is just five minutes after the start of the storm. There were places that malfunctioned, and abnormalities were reported across US and Canada. After 30 minutes from the start of the storm, more problems were also reported across the US and Canada, and the electrojet became bigger, covered more areas, around the globe,” he shared.

Moreover, in that 1989 Hydro-Quebec blackout, aurora, or the northern lights which are supposed to be visible only in higher latitudes, was also observed even in Florida, Cuba, and the Caribbean. Nine million people in Quebec observed it while they have no power for more than eight hours. The Estimated cost due to that was 300 million dollars.

However, the damage cost could be higher due to the effects on the supply chain and economy. New York Power and New England Power pool lost 1300 megawatts because of Hydro-Quebec Collapse because power systems are interconnected. 

“If we compare the footprint of the 1921 superstorm with 1989, 1921 is much stronger. The electro jet itself comes even to the Mexico area and the Caribbean. Now, if you look at modern society, all infrastructure and systems are interconnected. Everything relies on power, if communication is directly affected due to loss of power, emergency services, government Services will be affected, Banking and Finance, ATM Machines, and the other systems will not be working and so the people, basically in the society, will be suffering from multiple points of views,” Zare exclaimed.

Meanwhile, recalling the Solar Storm on Halloween night of 2003, numerous Polar flights were rerouted, power plants reduced power generation due to Geomagnetic Disturbance impact on communications, and a number of places on the air that oil field services company reported several cases of survey Instrument interference.

“We had a widespread high-frequency outage over the African continent. The Whole of Africa was a blackout of radio GPS Problems. We had a power outage in Sweden and the effect on high frequencies were in Australia and Asia. A huge power transformer damage in South Africa was reported, some ships had a navigation problem and they restored to a backup system, due to loss of GPS signal some Satellite has problems, Japanese data related, the satellite went into safe mode and took over a week to recover,” Zare recalled.

The most recent event happened in February 2022 which destroyed 40 out of 49 brand new StarLink, Satellites shortly after launch worth over 50 million dollars.

“The solar storm can create much damage to many systems. The effect is much bigger in modern life due to today’s technologies. We are much more vulnerable to Solar Storms and I think the mitigation approach is purely power system stuff,” Zare ended.

Some of the webinar attendees asked questions about predictions and Prof. Zare said the tool that they developed at Hydro One had feed from those magnetometers that measure the magnetic field changes in real time, we get those signals and do the analysis and based on that operator will react to that but the prediction. In the US, NASA is the main source of those activities and prediction of solar activities, but even with that type of prediction, we don't have too much time to prepare for that solar storm.

One also asked about just disconnecting the transformers momentarily, and Zr. Zare answered “If we block one way, the total GIC goes to the other ways, and makes the other areas’ situation worse. This is why we have to do global optimization, to mitigate and reduce the magnitude of those GIC in a very optimized way”.