Rocks un­der I-95 pose threat to power grid

Connecticut Post - - BUSINESS -

Here is some­thing you prob­a­bly didn’t know you needed to worry about: There’s a layer of 300 mil­lionyear-old rock un­der In­ter­state 95 that’s ca­pa­ble of killing the lights from Wash­ing­ton to Bos­ton and be­yond the next time the sun erupts in all its fury.

Sound far-fetched? Per­haps. But not to sci­en­tists. A so­lar storm is now viewed as enough of a risk in fact that grid op­er­a­tors across North Amer­ica are work­ing on plans to re­spond to just such a dis­tur­bance. And a draft of a soon-to-be-pub­lished U.S. Ge­o­log­i­cal Sur­vey re­port pin­points the Eastern Se­aboard as one of the ar­eas most in dan­ger.

That’s be­cause this Pa­le­o­zoic-era rock does not let the en­ergy from a ma­jor ge­o­mag- netic storm — a once-in-a-100years kind of event — pass through, in­stead act­ing as a back­stop that sends the surge back up above the ground for a sec­ond shot at caus­ing may­hem.

“It’s an ac­tive prob­lem that a lot of peo­ple are try­ing to solve and un­der­stand,” said Christo­pher Balch, space sci­en­tist at the Space Weather Pre­dic­tion Cen­ter in Boul­der, Colo.

Through a stroke of bad luck, the worst of these rocks ba­si­cally traces the path of I-95 from Rich­mond, Va., to Port­land, Maine, pass­ing through Wash­ing­ton, New York and Bos­ton along the way.

In­su­la­tors

They are known to sci­en­tists as in­su­la­tors, and when dis­rup­tive en­ergy from the

sun bounces back up from these rocks, adding that ex­tra bump in the grid can trig­ger black­outs. In a worst case sce­nario, it can burn out mul­ti­ple trans­form­ers, po­ten­tially caus­ing out­ages that could take months to re­pair, ac­cord­ing to Space Weather Pre­dic­tion Cen­ter.

Un­til now, only parts of the cen­tral U.S. had been stud­ied, so the threat faced by the mid-At­lantic and the North­east, the most densely pop­u­lated parts of the U.S., was largely un­known, said Jeffrey Love, a re­search geo­physi­cist with the Ge­o­log­i­cal Sur­vey and lead au­thor of the forth­com­ing re­port. The re­gion is fur­ther at risk be­cause it’s closer to the North Pole than say Florida or Texas, which makes it more vul­ner­a­ble to out­bursts from the sun.

Love and his team have been work­ing for years to map the en­tire U.S. to gauge the threat, and still have a long way to go — the en­tire South­west from Cal­i­for­nia to Texas is cur­rently un­known.

“It is very im­por­tant, the work the USGS is do­ing,” said Mark Ol­son, se­nior en­gi­neer in the re­li­a­bil­ity as­sess­ments depart­ment at the North Amer­i­can Elec­tric Re­li­a­bil­ity Corp., the non­profit re­spon­si­ble for en­forc­ing rules pro­tect­ing the grid. “Our re­li­a­bil­ity stan­dards and the util­i­ties’ ac­tions will be able to take ad­van­tage of that work to bet­ter our risk as­sess­ments.”

Sig­nif­i­cant threat

The sun poses a sig­nif­i­cant threat to mod­ern life on Earth. A mas­sive ge­o­mag­netic storm can trig­ger mass power fail­ures, dis­rupt nav­i­ga­tion satel­lites and knock out ra­dio. In 1989, a ge­o­mag­netic storm from a so­lar out­burst shut down Que­bec’s power grid, leav­ing more than 6 mil­lion peo­ple in the dark for nine hours, ac­cord­ing to the North Amer­i­can Re­li­a­bil­ity Coun­cil.

Love said the rocks there are prob­a­bly sim­i­lar to those in New Eng­land and New York, though he hasn’t stud­ied the re­gion. And not all rocks have the po­ten­tial for may­hem. Sed­i­men­tary rocks through­out cen­tral Penn­syl­va­nia and else­where would let the sun’s bursts pass right through.

The stud­ies will help de­velop mod­els for op­er­a­tors to test their grids’ abil­ity to with­stand so­lar storms, as re­quired by the Fed­eral En­ergy Reg­u­la­tory Com­mis­sion. Still, there’s not a lot of ex­pe­ri­ence to draw on, Balch said.

Re­searchers are de­vel­op­ing mod­els to help util­i­ties and grid op­er­a­tors, though

“We only re­ally have roughly 35 years of dig­i­tal data,” he said. “Earth con­duc­tiv­ity is some­thing that is just be­gin­ning to be avail­able in more re­al­is­tic types of mod­els.”

As­so­ci­ated Press

So­lar ac­tiv­ity ob­served by NASA’s SOHO satel­lite.

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