I-TEAM: Cosmic Consequences

Solar storm season is here and it could cause quite a disruption right here at home. Experts say they can cause havoc on electrical grids.
Published: Oct. 16, 2023 at 3:59 PM EDT|Updated: Oct. 20, 2023 at 6:45 AM EDT
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TOLEDO, Ohio (WTVG) - Solar storm season is here and it could cause quite a disruption right here at home. Experts say they can cause havoc on electrical grids.

In this I-Team special report, we’re asking the power companies the tough questions on what they’re doing to prepare and diving into how it can impact you and your family.

Ice and wind storms can lead to power outages, but there is a different kind of storm brewing, and this one is flying over the radar. There is a season for everything. Tornadoes are common in late spring. Hurricane activity peaks in September, and as it turns out, space weather has its own storm season. Those geomagnetic storms can occasionally cause problems for communication systems and electric grids.

The sun carries fierce force, and we are nearing peak intensity. Solar storm season is starting now and will continue for the next few years as sunspots lead to solar flares. As the charged plasma clouds blast towards us between one to six million miles per hour, it can overwhelm Earth’s magnetic field.

“You sort of flood the system. There are so many particles coming in that the magnetic fields can’t handle it,” University of Toledo astronomy professor Michael Cushing said.

That process leads to geomagnetic storms on Earth. They are ranked on a scale of G1 to G5. Tornadoes have the rare EF5, and hurricanes have the catastrophic category 5. Bill Murtagh says, “Same thing in space weather, G5 is the big one.” Murtagh is the program director for the Space Weather Prediction Center which is a branch of NOAA located in Boulder, Colorado. He has spent his career watching the sun and says, “We have a 24/7 responsibility to monitor the sun for these big eruptions that do occur because it can have profound impacts on technologies.”

There has been a massive boom in technology since the latest G5 storm which was in October of 2003. Think about what life was like 20 years ago. Instead of the smartphone, we had the flip phone. Instead of GPS, we were logging into MapQuest. A G5 storm could severely impact radio signals and GPS, but the biggest threat is keeping the lights on.

“The current has to flow somewhere, and it goes right into the power grid. The power grid now has an unwanted DC current into an AC network. It is just a bad thing,” Murtagh said.

In the 1970s there was a geomagnetic storm that shut down one of the power grids in the northeast. It was worse in 1989 as six million people lost power during a G5 storm. However, the biggest G5 storm on record happened before the power grid was even built back in 1859. That was right before the Civil War. The storm was so powerful that the northern lights ended up in places like Cuba and Central America. The aurora reached all the United States including Hawaii. The light was so bright, you could read a book by its light. Communication back in that era was by telegraph, and enough current built up along the wires to spark fires and bring silence across the country.

The concern is having a storm like that today.

“The impact could be profound, especially on the electric power grid,” Murtagh said.

On average, each 11-year cycle produces about one extreme G5 storm near solar peak. The last cycle didn’t produce any. There were two in the previous cycle in 2000 and 2003. The cycle before it had one G5 storm back in 1989 which led to the blackout for six million people.

So how do electric companies prepare and adjust for these storms to prevent blackouts? That is the question we asked Toledo Edison and AEP. Both companies referred us to PJM, a regional transmission organization that manages the electric grid for all of Ohio and 12 other states. PJM did not grant our interview request or answer our questions directly. They did refer us to a flyer that is posted on their website about geomagnetic storms that reads in part, “If sustained ground currents at a certain level are observed, PJM operates the system in a more conservative mode until the space weather event has ended.”

While extreme geomagnetic storms do pose a risk to the electric grid and other forms of technology, they can also produce spectacular displays of the northern lights over Ohio. However, a G3 and G4 storm are also strong enough to bring the aurora across the Great Lakes region. Those are more common near the solar maximum which is expected next year.