A June 20, 2013 eruption of solar material shooting through the Sun’s atmosphere. The coronal mass ejection hurled millions of charged particles outward. INL’s full-scale power grid can reveal how geomagnetic disturbances affect critical power system components. Photo courtesy: NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory
By Craig Wise & Misty Benjamin, INL Communications & Governmental Affairs
A solar flare ejected from the surface of the sun propels charged particles into space that sometimes collides with the Earth’s magnetic field. These solar storms, or coronal mass ejections, can and have caused significant damage to critical infrastructure and left millions without electrical power for some time.
INL’s Test Bed facilities allow scientists to replicate conditions electric utilities experience from geomagnetic disturbances.
Until recently, effects of the geomagnetic disturbances caused by solar storms on critical power system components had not been tested on a full-scale, realistic power grid. Sponsored by the Department of Defense’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) and in collaboration with Scientific Applications & Research Associates Inc. and Baylor University, researchers at Idaho National Laboratory modeled and validated these phenomena, confirming some geomagnetic storm theories and bringing new concerns to light.
“INL’s tests not only confirmed industry model predictions of potential power interruption and equipment damage, they also revealed several unexpected secondary effects capable of causing significant impairment,” said Scott McBride, INL Power Systems program manager. “Over the past decade, many researchers have modeled and evaluated damage caused by geomagnetic disturbances; however, most of these models and predictions have not been validated in real world conditions.
“Recently, INL and DTRA used the lab’s unique power grid and a pair of 138kV core form, 2 winding substation transformers, which had been in-service at INL since the 1950s, to perform the first full-scale testing to replicate conditions electric utilities could experience from geomagnetic disturbances.”
The research team found high levels of power line harmonics created during the simulated solar event and how these harmonics impacted power transmission and distribution equipment.
INL’s tests demonstrated that geomagnetic-induced harmonics are strong enough to penetrate many power line filters and cause temporary resets to computer power supplies and disruption to electronic equipment, such as uninterruptible power supplies. An uninterruptable power supply provides immediate protection to electronic equipment to ensure it isn’t damaged by an unexpected shutdown. Damage to these backup systems could lead to injuries, fatalities, serious business disruption or data loss.
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In operation since 1949, INL is a science-based, applied engineering national laboratory dedicated to supporting the U.S. Department of Energy’s missions in nuclear and energy research, science, and national defense. INL is operated for the Department of Energy (DOE) by Battelle Energy Alliance (BEA) and partners, each providing unique educational, management, research and scientific assets into a world-class national laboratory.