Severe Space Weather: What The Sun Taketh Away, It Can Give Back

A recent story at Wired Shows us a particularly frightening reason we should look into making our own electricity at home: coronal mass ejections (CMEs).

What’s a CME?

They start by using a night club analogy to explain that the sun has a lot going on. With everything moving around inside, it could take 100,000 or more years for a single photon to move from the core, where fusion reactions make them, to the edge of the sun, where they can move off into space. There’s just so much going on in the sun, that getting through the crowds takes what humans would consider an eternity.

But, getting out of the club and into the cool, fresh night in space isn’t always a very orderly process. Sometimes, you walk out all on your own and everything’s fine. Other times, there’s a rush for the exits, and a whole lot of energy pushes out a “door” all at once. When it comes to the sun, a place with no clubs and no nights, the cause of commotion isn’t crowding as much as tangled magnetic fields. When things get messed up enough, a bunch of charged particles can all come screaming out of the sun.

Most of the time, when this gun-like explosion goes off, the third rock from the sun that we call home isn’t in the way. People studying the sun will see the commotion, but nobody else really notices. But, when it’s aimed at Earth, things can get bad quickly.

If we’re lucky, the polarity of the magnetic storm is the same as our planet’s electromagnetic field. In that case, the particles fly harmlessly off into space as our planet’s natural force field pushes them away. But, when the polarities are opposites, the particles get sucked in like one magnet toward another, striking the planet.

What Happens When Earth Gets Hit?

We’ve experienced this a number of times on planet Earth.

The most famous example is in 1859, with what’s called the Carrington Event. I’ve written about this at CleanTechnica before, but I’ll sum it up here. The storm was so severe that auroras weren’t only seen near the poles like usual. People as far away as the equator were able to see the skies light up at night. People in the city were able to read newspapers by the light of the storm, while people working at mines in the American west got up and started cooking breakfast, thinking that the sun was fixing to come up (and probably wondering why they were so tired ).

The beauty and confusion wasn’t all that telegraph operators experienced. The long, long wires going from telegraph station to telegraph station were lengthy enough to gather the energy of the solar storm up. Some telegraph operators were shocked by the incoming current on a wire that was supposed to be dead. Others were able to keep sending and receiving messages without hooking their equipment up to power, because the lines already had plenty of that and then some. There were a few fires caused by errant electricity in the wires, too.

Nobody died that we know of, but the world has changed a lot since 1859. When weaker storms came along in the years since, they’ve wreaked havoc on power grids, another invention that uses long, long wires. Sometimes the energy comes out of the earth, attracted by these long wires, but can fry out expensive and hard to get power transformers in the process. Anything else that’s hooked up to the grid can get fried.

In some ways, this kind of electromagnetic pulse, or EMP, isn’t as bad as they make it out to be in Hollywood and in books. When there’s that kind of energy in the air, whether from bad space weather or from man-made causes, like a high-altitude nuclear explosion, TV would have you believe that nothing electronic survives. The truth is, most things would survive, but wouldn’t have a power grid to supply them. 90% of cars would still run, for example, and most of the remaining 10% could be fixed by unplugging their batteries for a bit, but without grid power, where will gas-powered vehicles get their fuel?

The problem is that this can go on for months, and possibly years. When expensive and hard to replace transformers get fried, they will require months or years under normal circumstances to get replaced. With everyone needing them at once? That’s going to be an even longer delay. Much of a country would go without power until things get repaired.

There are solutions, but electric utilities are behind the eight ball. With only hours of warning at worst or days of warning at best, unplugging everything to keep it from getting torn up would be a monumental task that just couldn’t be done in time. Instead, we should be doing what Quebec’s power utilities did after a nasty solar storm: add capacitors to the transformers. Capacitors not only level out spikes, but they block the direct current (DC) power that would come from such an event entirely.

But, it seems unlikely that utilities (especially in the United States) will add this vital equipment to the grid.

What Can I Do To Protect My Family?

There are several approaches, and they’re going to vary depending on your budget and whether you own your home.

If you don’t have much money and/or don’t own your own home, you’ll want to keep your solution to this cheap and portable. We’ve reviewed batteries a variety of solar generators, or kits with solar panels, and inverters all set up to power normal electronics using the power of the sun. These can be as cheap as $200-300, but without being able to do much more than charge cell phones and computers. Or, they can cost several thousand dollars and power almost anything. These can be found at prices to fit most budgets.

The most extreme kit I’ve tested is Jackery’s Explorer 2000 Pro with six Solar Saga 200-watt portable panels. It’s not cheap, but it would power many household appliances and even help you cook food without fuel (there’s currently no link to my review because the review is in process). It can not only run any household appliance that runs on 120 volts, but it can also add a few miles of range to an EV as needed in an emergency.

I’ve found that even with 200 watts of solar panels and a relatively small battery, it’s possible to use a portable fridge to keep not only food, but vital medications cold. You’d have to stockpile medications, which requires money and/or consistent early refills, but even diabetics could stay alive during prolonged power outages.

If you own your own home and can either get it financed or have money to spend, look into getting a hardened solar+storage system put in. The wires going from panels to your inverter would need to be shielded and ground-terminated and the inverter itself would need to be EMP resistant, but with those two things, a system could survive a solar storm or other EMP event and keep providing a family with power. You’ll need to check with a professional about these options, and don’t let them talk you out of getting the good parts.

Whatever you do, don’t try to rely on a gas or diesel generator for this kind of emergency. Nobody can reasonably stock enough fuel or be sure a generator will work for months at a time.

In some ways, electric power would be one of your smaller concerns in such a scenario, but things like food storage, water supply, and defense are beyond the scope of CleanTechnica. You should try to make a reasonable plan for your family for each of these things.

Featured image by NASA (Public Domain).


 

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