On March 13, 1989, a solar storm known as a geomagnetic disturbance hit the electric grid in Quebec, Canada, causing a major blackout throughout the province.
Nearly 30 years later, society’s reliance on the electric grid is at an all-time high, and the damage another major geomagnetic disturbance may cause is a concern in the energy industry. Professor Thomas J Overbye and others are hoping to shed light on the rare but powerful geomagnetic storms, which remain a relative mystery to most people in the field.
The National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded Overbye, Assistant Professor Hao Zhu, Professor Jonathan Makela, Professor Farzad Kamalabadi, Research Scientist Katherine Davis, engineer Komal Shetye, and education specialist Jana Sebestik a $2.6 million grant to research geomagnetic disturbances’ impact on the power electric grid.
“The ultimate goal is to better understand geomagnetic disturbances so that we can better protect the power system,” Overbye said. “A lot of our work is trying to quantify how large these storms can be, what damage they can do to the power system, and how can we protect the power system from this damage.”
Geomagnetic disturbances are caused by solar coronal mass ejections, which are massive bursts of gas and magnetic energy from the sun. When the energy waves are released, they do not always travel in the direction of the Earth. But when they do, changes in the earth’s magnetic field produce geomagnetically induced currents in the electric power grid, which can trigger large-scale blackouts.
In the last 150 years, the earth has experienced two large geomagnetic disturbances, in 1921 and 1859, that were 10 times larger than the one in Quebec. They happened before our dependence on the electric grid. However, the risk of geomagnetic storms of that size has led to utility companies' interest in knowing how many resources they should dedicate toward protection against such occurrences.
“I am glad that many electric utilities are now making plans to prepare for large geomagnetic disturbances,” Overbye said. “On this project we’ll be working to come up with better science and engineering to help them make more informed decisions. We look forward to working closely with the electric utility industry on this NSF research.”
The project started in August and is expected to last three years. Overbye and the other members of the power group are looking at ways to model how the geomagnetic induced currents flow through the power grid. Makela and Kamalabadi will explore how the upper atmosphere is impacted by geomagnetic disturbances. Additionally, others at partner institutions will analyze the Earth’s crust to determine how well the various rock layers conduct electricity.
With such a wide array of topics covered in the research, Sebestik will lead the educational outreach of this project to the general public. Overbye credited Illinois for the range of expertise of its faculty and staff, which will contribute to the success of the research.
“The University of Illinois is a really great place to be because we have experts in a lot of areas,” Overbye said. “This project is really ideal for that because it involves coupled systems. It involves the deep earth, the electric power system, the upper atmosphere, and the sun. So it is very interdisciplinary.”