Friday, July 25, 2014

A Grid We Can Believe In - 2

Vulnerable U.S. Power Grid
Today is Friday, so let's talk some science that Dredd Blog first discussed in 2009, and also pointed out that scientists were warning about acting on current grid vulnerability that could bring about the collapse of industrial civilization (I was too optimistic so I underestimated the time frame).

Our grid still wastes a lot of power, is utterly vulnerable to damage from outbursts on the Sun, and needs to be retrofitted so as to more easily process alternate and renewable forms of input such as Solar PV, Solar Thermal, and Wind Generated energy.

Less than three years after Dredd Blog reported concern of scientists about the vulnerability, sure enough in 2012 we narrowly missed catastrophe when a coronal mass ejection (CME) came way too close to the Earth.

So, let's once again consider the vulnerability to solar activity:
Earth narrowly avoided being hit by a solar super storm that would have plunged the planet into technological chaos, according to scientists at Nasa. The most powerful solar storm in more than 150 years tore through the space between the Sun and Earth's orbit on 23 July 2012. Luckily it missed, but physicists say there could be another one coming...
What is a solar super storm?

The largest explosions in the solar system are known as coronal mass ejections (CME). It is essentially an eruption of billions of tons of superheated gas called plasma that emerges from the sun like a cloud and blasts into space travelling at more than four million miles an hour. Some become even larger than the Sun itself.

What damage would it do?

Analysts believe a direct hit by an extreme CME, such as the one that missed Earth in July 2012, could cause widespread power blackouts, disabling everything that plugs into a wall socket. "An extreme solar storm could knock out the power grid for weeks or even months, destroying the technology that powers our civilisation, from communications to banking to our water supply," says the Discovery Channel. The consequences could be "devastating for commerce, transportation, agriculture and food stocks, fuel and water supplies, human health and medical facilities, national security, and daily life in general", says the Washington Post.

Has a super solar storm ever hit Earth?

The most significant known solar storm was the "Carrington Event" of September 1859, named after an English astronomer, Richard Carrington, who saw the flare with his own eyes. Back then, the Northern Lights stretched to Cuba, while intense geomagnetic storms destroyed telegraph wires in America and Europe giving operators electric shocks and knocking out the telegraph network as far away as Australia and Asia for two days. Scientists at Nasa say that, in a world now dependent on electricity, a similar storm today could have a "catastrophic effect", with the economic impact exceeding $2 trillion. "In my view the July 2012 storm was in all respects at least as strong as the 1959 Carrington event," says Daniel Baker, of the University of Colorado. "The only difference is, it missed."
(The Week, emphasis added). We don't need another threat caused by our own negligence and failure to act.

So, let's now talk about the efficiency of our current grid:
China has the world's fastest supercomputer, the fastest high speed trains and is leading the world in building nuclear plants. One of its more remarkable achievements has been modernizing the grid. The country has developed a 1 million AC volt transmission line that loses only 8 percent of its power on a 1,200 mile journey from the power plant in western China to the cities in the east.

An equivalent U.S. line, with only 760 kilovolts, would lose 80 percent of its power.
(Chu: New Industries, Such as Green, Need Government Support). Our entire infrastructure, including the critical but inefficient power grid, is in need of repair and updating.

Our power grid is also resistant to our desperate need to implement renewable energy systems and tie them into our power grid:
"The grid was not built for renewables," said Trieu Mai, senior analyst at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

The frailty imperils lofty goals for greenhouse gas reductions. Concerned state and federal officials are spending billions of dollars in ratepayer and taxpayer money in an effort to hasten the technological breakthroughs needed for the grid to keep up with the demands of clean energy.

Making a green energy future work will be "one of the greatest technological challenges industrialized societies have undertaken," a group of scholars at Caltech said in a recent report. The report notes that by 2030, about $1 trillion is expected to be spent nationwide in bringing the grid up to date.
(LA Times). There are many reasons to get real and start to upgrade the power grid and stop building Keystone XL type Dirty Oil Pipelines.

We also need to think about more good paying green and renewable energy jobs for an economy that needs them.

The previous post in this series is here.

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