Lancaster University

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Scientists advise on how to protect the UK’s power network

04/07/2011 00:00:00


How to deal with a nationwide power cut caused by the sun’s activity was the topic of an international workshop at Lancaster University.

Disturbances to the magnetic field surrounding Earth pose a grave risk to the UK’s electricity network, the National Grid. The geomagnetic storms are triggered by the sun’s activity, which is on an 11 year cycle predicted to peak in 2013.

The workshop “Geomagnetically Induced Currents in National Power Grids”, organised by Lancaster University with the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL) and the British Geological Survey, brought together representatives from Government, industry and academia.

Professor Mike Hapgood from RAL Space is a Visiting Professor at Lancaster University.

“The worst case scenario is that this would damage the National Grid so that it would take months to recover and cost hundreds of billions of pounds. We are so dependent on electricity that it’s hard to see how society would function without it. The food supply chain would break down and water and sewage pumps would fail. This is a one in 200 year risk which is the sort of odds which the insurance industry deals with.”

Awareness of the space weather threat to power grids is taken seriously by governments around the world, with the inclusion of space weather in the House of Commons Science & Technology inquiry on the use of scientific advice in emergencies.

In 1989, the Canadian city of Quebec suffered a power cut in winter due to damage from so-called “space weather” and the most recent event in Europe happened in 2003 in Sweden. In 2009 the National Academy of Sciences in the US stated that, in the worst case scenario, the loss of the electricity supply in the US could cost one to two trillion dollars in the first year alone.

Dr Terry Onsager from the US Government’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Space Weather Prediction Centre said: “We’re very concerned which is why we’re looking for a better understanding of the science. If we can have some predictions as to when this is likely to happen, industry could act in advance.”

This is the first step in a collaboration between the expert community and decision-makers.

Dr Jim Wild from the Department of Physics at Lancaster University, who organised the workshop, said: “The ultimate goal would be an accurate early warning system but this is beyond our current capability. We’re concentrating on finding the urgent scientific and engineering issues which industry, government and universities need to address.”