What Do Solar Flares Have to Do with Energy Managers?

August 8, 2013 By Linda Hardesty

NASA sun chartThe sun’s magnetic field is about to change its polarity, and while that sounds kind of ominous, according to NASA, it’s an event that happens every 11 years during the peak of each solar cycle.

Of more relevance to energy managers is the fact that the midpoint of each solar cycle also causes a big increase in solar flares.

Solar flares occur when built-up magnetic energy on the sun’s atmosphere is suddenly released, and even small or mid-scale solar flares can cause electrical surges, over-current conditions and power outages. The implications to businesses can include permanently damaged electronic equipment and lost revenue from downtime.

In 1859, a really large solar flare known as the Carrington Event caused damage and started fires on telegraph stations across the country. Experts warn that if a solar flare of the same magnitude occurred today, the modern national power grid could be down for weeks, or even months.

Energy managers should prepare for outages caused by solar flares in a similar manner as they prepare for other weather-related blackouts, such as Hurricane Sandy, said Energy Management Services Consultant Eric Gallant, with Schneider Electric.

“When a solar event takes place, the sun shoots out a huge ball of energy,” said Gallant. “If it comes in contact with the earth’s magnetic field, it produces a current that is really long – 100s of kilometers long and affects things like utility grids, copper-based telecommunications, pipelines, railways. Those will all experience a current induced in them.”

While the threat of solar flares in pronounced for about the next four months, energy managers should make sure their energy systems can handle surges and spikes using some kind of surge suppression for the following:

  • Service entrance switch gear;
  • Branch circuit distribution; and
  • Point of application.

In addition, facilities should have backup power sources, such as generators, and fuel stored for that backup power source. And energy managers need to ensure some kind of bridge technology to switch over to their backup system, generally some kind of uninterruptible power supply (UPS), said Gallant.

Energy managers can also monitor NASA’s Space Weather Prediction Center. If a solar flare happens, NASA can usually give some warning before the impact.

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