Instapundit links to a New Scientist article on a report from NASA and the National Academy of Sciences that warns of the danger that large solar storms present to the world’s power grid. The report summarizes the core problem as:
The first is the modern electricity grid, which is designed to operate at ever higher voltages over ever larger areas. Though this provides a more efficient way to run the electricity networks, minimising power losses and wastage through overproduction, it has made them much more vulnerable to space weather. The high-power grids act as particularly efficient antennas, channelling enormous direct currents into the power transformers.
Obviously, increased use of solar and wind power will increase this sensitivity to solar disruption.
Like hydroelectric generation, solar and wind generation are geographically anchored. You have to put the generators where the sun shines a lot or where the wind blows reliably. They also both require a lot of area to collect the low-density energy. Their dependence on the weather means that any given generation location will often go offline at unpredictable times. To compensate for this unreliability, we will have to create a large diffused grid that can shift power from places with good weather to places with bad weather. All these factors mean that we will have to create large transmission systems to move a high percentage of our power over long distance. Such transmission systems will be even more vulnerable to solar storms than the ones we have now.
As I wrote before, solar and wind power are fragile power sources. We need power sources that can provide power in the case of unexpected events.
The linked article plays down the ability of nuclear power plants to provide power through an emergency but history has shown that they do continue to operate under conditions that take fossil-fuel plants off line. In the late ’80s, a massive blizzard and cold front in the Northeast froze the delivery systems for coal and natural gas. Many fossil-fuel plants went offline (of course solar and wind would have failed then as well), but the nuclear plants kept chugging right along providing power that kept other fossil-fuel plants online. Without that power, the Northeast would have experience a domino power outage that could have killed large numbers of people. Even in the solar-storm scenario, nuclear plants could continue to provide power to their local grids, which would make some communities islands of power that could bootstrap the rest of the system.
Going forward, micro-nukes would be an even better protection against solar storms and any other conceivable event. If every skyscraper had its own power source and if every city or town had several dozen power generator locations, no single event could knock out power over wide areas. Power transmission lines are the weakest link in the power grid. Storms both terrestrial and solar attack the lines. The more powerful the lines, the more vulnerable they become. Smaller lines coming from small, localized generators would be less vulnerable and much easier to repair. Such systems could provide power for years even in the case of a mega-disaster such as a nuclear war or asteroid strike.
The current drive toward solar and wind power springs purely from a political movement. As such, it really doesn’t take into account all the tradeoffs and hazards of putting all our energy eggs in one fragile basket.
We need to take such rare but dangerous factors into account as we engineer the energy systems of the future.