Monday, January 3, 2011

Taking Electricity for Granted

We have become so accustomed to limitless electrical power at low cost that we no longer think seriously about conserving it. Even as CFL and LED lighting technology are marketed as "green" products, we keep looking for new and creative uses for electricity requiring greater production and transmission over long distances on demand. Although we can only store small amounts of it, we expect electrical power to be there when we want it.

A recent study by NASA year highlghted our vulnerability to solar flare activity, which causes "space weather." The sun is starting to become more active, possibly reaching a peak of solar flare activity in 2012. This normally concerns astronauts and astronomers, but another group is concerned: our electric utility industry. When a solar storm bathes the earth in plasma radiation, the earth's magnetic field is disrupted, causing auroras. A large storm in 1989 caused Quebec's power grid to crash. A really big one in 1859 disrupted the U.S. telegraph system over a period of days. What might happen should another superstorm like the 1859 event stike today with our high dependence on electricity and electronic communications? Check out the latest Sky and Telescope magazine for the full story.

A superstorm may never happen anytime soon, or the effects may be minimized by utility industry efforts to harden the grid, but we should never take electricity for granted the way we do.

photo by NASA

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