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Could space weather affect Eskom operations?

Space weather could be the next issue that Eskom has to deal with according to a report in the Business Day.  Space weather – the movement in space of electrically charged gases ejected from the sun – could knock out part of Eskom’s transmission grid.  The last time this phenomenon occurred was then the “Halloween Storm” knocked out parts of the American grid in 2003.

“Yes, we are working on it, it could have an effect on the grid. We are putting plans in place, we’ve been working on that for the last 18 months to two years,” Eskom spokeswoman Carol Allers says.  Eskom has apparently been working with SANSA, the South African National Space Agency to mitigate against potential damage.

The Halloween storm raised scientific eyebrows because it took place during a “solar minimum”, when the sun’s activity was at a low, says Sansa physicist Lee-Anne McKinnell. It led to research on space weather’s effects on power systems.

“That’s our greatest concern. There have been several events during which a transformer was lost … a direct link has been shown,” she says.

The Halloween Storm, actually a series of enormous solar flares from the middle to the end of October 2003, played tricks on technological systems around the world, according to the US Geological Survey.  It disrupted North American power grids, forcing load shedding and disturbed the geomagnetic orientation used for oil and gas drilling in Alaska and for airborne magnetic and geophysical surveys around the world.  In a report issued by the US Senate last year, concerns were raised around the ability of the US grid to withstand geomagnetic events.

SA has not been immune to solar weather — in August 2011 the country’s $13m satellite SumbandilaSat failed. A solar storm caused the satellite’s onboard computer to stop responding to commands from the ground station.

Sansa is working with Eskom to improve the data available to it so it can improve its systems planning, Dr McKinnell told Business Day.

“Space weather is global, but the impact is regional,” says Dr McKinnell. The effects are regional because of the different technologies used in different places, and the economic make-up of a country or region.

“In South Africa we are most concerned with its effects on radio systems and the behaviour of radio waves when they are transmitted from one point to another. Our latitude is also a factor,” Dr McKinnell says.

“We need to collaborate now so we can help when things go wrong. It’s topical now because of our increasing dependence on technology. There is a lot of (solar) activity now, so we can show the impacts,” Dr McKinnell continued.

Dr McKinnell says the South African sector most aware of space weather is the defence sector, because of its reliance on radio communication, which is more secure than cellphone communication. But the average South African will feel the effects through hiccoughs in service delivery, because space weather can affect the systems that collate data used.


The image depicts the process, from left, the loops on the sun are magnetic field lines that terminate on sunspots, which are active areas on the solar surface. When these magnetic loops flare out into interplanetary space, they emit radio waves that reach Earth eight minutes after the flare. These waves increase the noise in all radio communication and can decrease the accuracy of GPS navigation. The magnetic flares also carry with them a cloud of high energy particles known as the solar wind, which travel at supersonic speeds. Solar wind that reaches the Earth causes disturbances in the upper atmosphere and on the Earth’s magnetic field

Picture:  NASA

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