The sun is our friend, but also our foe

For tens of thousands of years, the biggest worry of any community or early civilisation was men with swords on horseback. Today’s equivalent of this life-changing event is an X-flare from the sun.

Only this week the sun has been highly active, and a flurry of solar flares emanating from enlarged sunspots have given modern humanity a light show of cosmic proportions.

Although most solar flares are directed away from the Earth and usually of a lower class that cannot penetrate the planets magnetic shielding, more extensive, more intense eruptions called X-flares can penetrate the atmosphere and overwhelm us with electromagnetically charged particles.

Our National Grid is a real symbol of our modern civilisation which enables us to carry electrons to power our current lives to all but the remotest of places. This original web was spanning cities, countries and even continents is a planetary-scale antenna device. This antenna is our civilisation’s strength and Achilles heel.

Solar flares are a well-known phenomenon, but very much misunderstood as a threat. Even our most exceptional scientists and engineers have misunderstood this danger from Earthbound X-flare class eruptions also known as coronal mass-ejection events.

Yes, the sun that powers our solar panels can be our friend, but what nobody is talking about is the issue of it becoming our enemy. The National Grid is an exposed system. Its transformers aren’t strong enough to withstand a direct hit from an atmosphere penetrating X-flare event.

NASA has already admitted that we missed a huge one only a couple of years ago, which means most of us are still lucky to be alive today. Sounds dramatic?

It could be months or it could be years before the grid could be restored again, and during this time most of the population would starve to death because of our reliance on electricity-powered infrastructure. Water pumps for utilities, fuel deliveries, banking ATM’s and everything else electrical, including your electric start engine will fail with an X-class direct hit. Anything not held in a Faraday cage will fry.

Back to the stone age in one day and you will instantly know about it because the sky, day or night will be lit up brightly in a Northern light extravaganza, light show.

Even electronics that are not plugged in will damage as proven with lightning strikes that emit similar electromagnetic charges, just on a smaller scale.

Bathing the planet in a shower of intensive charged particles will cause disruption, not on a countrywide scale, but on a continental-wide level. Such an event will take down countless countries and cities at a time, especially when you consider that the modern electrical grid system doesn’t comply with borders on a map.

Just like own Earthbound weather cycles, so too does the sun. Extreme weather events occur, and for those unlucky enough to be in the path of an inbound superflare, such as caused the Carrington event in 1859, the technological damage can be severe.

This Russian roulette game of chance has only recently been a problem for humans and luckily we have just been affected twice in our industrial civilisations 150-year history with smaller localised events.

Bear in mind that in 1859 the most advanced technology was the early telegraph system, and it was brought down throughout the whole of Europe and North America with telegraph operators reporting flames and sparks throughout the switchboard systems.

X-flare events like these, although rare, are shown to occur regularly through Greenland ice core every 150 years and 75 years for direct hit events, which puts us now in an overdue situation. Unlike the Carrington event, the stakes are much higher for us, as it’s more than just communication systems that we all rely upon to deliver our daily bread.

Similarly, very few people appreciate the close shave we recently had with the Russian meteorite strike over Chelyabinsk. This threat could have been a very different headline as firstly the Russian authorities before the video recordings emerged, actually thought an EMP struck them, and if it had reached the ground, it would have almost certainly affected the whole planet.

Either way, our modern life would have been affected by either the retaliating attacks from the Russian leadership or the prospect of an impact-induced winter. A close shave for us all indeed.

The sun sneezes and life will never be the same again

The sun should be considered as having an incurable bad cold (pun intended). Albeit, surprised when they come, most sneezes spray away from unsuspecting targets, but very occasionally that high-velocity mucus will score a direct hit without the aid of that protective tissue.

Sneezes may be socially embarrassing for us, but not generally life-threatening. The last century is littered with small examples of technological failures caused by a low level or indirect sneezes from our sun. So as we wait in anticipation for the next large one to occur, I ask, should we not be prepared by hardening our electrical grid system?

The global utility companies have been fooling themselves into thinking they can handle such an event and the rest of us live our daily lives in ignorance or denial.

The planet lit up at night or day across the globe will invoke feelings of awe and wonder, but what will be occurring is the long, slow burn of our network transformers that potentially could cause nuclear plants to go into meltdown. Fukushima events across the globe. Now that’s serious!

Just renewing the National Grid’s burnt-out transformers could take a minimum of over two years and that’s if they have the parts ready to go. There is currently a campaign in the US to protect their grid system from EMP attacks and solar flares, and thus I believe we should have a similar campaign here.

Part of constructing a resilient and stronger electrical grid system means decentralising power-generation and moving towards self-generation like solar panels. Reluctance by the energy companies is the real reason why we still have an exposed grid network today.

What makes the internet resilient, is its web-like system without a centralised PowerPoint. If one section of the internet is destroyed, the information still gets through via the rest of the whole web. This is the answer to protecting the grid network from solar flares.

Alternative technology is not about and never has been about green issues, but viewed as a tool for national security.

Across the whole of 2013, the amount of electricity generated from alternative energy sources, including solar technology, hydro and biomass, was up by 30% in 2012 worldwide.

We are already constructing a new solar flare resilient system, albeit we just didn’t realise it, but more has to be done in getting the existing network bolstered and prepared for that day the blue sky turns green.

The sun is our friend, but if we don’t get smarter sooner, its next sneeze could bring down the last two thousand years of our technological achievements.

"Go your own energy way."


Stuart Lovatt 2014-09-04
Founder of Power My Home.