Sunday, 11 March 2012

Solar panels vs. solar flares

Last week’s solar flare was no more than an interesting novelty for most of us, but we were lucky. The next one, perhaps in the cyclical peak next year, could knock out our National Grid, as it did for Quebec’s power grid in 1989.
One might think that this sort of difficulty is just something that we have to live with. Nobody has thought of a way to stop solar flares, and the grid is a very big antenna: ideal for collecting passing electromagnetic disturbances. But a solution is at hand, and strangely it’s from the world of energy markets, rather than of energy technology.
There’s growing interest in local energy markets, where neighbours get together to trade their energy needs against the generating capacity of their solar panels and wind turbines. For geeky technical reasons, energy markets will work best at the level of the local feeder (the wires that connect all the houses in a neighbourhood to the local substation). A local energy market, especially one equipped with a communal storage battery, can optimize local energy generation, reduce the load peaks on the grid, and provide power continuity if there’s a power cut on the grid.
That’s where the solar flares come in. The same ‘islanding’ technology that allows a local energy market to disconnect itself from the grid if there’s a grid power cut, will equally enable it to disconnect when a solar flare is on its way. The local feeder is typically only a few hundred metres long, so is a far weaker antenna than the whole grid is, and so will suffer much less in a solar flare. The local battery will keep the neighbourhood powered for the few minutes of the flare, then the energy island can rejoin the grid as the flare passes.
Perhaps we wouldn’t go to the trouble of building local energy market technology just for solar flare avoidance. But we will be building it, because of inexorable market forces. The flare-proofing will come almost for free.

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