An 11 year cycle of solar activity has begun, which will bring with it geomagnetic disturbances. In past cycles, these have caused disruptions to power lines, most notably that in March 1989, which brought down Hydro Québec’s transmission system, leaving 6 million people without power for 9 hours.

Metatech Applied Power Systems and EPRI of the USA, and National Grid of the UK, have developed a potential solution. Using NASA satellite data, they will be able to warn utilities when the first waves of charged particles ejected from the sun reach earth.

Metatech’s system will sound alarms before the solar particles begin to disrupt the earth’s magnetic field, which is the cause of induced swirling electrical currents that can damage transmission lines. It is estimated that these alerts will give utilities 45 minutes warning, giving the operator enough time to take precuationary actions.

A second phase of the project, due for installation later this year, will provide real-time observations of geomagnetic disturbances and the impacts of those disturbances on National Grid’s transmission system.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Adminitsration of the USA is predicting that Solar Cycle 23, due in 2000, will be at least as strong as Cycle 22, which caused the Québec outage.