Solar flare risk to power supplies 'very low'

The risk to the United Kingdom's electricity supply from a freak solar flare is "very low", according to Energy and Climate Change Minister Joan Ruddock.

 

 

The risk to the United Kingdom's electricity supply from a freak solar flare is "very low", according to Energy and Climate Change Minister Joan Ruddock.

Ruddock said a combination of geographical location and contingency measures already in place meant the UK was well set to deal with the effects of a major solar storm.

She noted the importance of continuing research into the matter and insisted that ministers were "not complacent", but said the UK was "not unduly exposed".

Ruddock was responding to a Westminster Hall debate called by Labour former minister Graham Stringer (Manchester Blackley) about the Government's preparedness to deal with a solar storm.

Stringer said a solar flare on the scale of the 1859 "Carrington event" - which caused the failure of telegraph systems all over Europe and North America - could have a catastrophic impact on electricity supplies around the world.

Research suggested the resulting magnetic storm could cause 500 key transformers in North America to fail within 90 seconds as they became overloaded and copper wire melted.

Such an event would have 10 times the impact of 2005's Hurricane Katrina, he said, costing two trillion dollars.

Stringer also raised concerns about the ability of satellites to provide sufficient warning of a solar flare, saying they could pick up information within 15 to 30 minutes of one happening but the effects could hit Earth within 12 minutes.

"The very fastest of these storms are not predictable and therefore generators would not be able to be taken out of the system to protect them, and we are vulnerable," he added, asking what contingency plans the UK had in place to deal with solar storms.

Ruddock said past events and scientific modelling suggested the UK was not under severe threat, although there could be no guarantees.

She also spelled out the contingency measures designed to protect the National Grid from a range of different events and said they would be sufficient to protect against a magnetic storm.

Ruddock said: "The UK, I am glad to say, is not at a particularly high risk of disruption from solar storms as we are a good way south of the magnetic north pole.

"Both the history of extreme solar weather events, and the science, indicate that the risk of a major impact in the UK is very low.

"So whilst the UK may not be completely immune to the impact of solar storms, it is, we believe, extremely unlikely that we would suffer widespread damage.

"The potential damage that could occur is therefore small, and well within the scope of the resilience and contingency planning we have in place to deal with terrestrial weather events and other risks that could impact on our electricity networks."

Ms Ruddock said the West Country and parts of Scotland would be most at risk due to granite rock formations which would make it more likely that the storm would affect electricity installations.

Pledging to keep the matter under review and emphasising the need for continuing scientific research, she added: "Whilst there are clearly uncertainties around the impact of a major solar storm, experience to date indicates that the UK is not unduly exposed to such events - and in the worst case it could be expected that any interruption to electricity supplies would be localised and of relatively short duration."

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