Uptick in Solar Activity Parallels Discussion on Effects of Space Weather on the Electrical Grid

Gathering of power industry and solar science experts in April focuses on early warning needs and opportunities


Louisville, CO, April 28, 2022—Our electric grid is at the whim of the natural world’s powerful forces – wind, lightning, Sun. As the solar cycle ramps back up in activity (a regular occurrence after relatively quiet period), the power grid reawakens to the threat of space weather, which has the potential to push the system beyond its tipping point. Space weather is a global and imminent threat, falling in the same likelihood of occurrence in the next five years as “pandemic influenza,”[1] but society is less prepared for a space weather disaster than another pandemic.


Power grids are complex systems and solar activity resulting in geomagnetic storms can wreak havoc on grid infrastructure. Current ability to predict such storms exists, but is only as mature as weather prediction was 50 years ago. This makes good communication between scientists, emergency managers, and those in charge of the power grid essential. Such communications are often stymied by lack of common vocabulary and technical focus and understanding between the groups.


Crowd of people listening to a space science lecture.
Alicia Juarrero of University of Miami (FL) and Vector Analytica kicks off Day 2 of Simulating Space Weather Extremes with a fascinating Primer of Complex Systems.

Orion Space Solutions’ (OSS) Ryan McGranaghan[2] and his university and power grid collaborators strive to change this reality through the concept of convergence,[3] or a radical merging of innovative ideas, approaches, and technologies from a diverse range of sectors and expertise. Through a National Science Foundation-funded workshop (Award Number: AGS-2131047) and with the understanding that to reimagine grid resilience, data from diverse fields must be open and broadly usable and the traditionally disparate communities must be connected, McGranaghan brought together experts from diverse fields to share expertise and take advantage of the spectrum of innovation, knowledge, and assets available within and across these groups. The group was animated by three questions:


1. What are the research & development and operational gaps that emerge from a holistic view of the Sun-to-Power Grid system and what solutions can we imagine to address them?

2. What is the composition of the teams that can create these solutions?

3. How do we connect these gaps to existing programs and form bridges across them?


“We designed this event based on a convergence approach to Sun-to-Power Grid resilience, recognizing that national-scale societal challenges require transdisciplinary collaboration and novel ways to facilitate it”, says Dr. McGranaghan of OSS. “So we created a simulation game that enabled individuals from every part of the system to communicate, learn, and understand.”

The interactions were facilitated through an extreme space weather simulation game--a table-top coupled with simulation and observational data in an interactive environment to reveal novel research and development gaps for the Sun-to-Power Grid System. The novel simulation game identified linkages across knowledge areas to better anticipate, understand, and respond to effects of space weather on the nation’s power grids. The engaging three-day workshop generated new understanding about the complex sun-to-power grid system by converging the range of communities that are involved, identifying the research & development and operational gaps, and proposing solutions for those gaps. In a close, and novel, partnership with RWI Synthetics[4], they demonstrated the human dimension of socio-economic impacts of outage by synthesizing the entire population of Washington DC, including social, economic, and medical details to model and visualize the individualized impacts of outage on the population of a city.


The event was organized into three days: the simulation game, synthesizing lessons learned and gaps, and systems-building, which had teams of data scientists and domain scientists and engineers work together to prototype solutions. Critical outcomes include:


· A lessons learned database that cover how to achieve convergent interactions and guidance for future Sun-to-Power Grid interactions;

· Enumerated and organized R&D gaps that can guide the community in setting policy, advocating resources, and proposing new projects; and

· A knowledge base of simulation data, literature, a community exchange platform, and a template for running simulation games.


The workshop is the next step in the successful NSF Convergence Accelerator Project the Convergence Hub for the Exploration of Space Science (CHESS)[5] which pioneered the paradigm-shifting convergent approach to Sun-to-Power Grid research, development, and operations.


“Space weather is about societal resilience, multiphysics, and multiscale. This simulation game embodied all three facets”, says Dr. Mangala Sharma, Program Director for Space Weather Research at the NSF.

The community the CHESS project has been cultivating along with existing programs and projects in the field includes representatives from the National Science Foundation, NASA, Department of Energy, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC), United States Geological Survey (USGS), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), several national space weather programs, and numerous academic and private institutions.

[1] https://assets.lloyds.com/assets/pdf-solar-storm-risk-to-the-north-american-electric-grid/1/pdf-Solar-Storm-Risk-to-the-North-American-Electric-Grid.pdf [2] http://www.ryanmcgranaghan.com/ [3] https://www.nsf.gov/od/oia/convergence/index.jsp [4] https://rwisynthetics.com/ [5] https://www.chessscience.com/

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