A recent story on Wired it shows us a particularly frightening reason why we should look at how to make electricity at home ourselves: coronal mass ejection (CME).
What is CME?
They start by using a nightclub analogy to explain that the sun has a lot to offer. With everything moving inside, it could take 100,000 or more years for a single photon to move from the nucleus, where they are created by fusion reactions, to the edge of the Sun, where it can go into space. So much happens in the sun that going through a crowd requires what people would consider eternal.
But getting out of a club on a cool, fresh night in space isn’t always a very neat process. Sometimes you go alone and everything is fine. The second time, they rush to the exits, and a lot of energy suddenly pushes the “door”. When it comes to the sun, a place without clubs and night, the cause of the commotion is not so much the crowds as the intricate magnetic fields. When things get messy enough, a bunch of charged particles can scream from the sun.
Most of the time, when this gun-like explosion happens, the third sun stone we call home is out of the way. People who study the sun will see the commotion, but no one else really notices it. But when it is focused on the Earth, things can quickly get bad.
If we are lucky, the polarity of the magnetic storm is the same as the electromagnetic field of our planet. In that case, the particles fly safely into space while the natural field of force of our planet pushes them away. But when the polarities are opposite, the particles are drawn in like one magnet towards another, hitting the planet.
What happens when the Earth is hit?
We have experienced this several times on planet Earth.
The most famous example is in 1859, with what is called the Carrington Event. I wrote about this on CleanTechnica before, but I will summarize here. The storm was so strong that the auroras were not only seen near the poles as usual. People who were far from the equator could see the sky illuminating at night. People in the city could read the newspapers by the light of the storm, while people working in the mines in the American West got up and started cooking breakfast, thinking that the sun was about to rise (and probably wondering why they were so tired).
Beauty and confusion are not all that telegraphists have experienced. The long, long wires that went from the telegraph station to the telegraph station were long enough to collect the energy of the solar storm. Some telegraph operators were shocked by the incoming current on the wire that was supposed to be dead. Others could continue to send and receive messages without connecting their equipment to the power supply, because the lines already had a lot of that, and then something. There were also several fires caused by incorrect flow in the wires.
No one has died who we know of, but the world has changed a lot since 1859. When weaker storms appeared in the years since then, they wreaked havoc on electrical networks, another invention that uses long, long wires. Sometimes energy comes out of the ground, attracted by these long wires, but it can bake expensive and hard-to-reach energy transformers in the process. Everything else that is connected to the grill can be fried.
In a way, this kind of electromagnetic pulse, or EMP, is not as bad as it does in Hollywood and books. When there is that kind of energy in the air, either because of bad space weather or because of a man-made cause, like a high-altitude nuclear explosion, TV would make you believe that nothing electronic survives. It is true that most things would survive, but they would not have an electricity grid to supply them. For example, 90% of cars would still be working, and most of the remaining 10% could be repaired by briefly disconnecting their batteries, but without mains power, where will gas vehicles get their fuel?
The problem is that this can take months, and maybe years. When expensive and difficult-to-replace transformers are fried, it will take them months or years under normal circumstances to be replaced. With everyone they need at once? It will be an even longer delay. Much of the country would be without electricity until things improved.
There are solutions, but behind the eight are the power companies. With only hours of warning at worst or days of warning at best, turning everything off so it doesn’t tear would be a huge task that just couldn’t be done on time. Instead, we should do what Quebec’s power companies did after a nasty solar storm: add capacitors to transformers. Capacitors not only flatten the spikes, but completely block the direct current (DC) that would result from such an event.
But utilities (especially in the United States) are unlikely to add this vital equipment to the network.
What can I do to protect my family?
There are several approaches, and they will vary depending on your budget and whether you own your own home.
If you don’t have a lot of money and / or don’t have your own home, you will want to keep your solution to this cheap and portable. We reviewed various solar generators or kits with solar panels, batteries and inverters all set up to power normal electronics using solar energy. They can be cheap from $ 200 to $ 300, but without the ability to do much more than charge mobile phones and computers. Or, they can cost several thousand dollars and power almost anything. They can be found at prices that fit most budgets.
The most extreme kit I’ve tested is Jackery’s Explorer 2000 Pro with six 200W Solar Saga portable panels. It’s not cheap, but it would power many home appliances and even help you cook food without fuel (currently there is no link to my review because the review is in current). Not only can it run any 120-volt home appliance, but it can also add a few miles of range to the EV as needed in an emergency.
I have found that even with 200 watts of solar panels and a relatively small battery it is possible to use a portable refrigerator to keep not only food but also vital medicines cold. You would have to stock up on medication, which requires money and / or consistent early replenishment, but even diabetics can stay alive during prolonged power outages.
If you own your own home and can either finance it or have money to spend, consider setting up a hardened solar storage system. The wires going from the panel to your inverter should be shielded and grounded, and the inverter itself should be EMP resistant, but with those two things, the system could survive a solar storm or other EMP event and continue to supply the family with energy. You will need to check with a professional about these options and do not let them deter you from purchasing good parts.
Whatever you do, do not try to rely on a gas or diesel generator for such an emergency. No one can reasonably get enough fuel or be sure that the generator will work for months.
In a way, electricity would be one of your minor worries in such a scenario, but things like food storage, water supply and defense are out of reach. CleanTechnica. You should try to make a reasonable plan for your family for each of these things.
Image presented by NASA (public domain).
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