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Is Detroit’s power grid ready for the next solar storm?

A coronal mass ejection on the Sun
A coronal mass ejection on the Sun (NASA)

DETROIT – Solar storms can cause severe interruptions in electrical devices here on Earth, and efforts are being made to be prepared for the next major storm.

The Sun provides us warmth and life. It’s a living body that’s constantly in motion. It may appear calm from far away, but enormous explosions called coronal mass ejections (CMEs) periodically belch into space with jets of charged particles. If a strong CME is directed toward Earth, then those charged particles interact with our planet’s magnetic fields to induce currents that can potentially damage satellites, force airlines to reroute flights and damage power grids.

Related: NASA’s Solar Orbiter expected to reveal more about Sun’s environment: Here’s what to know

That’s exactly what happened in the late 1980s in Canada.

“We had an event in March 1989 where there was a significant power loss in Quebec, and that’s because the (solar storm) was intense and directed in that area, it actually caused the power grids to go offline,” said Steve Clarke, director at NASA’s Heliophysics Division.

Can that happen in Michigan? We had to ask DTE Energy.

“We operate at lower voltage levels than the voltage levels that they operate at in Quebec. The lower the voltage levels, the less likely there is of an impact,” said Heather Rivard, DTE’s vice president of distribution operations. “(Quebec) also tend to have a lot longer transmission lines than we have, so that allows for more possibility of an impact than we have here in southeast Michigan.”

What if we get a warning of an impending solar storm? Does DTE have a plan of action?

“If a real severe interruption was predicted, we would take precautionary measures to shut down some of the equipment so as to not damage any of the equipment. And as a result of those precautionary measures, once the storm had passed, I feel that we would be able to restore (power to) customers within hours,” said Rivard.


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