CME caused Quebec Blackout 1989

Quebec Blackout 1989 – Power Grid Geomagnetic Storm Vulnerability

The Quebec blackout of 1989. Could it happen again? Or worse? Yes, it surely could. And eventually certainly will.

Our Most Critical Infrastructure – The Electric Power Grid

The electrical power grid. It’s infrastructure is clearly one of our society’s most important assets. Enabling our reliance on digital technology and just-in-time delivery distribution systems. We have come to depend on the reliable delivery of electricity to power nearly every aspect of our lives.

The electric power grid is one of our most critical infrastructures. It underpins nearly everything. Because of this, the reliability of the power grid has become a necessity to keep most of us alive.

The North American electric power grid system. 200,000+ miles of high-voltage transmission lines. Thousands of power generation plants. And millions of digital controls.

Complexity of The Grid

More than 1,800 entities own and operate parts of the system across North America. These entities range in size from large investor-owned utilities with over 20,000 employees, to small cooperatives with only ten.

Because of the numbers involved, there are many various differing methods, configurations, and designs employed within the overall system. This adds layers of complexity when considering vulnerabilities and solutions to hypothetical problems.

Geomagnetic Threat

Geomagnetic disturbances, the earthly effects of solar weather, are a threat to the electric sector. Geomagnetically-induced currents on system infrastructure have the potential to result in widespread tripping of key transmission lines and irreversible physical damage to large transformers.

The 1989 event that caused a blackout of the Hydro Quebec system proved beyond a doubt of the geomagnetic vulnerabilities and their potential consequences.

The physical damage of certain system components (e.g. extra-high-voltage transformers) on a large scale, could result in prolonged outages as procurement cycles for these components range from months to years. Many of these components are manufactured overseas. North America has little manufacturing capability remaining in this regard.

Geomagnetic Storms – CME

Intense solar activity. Large solar flares and associated coronal mass ejections. They create disturbances when this activity is directed towards the Earth. The coronal mass ejection’s solar wind plasma can connect with the Earth’s magnetosphere. Consequently, causing rapid changes in the configuration of Earth’s magnetic field. A geomagnetic storm.

Geomagnetic storms produce impulsive disturbance of the geomagnetic field over wide geographic regions. In turn, these storms induce currents (called geomagnetically-induced currents or GIC) in the complex topology of the electric power grid system and other high-voltage power systems across the globe.

A number of investigations have been carried out (EMP Commission, FEMA under Executive Order 13407, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the Departments of Energy, Homeland Security, and Defense). These investigations examined the potential impacts on the U.S. electric power grid for severe geomagnetic storm events and EMP threats. As a result, these assessments indicate that severe geomagnetic storms have the potential to cause long-duration outages to widespread areas of the North American grid.

Quebec Blackout 1989, March 13-14

Most well-known in North America is the March 13-14, 1989 geomagnetic storm. It caused the Quebec blackout of 1989. This storm led to the collapse of the Hydro Quebec system in the early morning hours of March 13, 1989.

Starting at 2:44 AM (EST), operations on the Hydro Quebec power grid were normal. At that time a large impulse in the Earth’s geomagnetic field erupted along the U.S./Canada border.. This started a chain of power system disturbance events that only 92 seconds later resulted in a collapse of the Quebec Interconnection.

The geomagnetic storm causing this event is believed to be the result of two separate events known as coronal mass ejections (CME) on March 10 and 12, 1989. A few days before, on March 6, a very large X15-class solar flare also occurred. Several days later, at 01:27 UT on March 13, a severe geomagnetic storm struck Earth. The storm began on Earth with extremely intense auroras at the poles. The aurora could be seen as far south as Texas and Florida!

Also Affected The United States Power Grid

The Quebec Blackout was by no means a local event. Some of the U.S. electrical utilities had their own cliffhanger problems to deal with. New York Power lost 150 megawatts the moment the Quebec power grid went down. The New England Power Pool lost 1,410 megawatts at about the same time. Service to 96 electrical utilities in New England was interrupted while other reserves of electrical power were brought online. Luckily, the U.S. had the power to spare at the time…but just barely. Across the United States from coast to coast, over 200 power grid problems erupted within minutes of the start of the March 13 storm. Fortunately none of these caused a blackout.

I found this online from a local eyewitness:

I found myself staring up at the sky on the night of March 13, 1989, with my girlfriend and her parents in the backyard of their house. The sky was on fire, almost literally. Red and pink sheets of plasma streamed out in a circle from directly overhead, with blue-white streaks like xenon flashes occasionally strobing across the sky. We could actually hear a sizzling, crackling sound around us. The four of us stood there, awestruck by the aurora borealis we were lucky enough to witness.

Wow, they could hear it sizzling and crackling!

Quebec Blackout 1989 Technical Details

Telluric currents induced by the storm created harmonic voltages and currents of considerable intensity on the La Grande network. Voltage asymmetry on the 735-kV network reached 15%.

Within less than a minute, the seven La Grande network static var compensators on line tripped one after the other…

With the loss of the last static var compensator, voltage dropped so drastically on the La Grande network (0.2 p.u.) that all five lines to Montreal tripped through loss of synchronism (virtual fault), and the entire network separated.

The loss of 9,450 MW of generation provoked a very rapid drop in frequency at load-center substations. Automatic under-frequency load-shedding controls functioned properly, but they are not designed for recovery from a generation loss equivalent to about half system load.

The rest of the grid collapsed piece by piece in 25 seconds.

Quebec Blackout 1989
Quebec Blackout 1989 – Images depict the ground level geomagnetic intensification over four minutes.

Using the traditional NOAA geomagnetic storm indices. The March 1989 storm was ranked as the third largest storm of all time (since rankings started in 1932).

EHV – Extra High Voltage Transformers / Transmission Lines

The demand for electricity in North America has grown dramatically over the past 50 years. Therefore, to support these energy demands, the EHV (extra high voltage) transformer infrastructure has grown as well.

Geomagnetic Storm — The high-voltage transmission grid presents a complex network topology that couples almost like an antenna through multiple ground points to the geo-electric field produced by disturbances in the geomagnetic field.

ehv-extra-high-voltage-transformers

The U.S. has 80,000 miles of extra-high voltage (EHV) transmission lines making up the backbone transmission grid. This enables the long-haul transport of electricity for our nation. EHV transformers are critical pieces of equipment on the transmission grid.

90% of consumed power passes through a high voltage transformer at some point. If these transformers fail, especially in large numbers, therein lies a very big problem.

EHV transformers are huge, weighing hundreds of tons. Consequently, transportation is difficult at best. In some cases, specialized rail cars must be used (and there is a limited supply of these). Many of the EHV transformers installed in the U.S. are approaching or exceeding the end of their design lifetimes (approx 30-40 years), increasing their vulnerability to failure.

EHV Transforms / Transmission Lines — Vulnerable to Severe Geomagnetic Storms

Technical:

The operating levels of high-voltage networks have increased from the 100-200 kV design thresholds of the 1950’s, to the 345 to 765 kV extra-high-voltage levels of today’s networks.

As a result, the ratio of resistances varies significantly with voltage class, as the resistance is approximately 10 times lower for the 765 kV than for the 115 kV lines.

In general, the higher the voltage rating, the lower the resistive impedance per unit distance (in ohms per km), which will in turn produce approximately 10 times larger Geomagnetic Induced Current flows in the 765 kV elements for the same geomagnetic disturbance environments.

The design of transformers also acts to further compound the impacts of GIC flows in the high voltage portion of the power grid. While proportionately larger GIC flows occur in these large high-voltage transformers, saturation of EHV transformers occurs at the same level of GIC current as those of lower-voltage transformers.

Transformers experience excessive levels of internal heating brought on by stray flux when GICs cause the transformer’s magnetic core to saturate and spill flux outside the normal core steel magnetic circuit.

Well-documented cases have noted heating failures that caused melting and burn-through of large-amperage copper windings and leads in these transformers.

Image: Damage to $10 million transformer in New Jersey as a result of 1989 storm.

These transformers generally cannot be repaired in the field. As a result, if damaged in this manner, they may need to be replaced with new units. Of concern, these units have manufacture lead times of 12–24 months or more in the world market.

Modern Civilization Would Perish

Without electricity, a high percentage of today’s modern civilization would die within a month, two at the most. It would be unimaginable horror.

Read the book, One Second After for a reality check…

One Second After by William Forstchen

(Some information in this article sourced from a report of the North American Electric Reliability Corporation and the U.S. Department of Energy’s 2009 Workshop titled, High-Impact, Low-Frequency Event Risk to the North American Bulk Power System)

[ Read: 2012 CME | A Near Miss Catastrophic Disaster ]

39 Comments

  1. I live across the border from Quebec and worked for years in the area where the main Quebec dams are located. I had the opportunity to visit several of them and do a tour of the power plant at the main dam. For those of you who have not had the opportunity to visit a dam/power plant I can only describe the plant as truly massive. The thought of any of this equipment being down for the count is almost unimaginable as it would take forever to manufacture and replace the turbines and associated equipment. The power lines stretch several thousand miles across the province as one of the largest dams is almost 1000 miles from the main city of Montreal. There are a number of large dams in sparsely populated areas well north of the main centres that is why there are so many lines. As with the power plants the thought of replacing thousands of miles of wires and hundreds of transformers is unimaginable.
    Given the abundance of hydro electric power Quebec has not bothered with coal, gas or nuclear power plants and most homes and businesses rely on electric heating and cooling. If any or all of the system goes down they’re literally toast. I can remember during the big ice storm of 1998 where diesel locomotives were parked by transformer stations in smaller centres to provide electricity to the local grid, there aren’t enough locomotives to do this and they could be affected as well as the grid.
    All this to say have heat and light that you can count on to the best of your ability!

  2. I’d venture to guess, less than 1% of folks are prepared at all. Of those, most are planning on short-term fixes; gasoline, propane, or diesel generators. Fuel would quickly run out. Even using your fuel judiciously, everyone will run out eventually. Solar/wind provide an ongoing fuel supply. Even the lowly woodgas can work. If you’re in the perfect location, hydro-electric can be your power. Really cool stuff for small hydro-electric.

    Electricity saves a LOT of labor. I fear we all are going to find out. Have a few plans. Life as we know it will never come back in our lifetimes. Grid-down is the ultimate shtf, however it comes about. Got comms?????

  3. Ken, Thank you for this article…just a week or so ago, I read an article saying that Texas had never experienced “northern lights”, but I remember well the night I watched the undulating vertical curtains of light in the eastern sky from our northeast Texas farm…I couldn’t remember the date, but 1989 would be about right. I remember that as I watched, I was struck by the fact they were more to our east than to the north.

    1. If you are a history buff, I recall reading about crusaders possibly near Antioch in Syria/Turkey seeing northern lights, it was 1st or 2nd crusade. As I recall it was following a bad few years of drought and warming.

      Just goes to show that these events have happened in the past.

  4. Check out solar weather dot com! In the last few weeks we have been hit hard and a few bigger X class just missed us. The sun is really percolating right now! Emp and Putin shutting down the grid is my biggest concern. Sunspot are happening like 10 times what was predicted for this solar season. It’s coming!!

  5. Resistive impedance ( what a misuse of engineering terms), impedance only applies to inductive circuits. Also, resistance does not go down with an increase in voltage rating, well, I am stopping here-having correct knowledge about these tech. issues will not have an impact on anyone’s survival ability in a SHTF event.

    1. No Joke,
      Impedance also applies to capacitive circuits as well. And transmission lines are inductive circuits. But true, resistance doesn’t change with voltage. But the line loss does change with current. And the line loss is a function of the current squared times the impedance. If you double the voltage and half the current (conservation of energy), with the current being lowered, the I^2R losses are less (R really being an impedance in complex numbers (R+jX)).
      Ken’s point is still valid. I knew what he was talking about, and nit picking terminology won’t change that. I think the whole point in the article is that it could happen (and has), and it can have a severe effect on our lives. Its worth preparing for the eventuality.

  6. I’ve been watching 2 or 3 BIG sunspots rotating in to view this week, soon to be facing directly at earth. Quite a few large flairs have shot off so far, with the biggest an x1.6 I think. The potential for more and bigger ones is there. Lets keep our fingers crossed this week they stay small. It’s been a very active cycle this time around so far. It’s not going to peak until 2025 or 2026, so we got a ways to go.

  7. I’ve heard that there might be some early warning of an approaching CME and that damage can be somewhat reduced by
    shutting done parts of the grid.I don’t recall the information source so notice that I said “might and somewhat”.

    Does anyone have the straight scoop on this?

  8. Verizon was glitchy today. I could call internationally but not domestically until this evening. Verizon store in town was crowded with folks all being told it was happening all over and they didn’t know why. Was it the dregs this morning’s solar flare that was felt in Australia? Was it Putin? He did do a test today of a new heavier missile toward Alaska. Working now though.

    1. N. Ohio here. Our Verizon has been crap for over a week now, can send text, broken voice and dropped calls are constant, cant retrieve a voicemail. BIL’s 5g seems to be working fine at our AO but ours are 3g and we are just getting a 1x antenna indication, absolutely nothing 3g. Batteries die overnite as the phone is constantly searching for a tower. Got a letter recently that told us they would be “phasing out” the 3g but we would be good to the end of the year. I dont believe them. I think they just dumped the network to force everyone to upgrade. I can go to a town within 30 min of the house and have 3g just fine. Verizon store in our little town had 140 people in there over the weekend (Saturday) complaining of the service. The store said that they know there is a problem and are working on it. I cant even call them (Verizon) to complain. Tried it and got sent to somewhere in SE Asia as if that non English speaking twit can tell me what is going on, asked for an American rep and was cut off. LOL

    2. Anony Mee,
      Both Russia and China have their collective eye on Alaska. For our fishery and mineral resources and strategic location. They think of the northern sea route as a “Suez Canal,” and they want to control it!
      I’m sure you know much more about this than I do. Maybe you could expand upon this?

      1. Far North, The Suez Canal provides a shortcut between busy international trade hubs. This is my personal opinion only – the Modern Grand Solar Minimum will reduce the strategic value of any route that comes close to the Arctic, whether land or sea, due to increasing cold, harsh weather, and sea ice. Alaska does have some reserves, notably petroleum and seasonal fisheries. I could see illicit whaling, as well as hunting of walrus, seal, and polar bear, make a comeback for China and Eastern Russia if global famine takes a firm hold in the next 10-12 years. Alaska has a very small, concentrated population that is 90% dependent on shipping for food and other consumer goods. The route overland south and east to year-round fresh water and a more temperate climate is long and rough. I could see our military sites there being seen as threats in terms of intelligence gathering, but otherwise personally wouldn’t see Alaska as a prime target. An EMP targeted at CONUS would probably largely miss Alaska. It could be strategic in rebuilding the rest of the country, if prepared to do so and to be able to support the military.

        1. Anony Mee,
          Thanks. Let’s hope they don’t see Alaska as a prime target. While we have a small population, we do have a large Military presence. And a large military veteran population.
          Of concern is the U. S. Air force is intercepting an increasing number of Russian aircraft on our boarder…
          Good to know an EMP threat is potentially minimal…

          1. Kula,
            That would be a big part of it. Major Hillier, spokesman for NORAD, said that, “Alaska remains a strategic power projection location for air and ground military forces.”

  9. Best be disconnecting your external antennas and enclosed antennas (attic, etc.) for that matter when not in use from your radios (to include your car or truck). Switches will work depending on the amount of energy produced by lightning, EMP or CME…enough energy will “jump” the gap in the switch and destroy your electronics anyway. With high energy the radio internals could be damaged anyway. Best to completely disconnect your antenna cables with at least a Three Foot space between. Also, if you have antenna tower(s), these are most vulnerable to attacks from storms and the like. Make sure that the tower or antenna pipe is well grounded, but that may not be enough to save your radios and TVs. I speak from personal experience with short wave listening, CB and Ham radio operations since 1972 (thunder storms and the like). So far my solar array and/or power converters have not been effected that I know of–they are well grounded with in-the-ground solid copper ground rods and heavy wire–six feet minimum…eight is better. I have also experienced damage to TVs and microwave ovens from the grid with power spikes.

    1. 5.56 Patriot,
      Excellent points. I ALWAYS disconnect my radio and put it in a prepared popcorn tin. Using the pig-tail connectors and screw-on coax, takes less than a minute to be on-the-air. Whatever works!

    2. 5.56 Patriot,
      Best to disconnect and ground that antenna. Actually run a separate ground for grounding any/all antennas separate from radio and/or power supply grounds. This may be overkill, but better safe than sorry.

      1. Don’t believe it is overkill. Cheap insurance.
        I’ve experienced lightning hitting my barn lightning rods. Very scary.

        1. Oh yeah. And lightning never follows the path “it’s supposed to follow”, (think it is one of Murphy’s laws) I’ve seen it bypass hundreds of thousands of $ worth of lightning protection and take out a substation. Best to give it wide berth and a big heavy lead into a completely separate grounding system. If you tie it to building ground, water pipes, or equipment ground, you are defeating its purpose and asking for trouble.

      2. I lived in Colorado and had a lightning strike hit close to the house, it traveled through the ground, through the ground side of my electrical panel and crispy crittered, my ground fault switches, my land line phones, tv, microwave, stove, CD player, my submersible well pump, just about anything that was drawing power or online. Fortunately the home insurance policy covered everything, the insurance adjuster told me this happens fairly often and not anything you can do in that instance, except have everything unplugged. Lesson learned

        1. Colorado has some highly mineralized ground to boot.(the old miners would brave lightning storms to watch for multiple hits in one place, indicating mineral veins). Lightning can easily overwhelm grounding if they are not hardy enough. Even some of the newer panel mounted shielding for electrical systems may only be good for one use. But, hey, that might be all you need in most parts of the country . The Rockies? Not unusual to get multiple hits each summer.

  10. Good points Plainsmedic.
    In the process of expanding my power assets. Looking at LiFePO4 battery power to complement my solar system and communications. Got it narrowed down to EcoFlo Delta Pro and Bluetti AC300/B300. Man are they expensive $?*#!&@. Might wait later this Summer/Fall for a sale on these power packs. Very impressive specs. Maybe Ken will do a review of this battery technology…if he hasn’t already.
    Out here.

    1. I’ve been collecting parts for a “parallel grid” system here at the farm. Hope to do the panel/hybrid controller install this summer. With the price of lithium at $67,000/ton I’m not going to be able to afford batteries. There are new technologies coming though that may be way cheaper. Maybe in a year or two these will be an affordable alternative. Until then I may need to be grid tied, with the ability to isolate to self power during outages.

      1. Minerjim, Golfcart batteries would beat no batteries and give some storage capacity… here 4=abt 300 reconditioned.

        1. Good point! Thanks. My thought was to get system up and producing and add batteries as I could afford it. You’re right, anything better than no batteries at all.

  11. What I’ve wondered about such an event; let’s say we all thrown back to cave man days. At least a level playing field with those of us preppers faring better than the snowflakes. It’s not so much survival I’m worried about (i can and will survive) but what about no income, no ability to pay mortgage etc. Will we all just be on a time out or would there be a massive homeless problem i.e. all of us. Surely we could stay put and just resume after things return to normal if they ever do.

    1. Really?
      Honestly, if we are thrown back to caveman days i am willing to bet debt etc will be the absolute last thing on anyones mind.
      Just sayin is all.

      1. And what happens to all the illegal border crossers that suddenly have no homes or gov handouts? I’m starting to wonder about that as our society and economy fails.

  12. Oh Ya. If we are thrown back to caveman days for a couple of months, it’s going to be a question of how many people are still alive.

    1. BBC,
      Consider, between the pokey and famine and likely war, I would say with any sort of luck somewhere between 20% and 25% of the population.
      Recall the report to the Penta-puzzle palace; to sort of paraphrase, by 2025, US population will have diminished by 70%. (Deagel) Agree with Kula, regarding
      the financial normalcy bias. As a neighbors CPA son said, If the system blows up, whose coming for your money?

    2. BigBadCat, I think if we’re thrown back to caveman days in this country, a return to a life akin to what we’ve known may take a couple of decades, at a minimum. Our collapse would not leave the rest of the world standing unscathed. Remnant populations would have a lot of big decisions to make.

  13. I thought it was interesting that the 1989 Quebec blackout was NOT line of sight to the sun. Which means that you are not protected on the dark side as the magnetic flux folds around the planet.
    I am not convinced that the damaged was caused by magnetically induced current in the high voltage transmission lines because they would have melted and vaporized with that much current. I think that it is more likely telluric current snap back in the common earth ground that caused sudden huge differential potentials between earth ground points that did the damage to the electrical system.

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