Since the 1989 storm that knocked out Quebec’s electrical grid, the Canadian energy company Hydro-Quebec has strengthened its transmission system to fend off a repeat event. It has increased trip levels across the grid to allow equipment to weather bigger disturbances without shutting down automatically, and put into action an alert system that enables real-time monitoring of the grid, among other things. Other power grid operators are looking for ways to brace themselves for a big solar storm too. The National Grid in the UK has plans that include preparing to bring all transformers into action to reduce the load on individual ones, and even making controlled power cuts to prevent damage to the grid.
But the world has also changed. Roughly two billion more people live on the planet today than in 1989. We are consuming more energy on a per capita basis today then we did then and our electrical grids are aging. “Compared to twenty years ago – two solar cycles ago – the power grid is probably operating much closer to the edge,” says Baker. “If we had a storm like that next week, I think it’s an open question as to how the world’s power system would respond.”