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March 1989
Video - Aurora Polaris

  Electricity in nature
March 1989

In March 1989, Québec experienced a blackout caused by a solar storm.

On March 10, a strong wind left the Sun, heading for Earth. On March 12, the first voltage fluctuations were being seen on the Hydro-Québec transmission grid. The System Control Centre was doing what it could to maintain stability. However, on March 13 at 2:44 a.m., the Earth's magnetic field was fluctuating violently. The grid's protection system was triggered, and a blackout occurred in less than a minute! The province was submerged in darkness for more than nine hours.

Hydro-Québec strengthens its grid

Shortly after this blackout, Hydro-Québec organized a task force to analyze the events and propose corrective measures. The following measures have since been applied:

  • Recalibration of protection systems and raising of the trip level. This tactic has proven effective, seeing there have been very intense magnetic storms since 1989 but they have not caused any problems.
  • Establishment of a real-time alert system that measures disturbances on the power grid during magnetic storms.
  • Modification of power system operating procedures. In the event of a disturbance, Hydro-Québec reduces transmission on lines and direct-current interconnections, and suspends all major switching operations.
  • Installation of series compensation on power lines to enhance grid stability. This measure has been very effective in mitigating the impact of magnetic storms.

Québec is not alone to suffer the effects of magnetic storms. All power transmission companies located at higher latitudes, such as Scandinavia, Alaska and Northern Russia, are vulnerable. Hydro-Québec still remains more vulnerable due to Québec's position on a large rock shield that prevents the current from flowing through the earth. The electricity then finds a less resistant path along the power lines. What's more, Hydro-Québec's grid is made up of very long transmission lines, making it even more vulnerable to the Sun's temper tantrums.

An international network

Today there is an international network that monitors the Sun's activities through satellites and observatories. The data is then used by regional centres to predict disturbances. One of these centres, located in Ottawa, posts a "weather report" on the Internet and updates it every hour, so we're alerted ahead of time. Forewarned is forearmed!

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