Bad weather in space can have expensive repercussions for electricity suppliers on Earth, according to the preliminary findings of CUA Associate Professor Kevin Forbes, who is studying the relationship of space storms to power prices.
His research is funded by a grant recently awarded by the National Science Foundation, entitled “Space Weather and the Electricity Market.” The $30,000 grant will allow Forbes to collect and analyze hourly data from two sources: space storm records from the World Data Center for Geomagnetism in Kyoto, Japan, and wholesale electricity prices from the Pennsylvania-Jersey-Maryland (PJM) Interconnection, the largest power pool in North America. PJM controls the bulk electric power system for major portions of five mid-Atlantic states and Washington, D.C.
When Forbes looked at the space storm records and matched them to the PJM electricity price data for the same hour, he concluded that solar storms cause the wholesale price of electricity to skyrocket, by disrupting the system that transmits the power from where it is generated to where it is distributed to customers. While most retail customers are not affected by the higher wholesale price in the short run, there is reason to believe that the added costs are passed on to consumers over time, he said.
“In the past year or so, electricity markets have been buffeted by higher prices of natural gas,” said Forbes, chair of the university’s Department of Business and Economics, noting that about 15 percent of the nation's electric power supply is generated by burning natural gas. “What this analysis seems to suggest, however, is that there’s something else going on, and part of that something else has to do with events in space.”
The World Data Center is supplying Forbes with the “Dst” (disturbance storm-time) values for each hour from June 1, 2000, to Aug. 31, 2000. The Dst values measure the magnetic storm levels; a negative figure indicates a storm is in progress.
After matching those figures with the hourly data from PJM, Forbes said his preliminary findings show that as the Dst value decreases and the storm’s intensity increases, the power grid’s performance degrades and the price of electricity rises.
For one storm Forbes looked at in mid-June, the Dst index dropped by 500 percent in two hours, causing the cost of electricity to jump from $15 per megawatt to about $68 per megawatt.
Forbes said he has evidence that the state of California was affected by at least one storm in 1999. He plans to study California’s power woes in the future.
Space weather analysis hasn’t been given much attention, Forbes said, in part because of a lack of information. “For many years, storms have been regularly infrequent. Now, the frequency appears to be picking up as we go through sunspot cycles.”
Forbes said analysis of space weather data gives scientists a better understanding of what the linkages are. “If we show that these things really do matter, at some point there’s going to be more of an effort to forecast the storms. There will be better forecasting, and the utilities will be better prepared.”
Forbes offered several caveats of the analysis: he is analyzing just three months of data; the analysis of the PJM data could be different from power pools in other parts of the country, and he hasn’t considered the impact of fuel prices, which also affect electricity prices.
Even with those considerations, however, it is clear a relationship exists between solar storms and increased electricity prices, Forbes said.
So far, no one has “documented and quantified” the economic costs of space weather events, Forbes said. When his grant ends in September 2002, he will write a research report and submit it to the NSF. “They can then disseminate the findings so that policy makers become more sensitive to this issue,” he said.
For more information, contact Chris Harrison or Victor Nakas at 202-319-5600.
Revised: March 27, 2001
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