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Space storms could play havoc with Minnesota power grid

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The Upper Midwest electrical grid is more susceptible than other parts of the country to solar storms that can trigger blackouts or damage equipment on the electrical grid.

That's the conclusion of newly released "geoelectric hazard" research that shows how severe these storms can be in Minnesota and Wisconsin — about 100 times worse than in other parts of the country.

Solar winds can create electric fields beneath the crust of the Earth, which can then disrupt power grids that are connected to the Earth, lead researcher Jeffrey Love, a geophysicist with the U.S. Geological Survey said Wednesday on MPR News Morning Edition.

"A space storm is an effect that's caused by the sun and its constant emission of solar wind," Love said. "Occasionally that solar wind is very active and can interact with the Earth's magnetic field, causing it to be disturbed." 

The storms can cause blackouts or damage equipment on electrical grid. 

Minnesota and Wisconsin are more susceptible to geoelectric hazards because of their relatively high latitudes, Love said, which is also why the aurora borealis can be visible in those regions.

But the makeup of the rocks in the ground in Minnesota and Wisconsin can also make it more likely that electrical fields will form in these states. 

"This part of the United States has a very old geology and a complicated geology, and that means it has a conductivity structure that has spatial complexity," Love said. "There are very electrically insulating spots in the solid Earth and there are electrically conducting spots in the solid Earth underneath these states." 

While solar winds are always being sent from the sun to the Earth, bursts of the level required to cause disruption are more rare, although not unheard of. 

The most recent large-scale event occurred in 1989 in when a storm caused geoelectric fields in Quebec that collapsed the Canadian province's power grid. 

Love said electric power grid companies and others may be able to use the data published by his team to help prepare for large storms that may occur, and to make plans to minimize their impact in the future.