Scientist Uses Power Lines as Huge Antenna

You may remember the ads that advertised Electronic Miracle Turns Your House Wiring Into a Jumbo TV Antenna!. Heliophysicist Antti Pulkkinen of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. and his team have developed a way to use the high-voltage transmission lines crossing the country as a humongous antenna.

They aren't using it to pick up TV signals, though, but rather to measure, in real-time, a phenomenon known as geomagnetically induced currents (GICs). GICs are generated during severe space weather events.

I've covered space weather before--the currents induced by a severe storm could not only wipe out satellite and HF communications but also destroy the huge, custom manufactured transformers used for power distribution. These transformers can take months to replace. Knowing more about GICs is important. Pulkkinen and his team are installing scientific substations beneath HV transmission lines operated by Virginia's Dominion Virginia Power to measure GICs.

"This is the first time we have used the U.S. high-voltage power transmission system as a science tool to map large-scale GICs," said Pulkkinen. "This application will allow unprecedented, game-changing data gathering over a wide range of spatial and temporal scales."

The project will also allow heliophysicists to "reverse engineer" the data to learn more about the conditions in the Earth's upper atmosphere that leads to generation of GICs during sever space weather events.

"Not only will this benefit the utility industry, it also benefits science," Pulkkinen said.

Pulkkinen added that the project's objective is making the equipment as inexpensive and versatile as possible. While only three substations have been installed so far during the pilot project, he wants to ultimately deploy hundreds across the nation.

"We envision that after a one-to-two-year pilot phase, long-term funding from a multi-agency collaboration and public-private partnerships will make this happen. Impacts to the nation's power grid are currently the highest space-weather concern in the U.S.," said Pulkkinen.

The potential damage from GICs, whether from space weather or a nuclear EMP, could exceed a trillion dollars. John Peterson of Fox News outlines the danger and the cost of preventing the damage in the article Experts warn civilian world not ready for massive EMP caused blackout.

He writes: "In the first few minutes of an EMP, nearly half a million people would die. That's the worst-case scenario that author William R. Forstchen estimated in 2011 would be the result of an EMP on the electric grid--whether by an act of God, or a nuclear missile detonating in Earth's upper atmosphere."

Broadcasters would not be immune to a large EMP--they would likely lose power, wired connectivity would be lost, and sensitive electronics connected to large antennas or metal structures would likely be damaged. When preparing disaster recovery plans, it may be worth adding space weather and EMP.

Doug Lung

Doug Lung is one of America's foremost authorities on broadcast RF technology. He has been with NBC since 1985 and is currently vice president of broadcast technology for NBC/Telemundo stations.