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Space Weather

Power Failure in Canada During 1989

On March 13th, 1989 a huge solar induced magnetic storm played havoc with the ionosphere, and the earth's magnetic field. This storm, the second largest storm experienced in the past 50 years, totally shut down Hydro-Quebec, the power grid servicing Canada's Quebec province:

Montreal, March 15, 1989

Hydro-Quebec confirms that the March 13 blackout was caused by the strongest magnetic storm ever recorded since the 735-kV power system was commissioned. At 2:45 a.m., the storm, which resulted from a solar flare, tripped five lines from James Bay and caused a generation loss of 9,450 MW. With a load of some 21,350 MW at that moment, the system was unable to withstand this sudden loss and collapsed within seconds, thereby causing further loss of generation from Churchill Falls and Mania-Outardes.

Magnetic storms affect power system behaviour, mainly in that they cause transformer saturation, which reduces or distorts voltage. Hydro-Quebec's long lines and static compensators make the system particularly sensitive to such natural phenomena. For example, analysing the events that caused the March 13 blackout, the utility's experts noted a coincidence between the exceptional intensity of the magnetic storm and the tripping of several static compensators, especially at Chibougamau and La Verendrye substations. Immediately after this loss, records show voltage oscillations and power-swings increasing until the the lines from James Bay were lost. Within seconds, the whole grid was out of service.

The system-wide blackout resulted in a loss of some 19,400 MW in Quebec and 1,325 MW of exports. An additional load of 625 MW was also being exported from generating stations isolated from the Hydro-Quebec system.

Service restoration took more than nine hours. This can be explained by the fact that some of the essential equipment, particularly on the James Bay transmission network, was made unavailable by the blackout. Generation from isolated stations normally intended for export was repatriated to meet Quebec's needs and the utility purchased electricity from Ontario, New Brunswick and the Alcan and McLaren Systems.

By noon, the entire generating and transmission system was back in service, although 17 percent of Quebec customers were still without electricity. In fact, several distribution-system failures occurred because of the high demand typical of Monday mornings, combined with the jump in heating load after several hours without power.

Material prepared by Richard Thompson

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