See the beautiful ivy growing up that wall? On closer inspection, those leaves turn out to be–solar panels! And we may really need them soon, if sunspot activity turns off our electrical grids. This new product is called Solar Ivy and the first location in the United States to apply it is the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, because university buildings–both here and in Europe–traditionally have ivy-covered walls.

Solar Ivy is a composition of small photovoltaic panels shaped so that they can be installed in an attractive arrangement, much like ivy growing over a building’s surface. The panels generate electricity that is used by the building, offsetting the amount of power the building buys from the utility company. The panels can be shaped and colored to suit the installation.

The UK is keeping an eye on the current space weather changes, but it could happen in the US too: Sunspots can generate sudden electrical surges that affect electrical grids and cause blackouts. Bad space weather can cause fluctuations in the Earth’s magnetic field (geomagnetic storms) that lead to Geomagnetically Induced Currents (GICs) in power grids. These currents have previously been blamed for blackouts in Canada and Sweden and are suspected of damaging power transformers in countries at lower latitudes. Large GICs have even been recorded in Scotland. Researcher Jim Wild says, "The science is still in a relatively early stage and we’re only just starting to understand the interplay between complex natural and manmade systems."

Researcher Alan Thomson agrees and says, "(Our) major objective is to shed light on the impact of both everyday and extreme space weather on our technologies and therefore to be better aware of the risk."

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