At a press conference held on Mount Gaisberg near Salzburg earlier today, Dr. Heinz Kaupa, Technical Director at VERBUND-Austrian Power Grid AG explained: “The insights gained from this research will allow us to increase the fail safeness of our power grid. Experts currently put the economic damage resulting from blackouts at 40 million Euro an hour in Austria alone.”
This year is also very suitable for lightning research: the level of storm activity in 2005 is extremely high. Whereas the average number of lightning strikes in Austria comes to approx. 120,000 p.a., 158,204 strikes had already been registered by 25 August. In spite of its frequency, the phenomenon of lightning has remained practically unresearched worldwide. Many details are still unclear to the experts. Dr. Gerhard Diendorfer, Head of ALDIS (Austrian Lightning Detection & Information System) explains: “We do not know, for example, how dangerous lightning really is. Are lightning strikes during hail storms different to strikes during normal storms? Are there really ‘super’ lightning strikes with more than 300,000 ampere or does air pollution in densely populated areas increase lightning activity? Many questions still remain unanswered.”
Detailed research on lightning activity is, however, essential, above all in the areas of power supply, safety and air traffic. Lightning strikes at chemical depots or biogas plants could, for example, have devastating effects. The possibility of a lightning being a cause of plane crashes is also being examined more closely.
The lack of knowledge in the area of lightning research recently prompted the EU to invest a total of EUR 400,000 in an international research project. Eighteen European countries are now participating in this project along with the USA, Canada, Japan, Russia and the Ukraine. Most of the research work, which commenced in July, will be carried out at one of the most modern lightning research stations in Europe. This is located at the tower on Mount Gaisberg near Salzburg and is financed primarily by VERBUND-Austrian Power Grid (APG). Every year, the tower is struck by lightning approx. 50 times. Most of the strikes, which are triggered by the 100-meter high mast itself, can - and this is unique in Europe - be measured directly.
APG, which operates a high-voltage grid that extends over a distance of ca. 3,400 kilometres (220 and 380 kV levels), is Austria's largest electricity transporter by far. Today, 95 % of all lightning strikes that hit electricity lines do not lead to an interruption of the power supply. Dr. Heinz Kaupa does, however, emphasise: “Damage and power failures caused by powerful lightning strikes cannot be totally prevented. Today, we are, however, greatly assisted by the lightning detection system ALDIS which provides us with online information on the exact strength and location of the strike with a mean location error of just 100 meters. This allows us to quickly estimate the damage caused and paves the way for speedy repair work.” APG hopes that the lightning research will, in future, also produce findings that will enhance the economic efficiency of lightning protection installations and devices.
DDr. Karl Gollegger, Chairman of the Research and Environment Management Board at VERBUND: “The primary aim and purpose of research at VERBUND is to ensure that electricity is generated, transmitted, distributed and used in a safe, economic, environmentally friendly and socially compatible manner . For this reason, VERBUND has actively supported lightning research and lightning detection in Austria since the beginning of the 1990s. One well-known example (from the ORF Weather News) is the above-mentioned lightning detection and information system ALDIS.