By - Jim Vess

U.S. grid unprepared for a catastrophic power outage, says federal infrastructure panel

Energize Weekly, December 19, 2018

The plans to protect and respond to a U.S. grid power failure would be “outmatched” by a catastrophic outage, according to a study by the National Infrastructure Advisory Council (NIAC).

The council, which advises the president, recommended a series of initiatives, ranging from action by the National Security Council to hardening distribution lines to homes.

“The nation has steadily improved its ability to respond to major disasters and the power outages that often result,” the council report said. “But increasing threats—whether severe natural disasters, cyber-physical attacks, electromagnetic events, or some combination—present new challenges for protecting the national power grid and recovering quickly from a catastrophic power outage.”

Unlike short duration incidents, which the nation has become adept at handling, widespread, long duration outages could have cascading and wide-reaching impacts.

The report defines catastrophic events as long duration—lasting several weeks to months—affecting a broad geographic area and affecting millions of people and causing severe cascading effects forcing critical sectors to operate in a degraded state.

Those sectors—critical to public health, safety and the economy—could include water and wastewater management, communications, transportation, health care and financial services.

“More recently, the devastation in Puerto Rico following Hurricanes Irma and Maria gave us a glimpse at how a loss of power can cascade into other sectors affecting public health and safety and the economy,” the report said.

NIAC set out a series of proposed policy and management initiatives to deal with the risk of a catastrophic outage, which generally try to harden the system, blunt the threat of cascading effects and enhance emergency response. 

The council proposed two “over-arching” approaches: designing a national approach for responding and recovering from a catastrophic outage, and improving understanding of how cascade failures across critical infrastructures affect system restoration.

The council said that a strong public-private collaboration will be needed to address the scale of catastrophic outages. Still, the report focuses are a number of steps to be taken at the national level by the federal government.

NIAC called for the National Security Council to take the lead, working with key agencies, to provide a status report in nine months on implementation of the council’s recommendations or “any significant barriers to implementation.”

The report also calls for the Department of Energy (DOE) to work with Congress on incentives to promote resilience, liability protection and incentives in areas where the government doesn’t have authority.

NIAC’s seven recommendations are:

  • Examine and clarify the federal authorities that may be exercised during a catastrophic power outage and grid-security emergency, and clearly identify the cabinet-level leadership and decision-making processes.
  • Develop a federal design basis and the design standards/criteria that identify what infrastructure sectors, cities, communities and rural areas need to reduce the impacts and recover from a catastrophic power outage.
  • Develop guidance and provide resources for states, territories, cities and localities to design community enclaves—areas that co-locate critical services and resources to sustain surrounding populaces, maintain health and safety, and allow residents to shelter in place.
  • Design and support a portfolio of incentives that provide financial support or remove financial and regulatory barriers to help companies, nongovernmental organizations and state, local, tribal and territorial governments implement the recommendations included in this report.
  • Conduct a series of regional catastrophic power outage exercises that identify the second- and third-order cascading failures of an outage over time, as backup resources and mutual-aid agreements are exhausted, and examine cross-sector supply chain and cyber risks that could delay re-energizing the grid.
  • Ensure that all critical natural gas transmission pipeline infrastructure has the appropriate standards, design and practices to continue service during a catastrophic power outage and maintain rapid availability to support black-start generation.
  • Develop or support a flexible, adaptable emergency communications system that all sectors can interoperably use, that is self-powered and is reasonably protected against all hazards to support critical service restoration and connect infrastructure owners and operators, emergency responders and government leaders.

“The NIAC was challenged to think beyond even our most severe power disruptions, imagining an outage that stretches beyond days and weeks to months or years, and affects large swaths of the country,” the report said. “An event of this severity may also be an act of war, requiring a simultaneous military response that further draws upon limited resources.”

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