Most of the nation’s electric grid is owned and operated by private industry, but the federal government has a significant role in promoting the grid’s resilience. The Department of Energy (DOE) is the lead agency for federal grid resiliency efforts and is responsible for coordinating with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and other relevant federal agencies.
And with a variety of growing threats to the nation’s electricity grid – known and unknown — national policies have stressed the importance of enhancing the grid’s resilience; the ability to adapt to changing conditions; withstand potentially disruptive events, such as the loss of power lines; and, if disrupted, to rapidly recover.
According to the 2015 Quadrennial Energy Review, natural and human-made threats to the grid are increasing and are expected to continue to grow in frequency and magnitude. Thus, in light of these increasing threats, and with recognition that it’s not possible to prevent all disruptions to the electricity grid, government and industry have focused on enhancing the grid’s resilience. This focus on resilience complements the long-standing focus on reliability.
Restoring just a regional grid network will be a daunting task should there be a catastrophic failure – a failure which potentially could ripple throughout the entirety of America’s power grid.
A new audit report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), Congress’ investigative arm, said, “The Department of Energy, the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) reported implementing 27 grid resiliency efforts since 2013, and identified a variety of results from these efforts. The efforts addressed a range of threats and hazards—including cyber attacks, physical attacks and natural disasters—and supported different types of activities.”
“These efforts also addressed each of the three federal priorities for enhancing the security and resilience of the electricity grid,” GAO said, which are: developing and deploying tools and technologies to enhance awareness of potential disruptions; planning and exercising coordinated responses to disruptive events; and ensuring actionable intelligence on threats is communicated between government and industry in a time-sensitive manner.
GAO reported, “Agency officials reported a variety of results from these efforts, including the development of new technologies—such as a rapidly-deployable large, high-power transformer—and improved coordination and information sharing between the federal government and industry related to potential cyber attacks.”
However, GAO said it found, “Federal grid resiliency efforts were fragmented across DOE, DHS and FERC and overlapped to some degree but were not duplicative.”
GAO said “the 27 efforts were fragmented in that they were implemented by three agencies and addressed the same broad area of national need: enhancing the resilience of the electricity grid. However, DOE, DHS and FERC generally tailored their efforts to contribute to their specific missions. For example, DOE’s 11 efforts related to its strategic goal to support a more secure and resilient US energy infrastructure.”
GAO also found federal efforts do overlap to some degree, “but were not duplicative because none had the same goals or engaged in the same activities. For example, three DOE and DHS efforts addressed resiliency issues related to large, high-power transformers, but the goals were distinct—one effort focused on developing a rapidly deployable transformer to use in the event of multiple large, high-power transformer failures; another focused on developing next-generation transformer components with more resilient features; and a third focused on developing a plan for a national transformer reserve."
Moreover, officials from all three agencies reported taking actions to coordinate federal grid resiliency efforts, such as serving on formal coordinating bodies that bring together federal, state and industry stakeholders to discuss resiliency issues on a regular basis, and contributing to the development of federal plans that address grid resiliency gaps and priorities,” reported.
GAO said it found these actions are “consistent with key practices for enhancing and sustaining federal agency coordination.”
Nonetheless, GAO cautioned that, “The fact that multiple agencies have roles in enhancing the resilience of the electricity grid raises questions about the potential for fragmentation, overlap or duplication in federal efforts. As we have previously reported, federal programs can be inefficient or ineffective if they are fragmented, overlapping or duplicative. We have routinely reviewed federal programs to identify any that may pose these problems; each year since 2011, we have reported on programs that do pose these problems.”
GAO explained, “Fragmentation occurs when more than one federal agency—or more than one organization within an agency—is involved in the same broad area of national need. Overlap occurs when multiple agencies or programs have similar goals, engage in similar activities or strategies to achieve these goals or target similar beneficiaries. Duplication occurs when two or more agencies or programs have the same goals, are engaged in the same activities or provide the same services to the same beneficiaries. We have previously reported that coordination across programs may help address fragmentation, overlap and duplication. We also have reported that, in some cases, it may be appropriate or beneficial for multiple agencies or entities to be involved in the same programmatic or policy area because of the complex nature or magnitude of the federal effort.”
GAO added, “In their questionnaire responses, agency officials reported a variety of results from both ongoing and completed federal grid resiliency efforts. As shown in the selected examples … these results included the development, and in some cases the deployment, of new technologies and analytical tools; the planning and exercising of coordinated responses to disruptive events; and improved coordination and information sharing between the federal government and industry related to potential cyber attacks and other threats or hazards to the electricity grid.”
“In 2013,” GAO said in providing background for public-private resilience efforts, “the President directed federal agencies to work with owners and operators of critical infrastructure and state, local, tribal and territorial governments to take proactive steps to manage risk and strengthen the security and resilience of critical infrastructure from all hazards, including natural disasters, cyber attacks and acts of terrorism. DOE was designated as the lead agency for federal resiliency efforts in the energy sector, which includes the electricity grid. In this role, DOE is responsible for coordinating with DHS, itself responsible for coordinating the overall federal effort to promote the security and resilience of the nation’s critical infrastructure. DOE is also responsible for coordinating with other relevant federal agencies and for collaborating with critical infrastructure owners and operators to prioritize and coordinate federal resiliency efforts. In addition, FERC, which regulates the interstate transmission of electricity, is responsible for reviewing and approving standards developed by the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) to provide for the reliable operation of the bulk power system.”
An emergency spare transformer program is a key part of the preparation for and rapid recovery from a high-impact, low-frequency (HILF) event DHS said in June 2015 when announcing its long awaited report, Considerations for a Power Transformer Emergency Spare Strategy for the Electric Utility Industry.
Prepared for DHS by the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), the report stated, “Various agencies have emphasized, and recent events have demonstrated, the critical nature of power transformers in the face of possible HILF event,” emphasizing that, “This report represents the culmination of six years of collaboration between DHS and EPRI on the Recovery Transformer” that’s “intended to encourage industry discussion.”
A significantly disrupting HILF event can include intentional malicious events (e.g., physical attacks, cyber attacks, coordinated attacks, electromagnetic pulse weapons, and others) and large-scale natural disasters like hurricanes, earthquakes, severe geomagnetic disturbances and non-intentional or accidental events such as nuclear power plant accidents.
A Heritage Foundation report said, "An EMP attack has the potential to decimate America’s electrical and technological infrastructure, effectively sending the US back to the 19th Century. As society grows more reliant on electronic devices, so its vulnerability to an EMP attack."
But an unprecedented "super" coronal mass ejection (CME) from the sun could be just as damaging as an EMP attack. A CME is a massive burst of gas and magnetic field arising from the solar corona and being released into the solar wind.
The US Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse Attack — established by Congress — has produced multiple reports and briefings, including an Executive Report and a Critical National Infrastructures Report.
For over a decade, national security and energy experts have warned America’s power grid has grown increasingly vulnerable to natural and subversive action. With power outages 285 percent more likely to occur today than in 1984, it is critical that the nation ensure its electric power system is reliable, according to a recent study by Johns Hopkins University (JHU).
Published in the journal, Risk Analysis, the study, Who’s Making Sure the Power Stays On?, said the nation’s electric power distribution systems are so haphazardly regulated for reliability that it’s nearly impossible for customers to know their true risk of losing service in a major storm. The study, which was designed to analyze how reliability is measured, led the researchers to propose new regulatory measures to accurately identify weaknesses within the system.
Because of the growing risks to the nation’s electric grid, DHS’s Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) finally completed its Recovery Transformer (RecX) program, and published a final report that contains lessons learned, evaluations and considerations for a spare transformer strategy to support our nation’s electric grid in the event of an EMP attack, CME or some other natural or manmade disaster that severely disrupts the nation’s power grid.
According to DHS S&T, “RecX is a mobile spare extrahigh voltage (EHV) transformer designed to be rapidly deployed in the event of a transformer failure. Development of the prototype RecX was completed in 2011by the manufacturer ABB and the Electric Power Research Institute. The RecX was successfully field tested in CenterPoint Energy’s grid in March 2012. The field test demonstrated RecX’s rapid deployment speed by reducing the time needed to transport, install and energize from the typical 8-12 weeks to less than six days.
The DHS/EPRI Recovery Transformer is an example of one key component to a successful emergency spares program.
“This landmark program has resulted in the successful design, manufacture, factory testing, transportation, installation, energization and field testing of the world’s first set of rapid deployment high-powered 345-kV emergency spare transformers,” the report stated, noting, “This program was conducted at a single US utility. However, recovery from HILF events calls for broader implementation of prudent measures related to emergency spare transformers. The first needed step is an assessment of recommended practices and guidance for all utilities when implementing enhanced emergency spare transformer programs.”
DHS S&T stated that, “In April 2015, the Department of Energy released their Quadrennial Energy Review (QER) which highlights the significant risks associated with EHV transformers. The QER recommend[ed] that ‘DOE should lead—in coordination with DHS and other federal agencies, states and industry—an initiative to mitigate the risks associated with the loss of transformers,’ including ‘development of one or more transformer reserves through a staged process.’ Part of this development process requires assessing ‘technical specifications for reserve transformers’ and how reserve transformers should be stored and deployed.”
DHS S&T’s work through the RecX program specifically addresses these issues. The RecX final report is “an assessment of recommended practices and guidance …when implementing enhanced emergency spare transformer programs,” and discusses functional specifications for recovery transformers, evaluation of existing spare transformer strategies, and considerations for developing new ones.
“By transitioning S&T’s RecX program, DOE can leverage DHS S&T’s findings and recommendations as the initial foundation of a national spare transformer strategy,” DHS said.
The 52-page report concluded and recommended that, “Over the long-term, as new transformers are designed and manufactured to replace the aging population now in service, there is an opportunity to plot a parallel beneficial path forward. If the new ‘conventional transformers that are installed can be designed for more broad applicability across substations in a utility service territory, they can better ameliorate HILF threats along with serving their current purpose (e.g., replacement of transformers that fail in normal service).”
“In other words,” the report stated, “a more broadly applicable transformer design has benefits for both HILF events that disable transformers, as well as ‘blue sky’ events such as equipment failures in normal service. Over time, most installed transformers and their spares would be more broadly applicable by design (i.e., a single design would meet transformer needs at multiple substations of similar rating in a utility service territory).”
“Extending this vision of a future conventional design beyond broader applicability to also include rapid construction, transportation, and installation requires an analysis to determine the relative costs and benefits of such an approach,” the report said.
The report added that, “To begin the path towards realizing this long-term strategy, the industry” recommended the following:
- Industry stakeholders can work together to enhance the probabilistic analysis of spares by incorporating hazard function information on HILF threats, beginning with physical security attacks. These analyses can then be run at host utilities in the independent system operator (ISO)/regional transmission organization (RTO) service areas. This work will further strengthen the business case for incorporating emergency spares, including flexible spares, at utilities by providing a methodology for calculating return on investment. This work will also serve to solidify future expanded involvement of ISOs/RTOs in this process.
- Industry stakeholders can work with various transformer original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) to define standardized agreements with OEMs for first more broadly applicable spares, and eventually, more broadly applicable conventional transformers.
- Industry stakeholders can work with transformer OEMs to refine functional specifications for morebroadly applicable spares, with an eye towards migrating these design features into “conventional transormers” that are installed as existing units are retired; and ultimately standardizing these designs first within utility service territories, and then within regions where possible.
- Effective collaboration of government (DHS, DOE and others), EPRI, the Edison Electric Institute (EEI), utilities, private enterprise (OEMs and others), the NERC and regulators is critical for success over the long term. Due to the critical nature of this work, EPRI recommends a forum for exchange of information on this topic between representatives of these stakeholders.
- Communication of the results of the current report, the forum and subsequent work in various forms to all stakeholders is crucial to success.
Elsewhere, cybersecurity researchers from four universities and one utility company are working together as part of a DOD Center for Securing Electric Energy Delivery Systems (SEEDS) to help safeguard the nation’s power utilities from cyber attacks.
The $12.2 million DoE funded initiative is augmented by $3.1 million in matching funds from the research participants.
The team is led by faculty from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville and includes faculty from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, Carnegie Mellon University Lehigh University, researchers from Florida International University’s (FIU) College of Engineering and Computing and the Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corporation.
“A cyber attack on any part of the nation’s power grid could leave millions of people without power, resulting in serious health and safety threats as well as a major economic blow,” said FIU Electrical and Computer Engineering Professor Osama Mohammed, who is leading the team of FIU researchers. “Working together, we hope to reduce the vulnerability of our power grid and ensure the security of our energy delivery systems for the future.”
According to an announcement, in the first half of Fiscal Year 2015, DHS’s Industrial Control Systems Cyber Emergency Response Team (ICS-CERT) responded to 108 cyber incidents impacting critical infrastructure in the United States.
Meanwhile, the National Security Agency reported it has seen intrusions into industrial control systems used in the electrical grid by entities with the apparent technical capability “to take down control systems that operate US power grids,” according to the Congressional Research Service report, Cybersecurity Issues for the Bulk, by CRS Specialist in Energy Policy, Richard J. Campbell.
Editor’s note: For more information on this issue, see these Homeland Security Today reports. Also see the November 2016 Homeland Security Today cover report, Plot on the Grid, and the report, Paranoid, or Cautious? 2017 Predictions for Grid Security.