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Can We Survive a Catastrophic Power Outage?

A systems approach to plan, design and respond to never-before events is needed.

Remember those old stock broker commercials “When E.F. Hutton Speaks?” The TV commercials showed everyone craning their necks as they tried to listen in on conversations from E.F Hutton Brokers. When Terry Boston was CEO of PJM, he would invite me up to track PJM’s leading-edge initiatives, and they were always worth listening to. Terry recently sent me a link to a report on surviving a catastrophic power outage released in December 2018. He serves on the President’s National Infrastructure Advisory Council (NIAC), which was asked to examine the nation’s ability to respond to and recover from a catastrophic power outage of a magnitude beyond modern experience. The event could potentially be an act of war that would require a military response. It could be a sophisticated cyber-physical attack timed with a major natural disaster. Or possibly repeated events in a short period of time with significant physical damage.

Regardless of the cause, it would exhaust or exceed mutual aid capabilities. There would be little or no notice. The event would last several weeks to months due to physical infrastructure damage and it would affect a broad geographic area, covering multiple states or regions and affecting tens of millions of people. And it would cause other infrastructure sectors including drinking water, wastewater systems, communications, transportation, healthcare, and financial services to operate in a degraded state.

Terry collaborated with incredibly sharp working group peers including Constance Lau, president and CEO of Hawaiian Electric Industries, Inc.; William Fehrman, president and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway Energy; Ben Fowke, chairman, president, and CEO, Xcel Energy and Mike Wallace, former vice chairman and COO of Constellation Energy, to put together this document.

The complexity of the challenge posed by a catastrophic power outage requires working across agencies, sectors, and levels of government to involve all stakeholders. For each recommendation, a cabinet-level secretary is identified to lead the effort and be responsible for implementation.

Current planning frameworks focus on sector-by-sector preparedness and response, but in a catastrophic power outage, U.S. infrastructure and services will fail as a system. We need to take a systems approach — from the federal level down to the local level — to plan, design, and respond to these never-before experienced events.

The NAIC recommends that we design a national approach for responding to catastrophic power outages whereby we:

  • Examine and clarify the federal authorities that may be exercised during a catastrophic power outage and identify the cabinet-level leadership and decision-making processes.
  • Develop a federal design basis and the design standards that identify what infrastructure sectors, cities, communities, and rural areas need to reduce the impacts and recover.
  • Develop guidance and provide resources for states and localities to design community enclaves that co-locate services and resources to sustain surrounding populaces, maintain health and safety, and allow residents to shelter in place.
  • Design and support incentives that provide financial support or remove financial and regulatory barriers to help companies, nongovernmental organizations, and state and local governments implement the recommendations.

The NAIC similarly recommends that we mitigate cross-section interdependencies and cascading failures whereby we:

  • 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 such a power outage and maintain rapid availability to support black start generation.
  • Develop or support a flexible, adaptable emergency communications system that all sectors can use interoperably, that is self-powered and is reasonably protected against all hazards to support critical service restoration and connect infra-structure owners and operators, emergency responders, and government leaders.

A decade ago I was talking with Mario Pereira (then at EPRI) who shared that “We can’t expect industry to carry the burden alone to prepare for low-probability, highly catastrophic events.” Mario was right. So I wholeheartedly support the NAIC recommendations for the federal government to:

  • Establish and execute clearly understood authorities
  • Maintain a high-priority mission for these power outages
  • Provide steadfast guidance and incentives for action
  • Deliver resources, including dollars, expertise, and decision-making capabilities

We’ve seen first-hand the magnitude and duration of devastation in Puerto Rico after Category 5 Hurricane Maria hit the island. Three months after the hurricane hit, 45% of the population still had no power. Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló estimated it would cost about US$30 billion to completely overhaul the grid.

We need to prepare for a long-duration event that could be of much greater magnitude. How we prepare for and respond to major catastrophic outage events will have profound impact on our quality of life.

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