Congress lumbers toward responses to grid’s cyber and physical threats

By Peter Behr | 07/23/2015 09:19 AM EDT

Legislation to protect the nation’s power grid from a wide range of threats — from extreme weather and solar storms to a cyberattack and nuclear explosions — is gaining more traction in Congress.

Legislation to protect the nation’s power grid from a wide range of threats — from extreme weather and solar storms to a cyberattack and nuclear explosions — is gaining more traction in Congress.

A House Energy and Commerce subcommittee yesterday unanimously backed the need for a federal plan to build a strategic reserve of the large transformers that move power across the interstate transmission network. The bill would give the Energy secretary a year from the legislation’s enactment to send Congress the plan for acquiring and stockpiling the spare units.

The bill also would establish a voluntary program called Cyber Sense at the Energy Department to test grid hardware and technologies for cybersecurity vulnerabilities.


In the Senate, the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee said he will push for legislation that would fund devices that can shield vital grid transformers from dangerous rogue electrical currents triggered either by a solar geomagnetic disturbance (GMD) or by detonation of an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) weapon.

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), the committee chairman, could scarcely contain his frustration at a hearing yesterday about what he sees as a "ridiculous" delay in addressing the threats to the grid from a massive, once-in-a-century solar storm or from electromagnetic pulses triggered by detonating a nuclear weapon above the United States. A congressional commission first highlighted the threats in 2004.

An EMP explosion could put large parts of the grid out of service for months, or a year, or more, "and some would say that is optimistic," he said. "We have done nothing." He said he was no friend of federal mandates, but in this case, if the government has to pay for first levels of protection, then that should happen.

Johnson asked experts at the hearing yesterday about the value of electronic blocking devices that could shield high-voltage grid transformers from currents from solar storms or EMP explosions.

"There have been several successful trials of such blocking devices in the United States, Canada and elsewhere, and they are now offered for sale to the industry," said Richard Garwin, IBM fellow emeritus at the IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center in New York.

"Their cost is on the order of $100,000 per transformer," Garwin said, "but they protect transformers that at a high-power terminal may cost $10 million and can preserve the economy of a million Americans that would otherwise suffer from temporary disruption if the power line needed to be shut off, and severe economic loss and even loss of employment and life."

Joseph McClelland, director of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s Office of Energy Infrastructure Security, told the committee, "A few U.S. entities have taken some initial steps to address EMP on their systems, but much work remains."

Complex relations

FERC has initiated development by the North American Electric Reliability Corp. (NERC) of a two-part standard to protect the grid against solar flares. It approved the first phase, which requires transmission grid operators to set up operating procedures to isolate critical facilities from a GMD event. The second phase, still awaiting conclusion, would require more extensive and automatic protections that could include blocking devices.

"The NERC standards are a baseline approach," McClelland said. "They are a foundational approach. And they certainly don’t represent best practices that the industry could bring to bear."

Responding to Johnson, McClelland noted that FERC has identified the most critical substation hubs in the high-voltage grid, whose loss would put the grid in greatest jeopardy, and has shared that with the grid owners and operators.

FERC and NERC have reached different conclusions about the most likely consequences of a massive solar weather event on the grid, with FERC citing expert warnings that as many as 300 high-voltage transformers could become overheated and ruined by the currents. NERC concluded that the disruption would most likely take down the grid before there was time for widespread loss of critical transformers.

Garwin of the IBM center said NERC and FERC "have a complex relationship themselves" and with the grid’s operating companies. "Thus far, the national interest in a more resilient bulk power system has not resulted in incentives or initiatives" that would achieve the grid protection he is urging, he said.

There are technical issues, "but economic and organizational changes must be sought to result in the adoption of best worldwide practices in the North American bulk power system, and to advance beyond those best practices, where it is justified in the national interest."

Although solar storms and EMP shock waves from nuclear detonations have similarities, they have received different reactions from the utility industry and some members of Congress, with the industry arguing that unlike the solar threat, a missile-launched EMP attack is too much for the industry to defend against.

"Some propose that industry install their particular ‘protective device’ or fully ‘gold-plate’ the entire grid so that it could, theoretically, at least partially survive a high-altitude nuclear blast," said committee witness Bridgette Bourge, senior principal for legislative affairs at the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.

"However, there is no consensus on precisely what measures should be taken, the unintended effects they might have on the system, how much such an effort would cost, or how successful such efforts would be in limiting impacts to the bulk power system. "

Another witness from the Government Accountability Office reported on a preliminary examination of the Department of Homeland Security’s efforts to address the GMD and EMP issues, saying the department’s response was lacking in certain areas.

"GAO’s preliminary work suggests that DHS, in conjunction with the Department of Energy (DOE), has not fully addressed a key critical infrastructure protection responsibility — identification of clear internal agency roles and responsibilities related to addressing electromagnetic threats," said Christopher Currie, GAO’s director for homeland security and justice.

‘Get moving’

While the House Energy and Power subcommittee’s unanimous vote shows bipartisan support for a strategic transformer reserve, major questions remain on how the reserve would be organized and paid for, and how such a government program would mesh with current industry programs to share spare transformers in emergencies.

These issues have come to the fore in a proceeding at FERC, docket EL15-76, initiated by a group of power companies that have proposed to create an independent organization called Grid Assurance that would purchase large transformers and other essential grid equipment as emergency stockpiles. Affiliates of American Electric Power Co., Berkshire Hathaway Energy, Duke Energy Corp., Edison International, Eversource Energy, Exelon Corp., Great Plains Energy Inc. and Southern Co. are behind the project.

Utilities joining the program would pay a subscriber fee to cover storing and maintaining the stockpile, then pay a cost-based price for any equipment they needed, the sponsors said.

International Transmission Co., an independent power line developer, advised FERC that while it supports the project as a general matter, it sees two issues. Grid Assurance would create a materials company with a utility rate structure, "an unprecedented cost recovery model over which commission jurisdiction is unclear," it said. And it asked whether it would be better to expand existing industry programs, particularly the Spare Transformer Equipment Program (STEP) operated by the Edison Electric Institute.

Grid Assurance responded that its program would complement STEP. "Grid Assurance’s sparing service will not displace or impact STEP," it said in a FERC filing.

Yesterday, Johnson insisted it was time to get started, if not with transformers, then with the far cheaper blocking devices. He said Congress should authorize $100 million to begin purchasing the devices. Would that be an issue for the industry? he asked Bourge.

"There would be some concern about flexibility, of what kind of technology would be applied, and where it would be applied," she said. "I’m not sure if we would be comfortable in it being a mandate."

"I want to get moving," Johnson insisted.