DOE parting report warns of widespread threats

By Hannah Northey, Christa Marshall | 01/06/2017 01:17 PM EST

The government needs more power to protect the U.S. electric grid, which is undergoing a technological sea change, from cyber and physical threats, top Obama administration officials warned today.

The government needs more power to protect the U.S. electric grid, which is undergoing a technological sea change, from cyber and physical threats, top Obama administration officials warned today.

Whether a Republican Congress or President-elect Donald Trump will heed the warning is unclear.

Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell, the top Democrat on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, unveiled more than 75 DOE recommendations at an event in Washington, D.C., today — all aimed at safeguarding the nation’s sprawling grid from hackers, physical attacks and climate change and improving the system through research and development, clean energy, and new technology.


The 494-page document is the second installment of the DOE’s Quadrennial Energy Review, a sweeping, high-level assessment of the nation’s energy infrastructure and a cornerstone of President Obama’s climate plan.

The QER lays out in detail the grid’s data-intensive and complex evolution as more households add rooftop solar and other forms of two-way, distributed energy. In the document, DOE calls on Congress to amend the Federal Power Act to ensure the agency can protect critical infrastructure from cyberattacks, solar storms, high-altitude bombs and physical assaults. It also calls for changes to DOE’s loan guarantee program to open the door for more grid-related projects and co-lending options.

Moniz noted that more than 20 recommendations from the first QER installment have now partially or fully become law since 2015. "I think that track record shows the value of this kind of process," he said, noting the months of public meetings and analysis involved.

Given the incoming Trump administration’s close ties to groups that want to limit the government’s footprint and the QER’s intimate links to Obama’s climate legacy, it’s unclear whether the recommendations will survive.

The conservative Heritage Foundation, which includes many members on the Trump transition team, released a statement saying the QER has an "alarming theme" of more federal control.

"That’s not to dismiss every single recommendation QER makes, but the way to grow the energy sector and protect the environment is through less central planning, not more of it," said Nick Loris, an energy analyst at Heritage.

Christi Tezak and Tim Fox, analysts at ClearView Energy Partners LLC, expressed skepticism in an email that the report would attract much, if any, attention in the GOP-led Congress. That could change, however, if Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) tries to move an energy reform package again this year.

"If GOP lawmakers turn their attention to an energy bill this year — a fairly large ‘if’ given the 115th Congress’ current focus on other topics (health care, tax reform, immigration) — both QERs may be cited to illustrate bipartisan support for issues included in a new bill," they said.

Salo Zelermyer, a senior counsel at Bracewell LLP who served in the George W. Bush administration, said DOE’s work won’t likely be trashed given that electricity and the grid are regional issues, not partisan, and that the agency is chock-full of expertise.

"DOE certainly has a number of career officials that are experts and have a lot of experience in the areas they work in," he said.

"It would make sense to look at what their assessment is of the current state of technology that are impacting the power sector … and use that to see how your policy notions mesh up," Zelermyer said of Trump.

Focus on Perry, energy bill

Moniz said today there could be a silver lining in the delay of the energy bill, which collapsed in the final days of the last Congress, because any future iteration of the legislation could include more of DOE’s recommendations for safeguarding the electric grid.

Cantwell added that she plans to introduce legislation on many of the provisions, noting that smart grid deployment in 2008 was a key component of discussions in an investment bill.

In a statement, Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) said he also planned to introduce legislation requiring periodic reviews of the energy sector, as the QER currently is not mandatory.

"A QER like this should include a baseline assessment of our technological, economic and national security capabilities," Coons said.

Both Cantwell and the energy secretary appeared to express optimism about the potential for Trump’s DOE pick, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R), to take up the report’s recommendations.

Noting that she plans to meet with Perry next week, Cantwell said the former governor has a unique perspective in having overseen a state with its own confined grid. Texas is a good microcosm of a fossil fuel state transitioning to more wind, solar and distributed energy, she said.

"As governor, he probably made a lot of decisions that governors don’t normally make about the grid and grid investments," she said. "We’ll see how knowledgeable he is and how game he is … but I think they won’t have to look hard for recommendations about what to do."

Cantwell also stressed the need for urgent action.

"The fact that our grid and grid resiliency is under a whole new regime of thinking as it relates to our national security and defense means that Congress should hurry," she said.

Cantwell also thanked Moniz, who has orchestrated the crafting and converging of the QER installments, an agencywide effort, and said she’s hopeful Trump will tap his expertise.

"I hope you’re not going far," Cantwell told the secretary. "I hope the next president-elect will have you on speed dial."