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Industry response to COVID-19 aided by lessons learned from grid security drills

Coordination with the natural gas and telecommunications sectors as well as supply chain challenges continue to be areas upon which the electricity industry needs to improve to better withstand threats to the grid, but a number of practices honed during grid security exercises have aided the power industry's response to the current coronavirus pandemic, officials with the North American Electric Reliability Corp. told reporters March 31.

The organization released a report on lessons learned from its fifth grid security exercise, dubbed GridEx V and held last November. The biennial event led by NERC's Electricity Information Sharing and Analysis Center, or E-ISAC, functions as a regular stress test for the bulk power system as industry and government agencies work together to thwart simulated attacks to the grid and then self-assess their emergency response and recovery plans.

"One of the reasons we do exercises like this is so we are prepared to deal with significant challenges, and we are certainly in one now," NERC Senior Vice President and CEO of the E-ISAC Manny Cancel said. "Some of the lessons that we've learned from GridEx and procedures that we've practiced have prepared us for dealing with COVID-19, specifically the business continuity procedures that many of our entities have in place."

Matthew Duncan, the E-ISAC's senior manager of resilience and policy coordination, pointed to the unity of message, effort and guidance coming out of the electricity industry as "something that we learned very early on, … going as far back as GridEx II."

READ MORE: Sign up for our weekly coronavirus newsletter here, and read our latest coverage on the crisis here.

A key component of that 2013 drill was the public communications front, which stressed the need to speak with one voice and provide guidance from one source of truth. "And that's what's playing out now with COVID-19," Duncan said. "I think the only way we've grown that culture within the electricity industry is through events like GridEx and the opportunity to connect very senior utility executives with their colleagues and all levels of government and other sectors in order to ensure that message and that guidance gets out."

Duncan added that he believed that some of the recommendations and observations in NERC's latest report on GridEx V were already "guiding the electricity industry response to COVID-19."

Gas, telecom interdependencies

For instance, the report highlighted some critical interdependencies with the natural gas and telecommunications sectors, which support the power sector's ability to talk and ability to fuel generation, Duncan said.

He asserted that the power industry was "continuing to develop strong partnerships with those areas that are being used today for the COVID-19 response."

The report recommended incorporating natural gas providers and pipeline operators into restoration planning and drills to aid industry's identification of "alternate supply arrangements in the event of a significant or sustained natural gas supply disruption." Both the U.S. and Canada should also consider how they could assist in such a scenario at the federal, state and provincial government levels, the report said.

It also pointed to communications providers' role in supporting restoration and recovery and teed up discussion on the need for spectrum that enables wireless services to remain available to utilities. A pending proceeding before the Federal Communications Commission proposes to open the 6 GHz band of airwaves used by utilities to unlicensed use. Critics say the proposal could cause harmful interference to utility communications networks, threatening grid reliability.

The report also recommended consideration of establishing shared inventory programs for the grid's most critical components to address supply chain challenges.

Emergency orders

The latest GridEx exercise also took a close look at grid security emergency orders created under the Fixing America's Surface Transportation Act, known as the FAST Act, in 2015 to aid the U.S. response to cyberattacks, physical attacks, electromagnetic pulses and space weather events. The report advises industry to build consensus with the U.S. Department of Energy on the design, issuance and liability protections associated with such orders.

DOE during the drill offered a "template order that the industry could look at and advise the government on the best way to restore service in the scenario," Duncan said. "The industry believes firmly that the government should set priorities in an emergency situation, consult, of course, with the utilities, and then rely on the utility expertise to design the path and technical specifications to make that order work and meet the priorities."

GridEx V, held Nov. 13-14, 2019, was the most comprehensive of such drills held to date, and saw an unprecedented level of participation from entities across North America.

Duncan noted that, for future GridEx scenarios, NERC would be taking a hard look at the current pandemic situation and other global events of late for inspiration. "GridEx is designed to overwhelm even the most prepared utilities and we use realistic scenarios to keep making the industry better," he said.

Jasmin Melvin is a reporter for S&P Global Platts. S&P Global Platts and S&P Global Market Intelligence are owned by S&P Global Inc.