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US grid operator told to plan for more risks, work with other sectors

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A panel discusses the dependencies of the electric sector during PJM's general session on May 15 at National Harbor, Md. (L to R): PJM Interconnection's Tom O'Brien, New York Power Authority's Saul Rojas, the American Public Power Association's Michael Hyland, Southern California Edison's Don Daigler, Toffler Associates' Caitlin Durkovich, and the Edison Electric Institute's Scott Aaronson.
Source: PJM Interconnection

During a May 15 conference convened by the PJM Interconnection, federal officials and industry experts said power companies can better counter threats to the grid by broadening the risks they plan for and coordinating more with other sectors they rely on to operate.

The regional power grid operator held the conference to hear from power companies and state and federal officials on the steps needed to ensure that the grid is resilient. The exact meaning of the term is still being debated, but PJM has said it involves "preparing for, operating through, and recovering from events that impose operational risk." Another grid operator, ISO New England, has defined it as "the ability to withstand and reduce the magnitude and/or duration of disruptive events."

PJM President and CEO Andy Ott, in opening remarks, said resilience means looking beyond traditional threats to the grid, such as equipment failures and storms. "Now, we have to be prepared for cyber attacks and potential physical attacks," Ott said. "What resilience means to me is cost-effective ways to position the grid to withstand this type of event."

Two common themes from speakers at the conference were that the industry needs to broaden the scenarios planned for during emergency drills and to further understand the interdependencies it has with other sectors. For example, Ott said PJM has discussed regionally how to keep the grid running if communications systems used to manage the grid are disrupted.

The state-owned New York Power Authority, or NYPA, has been beefing up its planning and emergency drills using the lessons it learned from helping to restore the power grid in Puerto Rico after the island was hit by Hurricane Maria in September 2017.

Detailing those lessons, Saul Rojas, vice president of technical compliance at NYPA, advised the audience to "invite Mr. Murphy" into your planning processes, referring to Murphy's Law. Companies should always be planning for something to go wrong and the various ways they can go wrong, he indicated.

On the sidelines of the event, Rojas told S&P Global that in light of the push for greater grid resilience, NYPA is planning and conducting emergency drills that assume high-impact, unpredictable events happen more frequently than they did in the past. It also is coordinating with outside sectors "like our supply chain to ensure we prepare for potential risks."

Michael Hyland, the American Public Power Authority's Senior Vice President of Engineering Services, reported during the panel discussion that it holds drills each year to plan for disruptions, and recent drills have simulated earthquakes and hurricanes. The trade group, made up of municipal and public power companies, is also incorporating game theory into drills to make participants think more on their feet instead of only having prepared drills, Hyland said.

Resilience involves understanding how the industry relies on other sectors

Pat Hoffman, principal deputy assistant secretary for the DOE's Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability, acknowledged that drills are important. But she also urged power companies to help the DOE understand the power industry's interdependencies with other industries. "At the end of the day, everyone here has to help us figure out how secure [the nation is] and how secure is the industry," Hoffman said.

A lesson learned from restoration efforts in Puerto Rico is that restoration of electricity is a lot harder without telecommunications, Hoffman added.

Caitlin Durkovich, an advisor at Toffler Associates and a former Obama administration official at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, said resilience is really about understanding what the unknown risks are. A new type of risk that disaster planners have to think about is the risk of misinformation spreading, Durkovich said.

Scott Aaronson, vice president of security and preparedness at the Edison Electric Institute, said the power sector coordinates well with the government but cross-sector coordination is still a challenge. A lot of things, from water, transportation infrastructure and supply chain, can impact the sector, he said.

Aaronson felt a broader cultural change needs to occur in the industry where security and resilience are a key part of the culture, as is the case with ensuring worker safety.