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FERC signs off on 2nd-stage geomagnetic-disturbance standard to protect grid from solar storms

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FERC signs off on 2nd-stage geomagnetic-disturbance standard to protect grid from solar storms

FERCon Sept. 22 approveda second mandatory reliability standard aimed at protecting the nation's powergrid from the risks posed by geomagnetic disturbances, or GMDs, caused by solarstorms.

Whilethe first standard was aimed at mitigating the effects of potential GMDs, thisone (TPL-007) sets requirements for transmission planners and owners to assessthe grid's vulnerability to a "benchmark GMD event" and takeappropriate steps to protect their equipment from related impacts.

Duringthe agency's Sept. 22 regular agenda meeting, Commissioner Cheryl LaFleurhailed the development as "a milestone reflecting over five years of work."

"Ifully support the final rule, which I believe appropriately balances the needfor action on this important issue with a recognition that our understanding ofthe science around GMD events and their operational impacts on the grid isstill evolving," LaFleur said.

Thatlack of knowledge prompted FERC to give the North American Electric ReliabilityCorp. six months to submit a GMD research work plan addressing issues such asspatial averaging, Earth conductivity models and thermal impact assessments.

Suddenbursts of radiation, such as those produced by a solar storm or flare, canresult in charged particles interacting with the Earth's geomagnetic field in away that induces voltage potential on the ground. Those currents are drawn tothe power system by long metallic structures such as transmission lines, wherethey can disrupt operations and fry equipment.

Some,including NERC, have saidthe grid could recover from a severe solar flare-related electric disturbancewithin days. But others, such as global insurance firm Lloyds of London,maintain that asevere geomagnetic storm could devastate North America's electric grid, leavingmillions of people without power for months, if not years, and causing damagetotaling trillions of dollars.

Nevertheless,the need to protect against the threat is widely recognized, and FERC in May2013 ordered NERC todevelop and implement reliability standards aimed at addressing the risk ofwidespread blackouts due to GMD-related voltage instability and subsequentcollapse. That final rule directed NERC to take a two-stage approach whenresponding to the mandate.

FERCsigned off on thefirst stage in June 2013 by approving a single standard (EOP-010) that includedrequiring reliability coordinators to disseminate space weather information anddevelop plans for managing GMD operating procedures or processes within theirareas.

InJanuary 2015, NERC submitted its second-stage proposal, which sought to definea benchmark GMD event as a "1-in-100 year" occurrence — a solar flarethat is more severe than one that in 1989 knocked out the main electric utilityin Quebec but less intense than the 1859 solar mega-flare that spawned aurorasbright enough to read by.

However,FERC in a May 14, 2015, notice ofproposed rulemaking set out three changes it wanted to have NERCmake to the standard, including one aimed at addressing the agency's concernswith NERC's heavy reliance on spatial averaging — which refers to the averagingof geoelectric field amplitude readings within a given area — in determiningwhat constitutes a benchmark GMD event.

TheSept. 22 final rule, Order 830, largely reflects the NOPR. For instance, FERCfollowed through on its plan to direct that the definition of a benchmark GMDevent be modified so it is not based solely on spatially averaged data. Thestandard also must be revised to ensure that data from geomagnetically inducedcurrent monitors and magnetometers is collected and made publicly available,the commission said.

FERCfurther directed NERC to establish a recurring five-year schedule for mitigatingpotential GMD risks: Entities will have one year to develop correction plansfor identified vulnerabilities, after which they will be given two additionalyears to implement the nonequipment mitigation measures embodied in those plansand another two years to implement measures that involve equipment installation.

NERChas until 18 months after the final rule goes into effect to develop therequired changes.

DuringFERC's meeting, Commissioner Tony Clark cited "an arc to the issues thecommission has dealt with under the umbrella of reliability." After firsttaking up some of the threats that had contributed to recent broad-scaleblackouts, such as tree trimming and other "'nuts-and-bolts' of operatinga reliable system," he said the agency's focus turned toward cybersecurityand then to physical threats to the grid.

"Thisnow is the next evolution in the reliability chain of events," Clark added.

Order830 will become effective 60 days after its publication in the FederalRegister. (RM15-11)