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House probes federal response to US electric grid failure

Congressionallawmakers during an April 14 hearing worried the federal government is not fullyprepared to help the electric grid recover from a major outage stemming from naturalevents, physical attacks or cyberassaults similar to the one that caused a temporarilyblackout in Ukraine in December 2015.

A U.S.House subcommittee pressed energy and national security officials, during a two-hourhearing, on their ability to respond to a large-scale grid outage. Despite a myriadof national initiatives and public-private organizations aimed at preparing andresponding to a large-scale grid failure, lawmakers said that more needs to be doneto be prepared in the event of a prolonged outage. House members were particularlyconcerned about cyberattacks, which they fear could affect a much larger portionof the power sector than a physical breach.

"Thefederal government does not have this basic planning scenario for a cyber threatof the power system, and there is a huge disparity in what different groups thinkis a potential scenario for which states and local governments should prepare,"said Rep. Lou Barletta, R-Pa., chairman of the House Transportation and InfrastructureCommittee's Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings, and EmergencyManagement.

Rep.Mark Meadows, R-N.C., said public utilities and local entities take most of theaction in the event of a blackout or other system issue, but "it's crickets"when it comes to federal agencies' response.

But utilityand government witnesses said the electric power sector is robust and pointed tomechanisms already in place to deal with a major grid failure.

GerryCauley, president and CEO of the North American Electric Reliability Corp., highlightedpartnerships between industry and the government, including the U.S. Departmentof Homeland Security's Electricity Subsector Coordinating Council and NERC's ElectricityInformation Sharing and Analysis Center, or E-ISAC. In addition, the U.S. is theonly country with mandatory reliability standards for cyber and physical security,making it much less likely that the U.S. will experience a cyberattack-related gridoutage similar to what happened in Ukraine, where cyber attackers the computer systems of threedistribution companies. The attack knocked out power for up to 225,000 customersfor as long as six hours.

"Oursecurity controls in North America are very different" than those in Ukraine,Cauley said. "I believe that we are well prepared."

In March,NERC released the results of its latest GridExsimulated cyber and physical attacks. The organization said work was needed on E-ISAC'sinformation-sharing portal and coordination with local law enforcement and firstresponders. But participating utilities were able to quickly restore service aspart of the simulated event, which Cauley said was "10 times" as bad asany likely realistic scenario. He added that the top cause of outageswas weather, as opposed to intentional attacks, and that one to three days is themost common duration of an extended outage rather than weeks.

Spare transformer reserve studyunderway

Anotherpillar in the federal government's response to a large-scale outage is the creationof a spare transformer reserve. The private sector has a similar initiative underwayknown as Grid Assurance,but a transportation billsigned into law in December 2015 requires the U.S. Department of Energy to collaboratewith industry on the effort, including conducting a study on a spare transformerreserve program.

The studyis "in progress" and should be completed by the December deadline, DOEAssistant Secretary for the Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy ReliabilityPatricia Hoffman, said. The study will assess the country's spare transformer capacity,domestic manufacturing capabilities, transportation constraints, the voltage ofdifferent transformer classes, location of stockpiles and the policy implicationsof setting up a spare transformer program.

In themeantime, the utility industry already maintains "hundreds" of spare transformers,in addition to launching the Grid Assurance project, said PPL Corp. President and CEO William Spence, who testifiedat the April 14 hearing.