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FERC, NERC: Utilities can recover from outages absent electronic plant controls

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FERC, NERC: Utilities can recover from outages absent electronic plant controls

A study conducted by staff with the U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the North American Electric Reliability Corp. and the nation's eight regional reliability entities indicated that the bulk power system is capable of coming back online following a widespread outage, even without certain electronic systems for monitoring and controlling the grid.

To conduct the study, the team looked at a representative sample of eight entities that have significant bulk-power system responsibilities, are located in different regions, have experience in restoration from extreme events and regularly use certain tools such as supervisory control and data acquisition, or SCADA, systems and energy management systems, or EMS, in their bulk power system operations.

"While some participants have prepared more than others for the possibility that [those tools] may be partially or totally unavailable at times during a system restoration event, the joint study team found that all participants would remain capable of executing their restoration plan without [such] availability," the report called "Planning Restoration Absent SCADA or EMS" explained.

FERC in September 2014 announced that its staff would team up with NERC and regional entities to review industry plans for ensuring the reliability of the bulk power system following a weather-related system disturbance, cyberattack or physical attack, or similar incident. That announcement came in the wake of several events that had significant impact on the power grid, including the widespread Southwestern blackout of September 2011, the derecho storm that hit the Midwest and mid-Atlantic in June 2012, a hurricane named Sandy that ravaged the East Coast the following October and the polar vortex that impacted much of the Eastern Interconnection in the winter of 2013/2014.

The resulting report, which was released in January 2016, concluded that utilities generally are well-prepared to jump-start the bulk power system following a widespread outage or blackout. The team nevertheless offered plenty of recommendations, one of which was to study how the potential loss of SCADA computers and other data sources could impact restoration and recovery efforts.

In light of that recommendation, staff with FERC, NERC and the regional entities undertook a new initiative aimed at assessing which steps of system restoration plans may be difficult to take in the absence of those tools and determining how such impacts can be mitigated.

The study showed that completing all steps of a restoration without SCADA or EMS is possible. Although all of the participants have made significant investments in their SCADA or EMS infrastructures to minimize the chance that those tools' functionality will be lost, the team found, they still have prepared for the possibility that they will have to bring their systems back online without it.

For instance, local field operators are prepared to be dispatched to perform necessary monitoring and control actions if SCADA remote control capabilities are lost, and blackstart generators and the synchronization of islands and interconnections are not dependent on the availability of those tools, the report explained. Some participants also use dry-erase or similar low-tech transmission system map boards for tracking restoration progress, the team said.

Still, participants acknowledged that completing all the restoration steps, particularly those that require communications and coordination among multiple personnel, would be "more time consuming and more involved under such conditions," according to the report.

Based on the study, the team made certain recommendations that it considers "appropriate for all entities responsible for system restoration," such as establishing backup communications measures and planning for personnel support during emergencies. Ensuring that backup power supplies are available for an extended period of time also is important, given that system restoration absent SCADA/EMS functionality will take much longer than it would with the help of those tools, the report stressed. Finally, among other things, the team recommended that scenarios featuring loss of SCADA/EMS functionality be incorporated into system restoration training.