Reid, top Dems ask grid overseers to probe protections

Source: Hannah Northey, E&E reporter • Posted: Monday, February 10, 2014

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and other top Democratic senators today asked federal grid overseers to determine whether “minimum standards” are needed to better protect the U.S. grid following a high-profile and mysterious attack on the grid in California that’s grabbing national headlines.

Reid joined Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein of California, chairwoman of the Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee, and Al Franken of Minnesota in asking Cheryl LaFleur, acting chairwoman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and Gerry Cauley, CEO of the North American Electric Reliability Corp. (NERC), for a review.The senators pointed to an April 16 physical attack on the grid in California that they said came “uncomfortably close to causing a shutdown of a critical substation which could have resulted in a massive blackout in California and elsewhere in the West.”

Shots were fired at Pacific Gas and Electric Co.’s Metcalf substation outside San Jose, Calif. by one or more unidentified assailants, damaging critical equipment that cools power transformers, forcing them to shut down (EnergyWire, Feb. 6).

The grid is currently protected by voluntary recommendations from NERC, combined with mandatory reliability standards developed through a consensus-based process.

The Democratic senators said they met with industry representatives last week and came away concerned that the voluntary measures — information sharing and installing fences and cameras — may not be enough to thwart physical attacks on the grid.

“While it appears that many utilities have a firm grasp on the problem, we simply do not know if there are substantial numbers of utilities or others that have not taken adequate measures to protect against and minimize the harm from a physical attack,” the senators wrote. “A chain is only as strong as its weakest link.”

The senators’ letter, however, pointed to the sometimes complex and lengthy process the commission currently relies on under the 2005 Energy Policy Act to approve new reliability and cybersecurity standards (E&E Daily, Dec. 6, 2013).

Calls have been growing for Congress to give FERC more authority to tackle emergencies in real time. Some have said NERC’s process is too slow and FERC, for example, cannot command utilities to update their computer operating systems unless such flaws directly affect grid reliability.

Rep. Henry Waxman of California, the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s top Democrat, last year warned that Congress has failed to give FERC the critical authority despite the April incident.

He also warned that the attack could have been much worse. “Under slightly different conditions, there could have been serious power outages or worse,” he said.

LaFleur at the time said she didn’t know of such a sophisticated attack on the grid, but said she could offer few details out of fear of “copycat” attacks.

The senators asked FERC and NERC to respond by March 3.