White House advisers warn of catastrophic grid outages

Source: Blake Sobczak, E&E News reporter • Posted: Tuesday, December 11, 2018

How can America cope with a monthslong power outage of “a magnitude beyond modern experience”?

Clear lines of command, flexible communications networks, plenty of exercises and protective “community enclaves” should all play a role, according to a draft report from a group of presidential advisers.

Members of the White House’s National Infrastructure Advisory Council are poised to approve a new report on surviving a catastrophic power outage in a quarterly business meeting Thursday.

The council consists of 20 executives drawn from various critical infrastructure sectors, and includes Xcel Energy CEO Ben Fowke, former President of the International Association of Fire Chiefs President Rhoda Kerr and former PJM Interconnection CEO Terry Boston.

The draft power outage study calls on the Trump administration to develop incentives for state and local governments to shore up their ability to withstand weeks or months without electricity, perhaps shifting around critical services and resources to allow “community enclaves” to sustain themselves in the dark.

Citing interviews with 60 experts and industry leaders, the NIAC found that the mass migrations that would follow an especially long power outage would rank among the most devastating side effects. Enclaves — “not new mass shelters or camps” — would draw on existing facilities and infrastructure to enable U.S. citizens to stay put for long periods of time.

The report credits the U.S. officials for improving their ability to respond to major disasters and associated power outages in recent years, from major hurricanes to wildfires.

But the National Security Council tasked the NIAC to think about unlikely but even more devastating crises, such as a “sophisticated cyber-physical attack” timed to disable critical infrastructure after a major natural disaster.

“This profound threat requires a new national focus,” the NIAC concluded.

The advisers ultimately focused on how the U.S. would respond and rebuild after an unprecedented blackout, rather than what caused it.

The report suggests emergency response officials work to improve their understanding of “cascading failures” across multiple sectors, such as a natural gas interruption that leads to a fuel crisis at gas-fired power plants.

To that end, the NIAC has proposed adopting a recommendation to “ensure that all critical natural gas transmission pipeline infrastructure has the appropriate standards, design, and practices to continue service” during a worst-case outage.

The Transportation Security Administration, part of the Department of Homeland Security, currently monitors the physical and cyber security of the nation’s oil and gas pipeline systems on a voluntary basis (see related story).

The NIAC report calls for putting the Department of Energy in charge of efforts to coordinate defenses among the pipeline, electricity and communications industries, citing the U.S. power grid’s growing reliance on natural gas as a fuel source for generation.

“These programs may include voluntary, industry-led efforts, mandatory standards, or a combination of these approaches,” the draft report said, noting “modest” steps like recent TSA efforts to update pipeline security guidance “need to be expanded.”