Catastrophic power outages pose 'profound risk' to US, advisory council warns

Technicians tend to a power line in a 2017 photo released by the Department of Defense. (DOD/MGN)

It can happen here, and we are not ready for it.

That is the sobering message delivered by the National Infrastructure Advisory Council in a new report on the United States’ ability to respond to and recover from an extended catastrophic power outage.

In the report, released earlier this week, the council was tasked to examine preparedness for “a catastrophic power outage of a magnitude beyond modern experience, exceeding prior events in severity, scale, duration, and consequence.”

Large sections of the U.S. going without power for months or even years would be an unprecedented disaster with extraordinary economic and social implications, but it is one experts say is not implausible. While local and federal agencies have greatly improved their ability to respond to severe weather and other emergencies, an event of this scale would quickly overwhelm available resources.

“We found that the status quo of existing frameworks and processes is not enough to prepare for and respond to these events,” said NIAC Chairwoman Constance Lau at the council’s quarterly meeting Thursday.

The NIAC did not devote much time to gaming out how a catastrophic outage might occur, focusing instead on the consequences, but the report does list a number of potential causes. They include: “a sophisticated cyber-physical attack resulting in severe physical infrastructure damage; attacks timed to follow and exacerbate a major natural disaster; a large-scale wildfire, earthquake, or geomagnetic event; or a series of attacks or events over a short period of time that compound to create significant physical damage to our nation’s infrastructure.”

The council stressed that such an outage would present a “profound risk” to the nation, with cascading effects on other sectors, including drinking water and wastewater systems, communications, transportation, health care, and financial services.

“We want to make clear we are not just talking about a bigger, stronger storm,” Lau said Thursday.

The report makes several recommendations, primarily aimed at establishing a national approach to preparing for and responding to a catastrophic outage and mitigating the cascading consequences. First among them is clarifying who exactly would be in charge on the federal level and what agencies would be involved in the process.

The report calls for developing design criteria and standards for hardening critical infrastructure. It also recommends establishing community enclaves that co-locate services and resources, possibly by upgrading existing infrastructure to meet new resilience standards.

Regional exercises with relevant stakeholders can help identify weaknesses, gauge resources, and address shortages in the supply chain that could delay restoring power in a real outage. The NIAC report warns measures may be needed to provide an economic backstop for companies that lose their customers during an outage and for the national economy in the event that financial institutions are shuttered for an extended period of time.

The report also recommends developing a “flexible, adaptable emergency communications system” that is self-powered, protected against any potential disaster, and available for use across sectors, like amateur or single-sideband radios. The ability for power companies to communicate with each other and the government in a crisis is described as “the lynchpin” for restoring electricity.

Recognizing that fortifying power grid infrastructure is not cheap, the council suggests offering government incentives like regulatory compliance and liability waivers, tax credits, grants, and funding of state-level pilot programs so the expenses do not trickle down to utility customers.

“The power grid is a prime target for attack by nation states, and it is not fair for ratepayers to bear the full burden for this national security function,” the report states.

It does not entirely let the general public off the hook, though. In recent years, Washington, Oregon, and Hawaii have launched individual preparedness campaigns to convince citizens to ensure they have 14 days’ worth of food, water, and other supplies in case they are cut off from their community by a prolonged outage. The NIAC wants everyone to adopt that 14-day standard.

“There remains an ongoing myth that the federal government will be able to provide assistance and resources directly after an event to help with response and that is not always the case,” the report states.

One member of the NIAC study group that contributed to the report said the electric power industry is ready to work collaboratively to improve preparations for an outage and limit the impact on customers.

“The industry finds great value in working collaboratively across the sector and with government partners to protect some of the nation's most critical infrastructure. A hallmark of this industry is a commitment to constant improvement and desire to identify gaps in preparedness before significant events impact service to customers,” said Scott Aaronson, vice president for security and preparedness at the Edison Electric Institute.

Outside experts also saw value in the report, even if it did not provide a clear roadmap for implementing its recommendations. Jon Wellinghoff, former chair of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, said utilities have hardened assets in recent years, but there is still a “substantial risk” of a long-term outage that should be addressed.

“What struck me most about the report is it didn’t seem that there was a designated agency in charge, in the sense that there wasn’t one entity that would be responsible for overseeing the efforts to restore the system and ensure the damage and consequences of an outage were minimized,” said Wellinghoff, now CEO of Grid Policy Inc.

Jeff Schlegelmilch, deputy director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, observed some communities in the U.S. have been left without power for weeks in the wake of hurricanes and storms in the past, and much of Puerto Rico was in the dark for months after two hurricanes last fall. As Americans become more and more reliant on electricity for health, wellbeing, and basic day-to-day activities, the underlying vulnerabilities of the power grid are taking on growing urgency.

“I think it’s good that they’re looking at this It’s a major amplifier of the death and destruction,” he said.

Much of the nation’s power infrastructure is regulated by the government but owned by private companies, so the question of who pays to upgrade aging equipment is inevitable and thorny.

“If we don’t answer that question, what ends up happening is we all end up paying for it when it fails,” Schlegelmilch said, adding that those costs often include lost lives and property if you wait until after a disaster to act.

The report recommends government incentives to encourage local officials and utilities to shore up the infrastructure, but Wellinghoff doubts such handouts are required because the improvements pay for themselves in the long run. According to the NIAC, every dollar invested in infrastructure to mitigate disasters saves $6 in recovery.

“I don’t think there’s any incentives necessary,” he said. “You just tell them to do it.”

Wellinghoff also observed the FERC has already put in place physical and cyber security requirements it is presumably overseeing.

“I felt the report certainly didn’t give appropriate consideration to the abilities and capabilities of the FERC,” he said. “It sort of gave FERC somewhat of a secondary role and I think it should be given a more primary role in the overall restoration oversight.”

The report draws welcome attention to individual and family preparedness, according to Schlegelmilch, because people do not necessarily think about the implications of long-term power loss. More and more people are reliant on home medical equipment that used to only be available in hospitals that would cease functioning, and everyone else has consumer electronics they interact with constantly.

“So much of our lives revolves around electronics,” he said.

The NIAC is not the only government entity looking at the challenges posed by widescale power loss. Last month, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency conducted an exercise on Plum Island in New York testing utilities’ ability to get power up and running in “black start” conditions after a cyberattack cripples an electric grid.

DARPA’s Rapid Attack Detection, Isolation and Characterization Systems program has spent the last three years developing tools to restart a power grid, and the exercise was designed to test how effective they can be in reviving power that has been offline for weeks. Engineers participating in the test also had to cope with subsequent cyberattacks reversing their progress.

"The real weakness is just how do you get that power back from nothing after 30 days when you don't even know what's up,” federal electrical engineering contractor Gary Seifert told Wired.

The Department of Defense also recently released a report on electromagnetic spectrum weapons that can shut down electricity, which “may be a threat to the United States, democracy, and the world order.” Most urgently, it warns of a risk of meltdowns at nuclear reactor sites across the country if electrical cooling is halted by an extended outage.

“Power grids, telecommunications, and many command-and-control systems have not been designed to survive a hostile EMS environment. Once damaged by natural phenomena such as geomagnetic disturbance or human-induced phenomena such as electromagnetic pulse and high-altitude EMP, it may take months to years to recover networks and other vital functions to their original state,” the report from the Electromagnetic Defense Task Force said.

Nearly 15 percent of the nation’s population was impacted by hurricanes or wildfires in 2017, and the cumulative cost of natural disasters was the highest in history for a single year. State, local, and federal authorities across the U.S. grappled with six major hurricanes and more than 71,000 wildfires last year, and the NIAC said those experiences can help plan for future disasters.

“The lessons learned from prior events, including the disasters that took place in 2017 and 2018 provided the NIAC with a better understanding of current response plans and the challenges that the nation may face in a catastrophic power outage,” the council’s report states.

FEMA’s workforce and debris removal contractors were spread thin by concurrent major disasters, slowing response time and allowing the consequences of power loss and infrastructure damage to spread. Prior training, established mutual assistance agreements, investments in new technology, and prepositioning of resources were among the approaches found most effective in 2017, but the report acknowledges advanced planning has its limits.

“Plans are based on the best information available, but no disaster follows the plan. Every response requires adaptation, which is why flexible authorities and programs are important,” it states.

The closest thing to a catastrophic power outage the country has experienced was in Puerto Rico, where Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria hit within weeks of each other last year, decimating the island’s power grid and necessitating the longest and largest power restoration mission in U.S. history. In the wake of the storms, more than 80 percent of Puerto Rico’s power lines were down, 90 percent of cell towers were out of service, and all 3.6 million residents were left without power.

"The devastation in Puerto Rico following Hurricanes Irma and Maria gave us a glimpse at how a loss of power can cascade into other sectors affecting public health and safety and the economy," the report states.

It took almost year to get electricity flowing again to most of the island, but officials also faced cascading effects stemming from the loss of power that delayed the return of potable water and other services. Recent estimates suggest nearly 3,000 people may have died in the months after the storms, in part due to the damage it caused to the island’s weak and outdated infrastructure.

“That raises the question: was it cheaper to build that way or did we just defer payment?” Schlegelmilch said.

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