Experts identify solutions to safeguard the electric grid system from electromagnetic pulses

Published on March 01, 2019 by Claudia Adrien

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The United States can better protect its electric grid from major natural and man-made disturbances if portions of the grid are strategically reconfigured.

That was one of the points made by a panel of experts who testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs on Wednesday. They highlighted ways the government and industry can prevent impacts to the grid, as well as determining coordinated response and recovery plans if the grid is attacked by malicious, man-made electromagnetic pulses (EMPs), which result in a sudden burst of electromagnetic radiation.

“Given the shift in geopolitical threats to our nation, and our sector being particularly key to national security, this is why the sector came together at the CEO level to start really focusing on some of the threats that we’re facing. We’re proud of the progress we have made,” Scott Aaronson, vice president for security and preparedness at the Edison Electric Institute, told the committee.

Aaronson of EEI, which represents the nation’s investor-owned electric companies, noted that the defense of the U.S. grid is bolstered by its biodiversity. 

“From a cyber perspective, in particular, that gives us an awful lot of resilience because an adversary can attack one company, and they’ve attacked one company. Because of the resilience, the redundancy, the biodiversity in the grid, we do have excess capacity … and the ability to move electricity in different ways.”

Disruptive cyberattacks on critical infrastructure have made news in recent years. In one example that occurred in 2015, tens of thousands of people in Ukraine experienced power outages as a result of a cyberattack Ukrainian officials blamed on the Russian government. 

In the United States, the electric power industry and government have partnered to develop a stronger grid in the event operations are impacted by man-made or natural events. The industry works with the Electricity Subsector Coordinating Council (ESCC), which serves as the principal liaison between the federal government and the electric power sector; the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC); the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI); the Department of Defense (DOD); Department of Energy (DOE); Department of Homeland Security (DHS); the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC); and state and local law enforcement agencies. 

The industry is eagerly awaiting a final report from EPRI that will further help it develop strategies to mitigate the impact of a potential EMP attack on the electric transmission system. EPRI launched the three-year research project in April 2016 and its final report is expected to be released by April 30. 

To tackle threats to the grid, some experts recommended an expedited process to adopt national standards of protection. However, Joseph H. McClelland, director of the Office of Energy Infrastructure Security at FERC, advocated using a best practices tool instead.

“The standards development process is too slow,” McClelland said. “Our adversaries can read the standards and design around them.”

Although they provide a foundation, government and industry can’t rely exclusively on standards, some experts said.

“Understand that there are going to be incidents that strain our imaginations of what could happen,” Aaronson said. “We should absolutely spend time and resources and effort to prepare, protect, detect, defend, exercise, but also to prepare to respond and recover.”

Part of the process of learning about the resiliency of the U.S. energy system is observing the effects of real-world situations that have already damaged the grid. Despite power outages caused by Hurricane Michael in Mexico Beach, Fla., officials were still able to rebuild parts of the grid in short order, serving as a model for repair if faced with a cyberattack or a high-altitude nuclear weapon, the experts said.

“This is one of the ways that we are taking physical natural hazards and applying our resilience and recovery methods to potential cyber, physical or EMP type of events,” Aaronson said. 

George Baker, professor emeritus at James Madison University, noted, “You can protect portions of the grid so that it can continue to operate during geomagnetic disturbances and EMP events.” 

That includes having trained people in place to operate manual overrides as a system back up. 

Experts are also concerned about naturally occurring geomagnetic disturbances (GMD) events resulting from magnetic storms that flare on the sun’s surface. It’s difficult to predict the next solar event, but geomagnetic storms have occurred at different intensities. Currently, humanity is entering a period of heightened solar activity and, as a result, an increase in the number of geomagnetic events on Earth that will also affect the grid, according to the North American Electric Reliability Corporation.

“There’s more than one perimeter that affects the severity of the storm,” Justin Kasper, associate professor of space, science, and engineering, University of Michigan, told the committee. “We need a spacecraft that is closer to the sun for better data.”

However, lawmakers were concerned that there weren’t enough immediate actionable measures to protect the grid. 

“What have we actually done besides admiring the problem?” U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI), committee chairman, asked the experts. “I blame the government for being slow off the mark.”

Government officials argued otherwise.

Karen Evans, assistant secretary, Cybersecurity, Energy Security, and Emergency Response at the U.S. Department of Energy, said in written testimony, her agency plans “to develop a hardening and resilience roadmap this year specifying what can and should be done, working with industry partners with available resources, to deploy technologies to protect critical components, equipment, and systems on the electric grid from EMP and GMD effects and impacts… We recently worked with the North American Transmission Forum as they developed proposed Fast Act Grid Security Emergency options that could be directed before, during, and after the highest extreme GMDs.” 

Congressional leaders also asked the stakeholders participating in the roundtable discussion what Congress could do to help the government and industry protect the grid from potential threats.

“As a fiscal conservative,” Sen. Johnson said, “I will carry the water as long as I know what it is we’re supposed to do. And that’s what’s been so frustrating for me. What can we do? Let’s actually act. Let’s actually spend some money on things that actually mitigate.”

EEI’s Aaronson said, “Rather than customers bearing the cost of something that is a national security issue, there are ways that I think we can find federal money to do some of these things. Also working with us in our commissions at the state and federal level so that these costs can be recovered. Having your leadership say: ‘This really matters state commission, this is why this company is coming for cost recovery,’ is going to carry a lot of weight.”

In addition, due to the complexities of the power grid, protecting it from threats cannot be solved with a one-size-fits-all solution. 

Prescriptive legislative directives “could have unintended consequences on operations of the energy grid and increase costs to our customers,” Aaronson said in written remarks.