Grid security Is top priority for the electric industry

The U.S. electric power industry has an essential responsibility to protect the physical integrity of the electric grid.  Those who work in the industry take that responsibility very seriously. Thousands of men and women work hard every day to ensure Americans get the power they need, when they need it.  This ethic of security has existed for decades, during war and peace time, and is coupled with measures to create redundancy and resiliency should an attack occur despite our protections.

Thanks to these efforts, and investments in new technologies, industry has prepared for, prevented, and responded to attacks, while managing to keep the lights on.  Of course bad things will happen, as last year’s sniper attack on the Metcalf substation in California demonstrates.  So industry is committed to doing everything it can to keep the grid safe. 

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The industry record in this regard is sound.  Amidst the frenzy over the California attack, many overlooked the industry response, which was swift and successful.  Though the attack was unsettling, officials were nonetheless able to redirect power, avoiding any interruption in service.  This doesn’t mean industry is complacent about what happened.  Far from it.  But we want policymakers to be careful in how they react.  Decisions made in haste, without all of the facts, can have unintended consequences adversely affecting grid security and reliability. 

For this reason, industry will be engaged in the process now underway to set new, first-ever federal standards addressing physical security of the grid.  The process began on March 7, when the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) ordered the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC), a not-for-profit entity that manages the reliability of the grid, to propose security standards to FERC within 90 days.  FERC will then consider NERC’s proposal in an agency rulemaking.  According to FERC’s order, federal standards must “require certain registered entities to take steps or demonstrate that they have taken steps to address physical security risks and vulnerabilities related to the reliable operation of the Bulk-Power System.”

The North American electric grid is a complex machine with many interconnected parts, including thousands of transmission lines, generating stations, and distribution facilities.  Thus, we hope FERC and NERC favor cooperative measures that allow nimble responses to ever-changing threats over mandates that impose prescriptive, rules-based requirements that become outmoded as technologies and threats evolve.  As John Norris, a commissioner on the FERC, recently put it, we don’t want “a 20th century solution for a 21st century problem.” 

This doesn’t mean that industry opposes new security measures; we simply want policymakers to recognize the complexity of the electric system, and the measures that the industry has taken to protect it.  Simply put, any new steps taken should enhance cooperation and information sharing between industry and the federal government.

Our partnership with government is an essential part of our strategy to protect the grid.  Industry-government cooperation has developed over many years, but the industry recognized that more could be done.  So in 2010, the industry initiated high-level conversations with the federal government on major security matters, which resulted in a revamped Electricity Subsector Coordinating Council (ESCC).  The ESCC partners with the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) (a quasi-governmental entity charged with assuring reliable operation of the bulk power system) and numerous federal agencies to improve the reliability and resilience of the electricity sector, including physical and cyber security infrastructure. 

The ESCC serves as liaison between industry and government agencies such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.  A principal function is to facilitate “actionable information sharing” between government agencies and other industry sectors.  It also assists in deploying new technologies to improve situational awareness about threats to the grid.

These comprehensive security efforts should give Americans confidence about the security of the grid.  Attacks are unfortunate, costly, and potentially disruptive to electric service.  But overreactions leading to hasty policy decisions can have the same effect.  As a former senior executive with a municipal power authority, I know first-hand that our existing security regime is working.  It can certainly be improved, but let’s do it in a measured, thoughtful way that keeps the grid safe and the lights on.

Crisson is president and CEO of the American Public Power Asssociation.