NERC's Robb Praises Power Industry's Response to Pandemic

July 8, 2020

by Paul Ciampoli
APPA News Director
Posted July 8, 2020

The power sector deserves “a tremendous amount of credit” for the way in which it has responded to the COVID-19 pandemic, said Jim Robb, President and CEO of the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, in a recent interview with the American Public Power Association.

“I think you have to sit back and give the electric industry a tremendous amount of credit for the way it reacted to this situation,” Robb said.

Robb noted that the Electricity Subsector Coordinating Council (ESCC), which serves as the principal liaison between the federal government and the electric power industry on national level response issues such as pandemics, “really has a very effective process.”

In the wake of the pandemic’s emergence, the ESCC playbook was activated in March. The playbook provides senior industry and government executives with a framework to coordinate response and recovery efforts and communication with the public during major incidents.

“It’s hard to remember now, but if you go back to the March timeframe this was evolving very, very quickly,” Robb noted. The ESCC held meetings twice a week “just so everybody knew what was going on, could share their experiences,” and learn from each other, he said.

Moreover, the meetings also provided an opportunity to hear updates from the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Energy and, on occasion, the Department of Health and Human Services “as to what was actually going on.”

The ESCC also formed “Tiger Teams” in order to start to identify and address cross-cutting issues across the energy industry, Robb noted.

The ESCC’s COVID-19 Resource Guide, which is a living document developed under the direction of the ESCC, has been updated and distributed regularly by the ESCC Secretariat, based on input from Tiger Teams. Version 9 of the guide was released in late June.

In talking with one of his Board of Trustee members who’s very involved with the water sector, that official said he was “blown away by” the resource guide, Robb said. “He said this was so far beyond what we’ve seen,” the NERC President and CEO said.

“I think that’s just an example of how well the electric sector can come together when it needs to,” Robb said.

The ESCC resource guide has been updated with the input of the American Public Power Association and public power utilities.

Members of the ESCC Steering Committee include Robb and Joy Ditto, President and CEO of APPA.

Meanwhile, along with its work with the ESCC in response to the pandemic, NERC has also joined with the North American Transmission Forum, the DOE and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to jointly develop a pandemic planning guide.

The resource focuses on planning/preparedness, response, and recovery activities for a severe epidemic/pandemic.

The first version of the planning guide was published in May and the second version was published in mid-June.

E-ISAC issued all-points bulletin to industry

Robb noted that in the early part of 2020, NERC’s Electricity Information Sharing and Analysis Center issued an all-points bulletin to industry related to the pandemic.

The initial concern was focused on the supply chain, Robb said, given that so many electronic components are made in China. At the same time, E-ISAC asked industry to “dust off their pandemic plans” and identify key workers.

The power sector has been proactively thinking about how to address pandemics for quite some time. The electricity sector came up with a pandemic plan 10 years ago, which was part of a High Impact Low Frequency (HILF) event plan development. In 2010, sector entities were urged to review their pandemic and business continuity plans to incorporate lessons learned from the 2009 A/H1N1 outbreak and consider much worse scenarios.

Meanwhile, Robb said that the COVID-19 pandemic brought the DHS, DOE and E-ISAC together “in ways, at least in my time here, we haven’t worked together as well as we have over the last three to four months.”

The amount of information sharing out of the government, “whether it’s cyber threats, physical threats to the grid, trends that they’re seeing, issues we need to be aware of and then using the ISAC as a vehicle for getting that rapidly communicated out to industry was, I think, just superb.”

Robb said that the best of that “ecosystem around the ISAC, and the intelligence community and the government partnerships that we have has worked” since he took the helm at NERC two years ago.

“I think the whole model served us all very, very well through this period,” Robb said.

FERC also plays role

NERC in April asked the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to approve a motion in which NERC sought approval to defer the implementation of several reliability standards that have effective dates or phased-in implementation dates in the second half of 2020. NERC said that the action was a measure to help assure grid reliability amid the impacts posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

APPA, the Edison Electric Institute, the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association and the Large Public Power Council submitted a filing at FERC in support of NERC’s motion.

FERC approved the NERC motion in April.

During industry conference calls related to the pandemic, participants have emphasized the need for regulatory relief.

Reliability outlook for the summer

Meanwhile, NERC has said that potential workforce disruptions, supply chain interruptions and increased cyber security threats caused by COVID-19 have elevated the electric industry’s reliability risk profile.

Robb was asked whether NERC is giving equal weight to these pandemic-related threats to reliability as the country heads into the summer months or if it is concerned about one of these threats, in particular, and if so why.

“I think there are a lot of countervailing factors in place, recognizing that the glass that we’re looking through right now is murkier than it typically is for a whole bunch of reasons,” Robb said.

“From a core reliability perspective, had this been a normal year the places we’d be really concerned about would be Texas, for example, because their reserve margins are so tight, but the fact of the matter is that loads are off and they’ve been able to bring some new generation on,” he noted. “They’ve got some breathing room that we wouldn’t have expected. Now, of course, we’re highly dependent on weather in Texas for loads.”

“I think the one thing that we’re not as clear about is the ability of the industry to fully prepare for the summer,” Robb said. In terms of maintenance turnarounds and construction projects, in some jurisdictions “those were very hard to move forward during the height of the pandemic, so there’s still a little bit of a bet as to generation readiness for the summer, but in general everybody’s reporting a high degree of confidence on that front.”

Another issue that looms as the country heads into the summer, particularly in the Southeast, is that “everyone’s projecting this to be a pretty active storm season,” Robb noted.

NERC distributed an alert in March to get a better handle on industry pandemic planning including mutual aid “and whether companies would be prepared to honor mutual aid requests as we move into the storm season,” he said in the interview.

Two-thirds of the entities surveyed, “which are probably 90 percent of the people who would provide mutual aid anyway, all said that they would, so that bodes well,” Robb said.

“We’re headed into what’s always a tough season with one arm tied behind our back. I’m sure the industry will work through issues as they arise, but it will be that much more difficult as we move through.”

Robb said that the power sector’s response in terms of early season storms, such as those that hit Tennessee, was “as good as it always is. I don’t think that there was any sense that it was hindered as a result of the pandemic in terms of restoration efforts.”

GridEx

The President and CEO of NERC also discussed the most recent GridEx, which occurred in 2019.

GridEx, which takes place every two years, allows utilities, government partners and other critical infrastructure participants to engage with local and regional first responders, exercise cross-sector impacts, improve unity of messages and communication, identify lessons learned and engage senior leadership.

The exercise began in 2011 and NERC hosts the GridEx series. The 2019 GridEx, which occurred in November 2019, marked the fifth such exercise.

Robb said that GridEx V was the most successful GridEx to date “because we had more participation – particularly more participation out of the public power utilities.”

APPA played “a really important role in getting more of them to participate in the distributed play aspect of the drill,” he went on to say. In 2017, 53 public power entities participated in GridEx, while in 2019, 100 public power entities participated.

At the same time, he said that each GridEx has built on the previous one, so therefore it is “kind of apples and oranges to say which was better.”

With GridEx V, a different approach was taken, which was “very successful and timely,” Robb said. “I think previous ones focused on national level issues and really some high-level policy questions. One of our design goals in this one was to take the focus down a level and not spend so much time on broad, sweeping policy statements, but really to focus in on the more operational issues that you’d actually face.”

A regional scenario was created for the executive tabletop “where we basically had a combined physical/cyberattack on Manhattan, which then cascades through New York State and then up into Ontario.” The regional focus “allowed us to get a very specific set of players to the table.”

In addition, “we also focused on getting more operational – like COO types – rather than the CEOs, to really work through what set of issues we are going to run into.”

The overall construct was “more operational, more focused,” while also including an international element.

“I think this time we also had the best success we’ve had to date at getting non-electric sector participants,” Robb said. “We had a couple of large telecom companies, a couple of large pipelines at the table. We had a major equipment supplier.”

Therefore, there was an opportunity “for a much richer conversation around supply chain and the cross-sector dependencies that we would have, particularly with the telecom sector, which is something I think we’re going to continue to work on exercising because that’s less well developed than some of the others.”

Robb said that “the other thing that we did is we brought DOE to the table and asked them to exercise their authorities under the FAST Act to create a grid security emergency order.” This move prompted a “very rich conversation around what should an order entail, how specific should it be, what should be left to industry to figure out versus what the government needs to be able to do.”

One of the lessons learned is that the government should be clear about setting restoration priorities, “and then let the utilities work through, well, what’s the best way to get to that objective,” he noted.

“We also had some interesting learnings around the applicability of a grid security emergency order to the natural gas industry,” he said. Natural gas in most places but particularly in the Northeast is a fuel of last resort.

“It’s the fuel that keeps the lights on when nothing else is available,” he said. “You can imagine the importance of making sure that you’ve got fuel supply to those critical generating plants” that are important for blackstart purposes and “reboot the system if you will.”

Robb said that figuring out “how you move gas from where it is to where it needs to be when the pipelines don’t own the gas wasn’t really an issue we really thought about very much, but it became very clear that there’s a whole host of liability protections and so forth that need to be put in place for the pipeline operators in order to be able to support grid restoration.”

Addressing the broader question of reliability risks, Robb said that along with the “ubiquitous risk” of cybersecurity, there are three risks that NERC and the power sector are highly focused on.

The first revolves around supply chain. “That’s a really thorny, complicated issue,” he said. “Our new supply chain standard requirements will go in effect now in October” and NERC will continue to evaluate “whether we’ve got those right and what modifications to those might need to be put in place.”

NERC is working with the DOE on implementation of a supply chain executive order.

President Donald Trump on May 1 signed an executive order that authorizes U.S. Secretary of Energy Dan Brouillette to work with the Cabinet and energy industry to secure the country’s bulk-power system.

Meanwhile, NERC has seen several issues emerge lately tied to facility ratings, Robb noted. NERC has an initiative underway jointly with the North American Transmission Forum in order to get an understanding “and whether there are any systemic issues that we need to be addressing and raise awareness” for utilities around ensuring that their equipment ratings are correct.

The third area that NERC will continue to push on relates to issues surrounding fuel adequacy. With the shift towards a power sector that has more variable supplies such as solar and wind, along with the issues surrounding the just in time nature of natural gas deliveries, “particularly if you don’t have gas storage in your area, you really have to have your eyes open to fuel as well as iron in the ground.”

As for cybersecurity, Robb said that the “adversaries are persistent, opportunistic, very opportunistic.” He said that “we have to continue to ensure that the industry continues to be vigilant, never takes its eye off the ball and of course that’s a high priority for the CEOs. Our posture in this area I think is very good, but it only takes one.” Cyber “hygiene” remains a very important risk area for the industry, he said.

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