FERC Takes Action to Protect Grid Infrastructure

March 11, 2014

By Joe Marren, NRDC Alum

In the wee hours of April 16, 2013, a sniper attack on PG&E Corporation’s Metcalf transmission substation just outside San Jose, California caused enough damage in nineteen minutes to require rerouting of power for nearly a month while repairs were made. Jon Wellinghoff, the former chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), called it “the most significant incident of [U.S.] domestic terrorism involving the grid that has ever occurred.”

In response to this incident and out of a concern that similar, coordinated attacks on vulnerable power stations could cause “instability, uncontrolled separation, or cascading failures,” FERC last Friday issued an order requiring the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) to develop and propose standards that will safeguard the infrastructure critical to preserving the electric grid’s reliability.

FERC issued the order because existing electric power grid reliability standards do not require protections against physical threats. The order requires owners or operators of high power transmission lines, substations and related equipment to take three steps. First, they must do a risk assessment to determine which of their facilities are critical to the stability of the interconnection. Once these most important facilities are identified, owners/operators must assess the unique threats and vulnerabilities of each. Finally, they are required to develop and begin implementing a security plan for the critical facilities.

NERC must file proposed reliability standards addressing all these issues by June 5, 2014. Commissioner John R. Norris concurred with the order while also raising concerns about the dangers of “cyber-threats, geomagnetic disturbances, electromagnetic pulses, and natural disasters” to the grid. He stated that FERC should “focus on building a smarter and more agile grid, incorporating better communication and coordination, to mitigate against the multiple forms of risks that we face.”