The nation’s grid watchdog said the electric power industry “is rising to the challenge” of the COVID-19 pandemic and continuing to deliver electricity reliably and safely despite a heightened risk of disruption to the workforce and supply chains and new cybersecurity threats.
In a special report,
Pandemic Preparedness and Operational Assessment: Spring 2020, the North American Electric Reliability Corporation said the nation’s electric grid is operating effectively despite the unprecedented threats.
“The electricity industry in North America is rising to the challenge, coordinating effectively with government partners, and taking aggressive steps to confront the threat to the reliability and security of the bulk power system,” NERC said in its report. “At this time, NERC has not identified any specific threat or degradation to the reliable operation” of the grid.
NERC and six regional entities, which together make up the Electric Reliability Organization, work with state and federal regulators and other officials to manage grid safety. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has said it will consider the impact of the pandemic on compliance with specific reliability standards.
NERC attributed the industry’s preparedness in part to its longtime use of comprehensive emergency response drills like GridEx. Such table-top exercises have helped the power sector coordinate with key government agencies and “provided a blueprint to ensure that business continuity procedures are up-to-date and comprehensive,” the report states.
The central threat facing the grid is the loss of critical staff needed to operate and maintain the bulk power system, NERC said in the report. During the crisis, staffing levels could be reduced as a result of illness, the widespread fear of contracting the illness, government-imposed restrictions or family issues.
Reduced staffing levels could extend the time needed to respond to abnormal system conditions, hamper the ability to troubleshoot and repair damaged facilities, preclude necessary preventive maintenance and prolong outage restoration, the report warned.
The COVID-19 crisis “also means that industry must be hyper vigilant to cybersecurity threats because a distracted workforce and remote working arrangements open up new attack vectors,” the report said. NERC noted that the industry “is in a period of heightened cyber risk due to a large contingent of industry employees working remotely.” That has resulted in an increase in “opportunistic actors attempting to take advantage of a workforce that is focused on the current crisis and using digital communication even more than usual.”
Looking ahead to the summer months, the report said system operators may have to manage factors such as potential generation unavailability, uncertainties in electricity demand and the increased impact of distributed energy resources on load profiles.
Another consideration is the potential reduction in industrial and commercial loads. Operators will need to prepare the system for these facilities to be off-line, and the potential lack of this load could greatly alter some aspects of grid operations.
NERC said it will continue to monitor grid operators’ response to the pandemic and release a lessons-learned document after the COVID-19 threat subsides and operations return to normal.