Jack Eisenhauer

Each day we see growing evidence that a secure, reliable, and resilient electrical grid is critical to the safety and economic well-being of America’s communities and businesses. Our reliance on electricity to power our communication networks, transportation systems, and other essential services is increasing, resulting in bigger consequences from any power disruption. Without power, we are becoming unable to perform the basic functions of a modern society.

The North American electrical grid has been called the largest machine on earth. It represents a massive capital investment in a complex network of power plants, substations, transformers, transmission and distribution systems, control systems, communication networks, and repair fleets.

But the way we make, move, and use electricity is changing in ways that will reshape the most basic functions of this enormous machine. Failure to recognize, anticipate, and plan for these changes can leave us flatfooted in facing one of our nation’s most serious infrastructure challenges: securing the electrical grid.

Modernization of the power grid offers new security opportunities and new risks. Smart meters, smart switches, line reclosers, and advanced cyber control systems help automate electricity restoration after disruptions, saving millions of dollars and days of outages in a single storm. These “self-healing” technologies build resilience into the power distribution system. Yet the proliferation of cyber-controlled devices also creates millions of potential new points of entry for hackers and nation-states intent on disrupting electricity.

Perhaps more problematic is that other sectors have limited understanding and visibility of the changing risk landscape within the electricity sector. This creates the potential for cascading failures across interconnected critical infrastructures that can endanger communities and greatly disrupt local services and commerce.

In 2010, the National Infrastructure Advisory Council issued a major report that examined resilience in the electricity sector. The report found that despite a record of exceptional reliability, the risk landscape of the electricity sector is changing in ways that are not well understood and may affect both the reliability and resilience of electric power and the industries that depend on these services.

The Council recommended increased public-private partnerships at the highest levels, reforms to allow for cost recovery of investment that increase resilience, additional study of cross-sector economic impacts of critical infrastructure failures, and other actions that increase infrastructure security and resilience. In response, the electricity sector’s major associations – the Edison Electric Institute, the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, the American Public Power Association, and the Nuclear Energy Institute – have formed the Joint Electric Executive Committee comprised of senior utility executives to tackle these challenges in partnership with government.

Over the past 9 months, the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress has been intensely studying solutions for securing the grid. It has hosted a series of eight roundtables of top experts from utilities, communications firms, financial institutions, research laboratories, think tanks, Federal agencies, and Congressional staff to explore different facets of the problems—from cyberattacks to geomagnetic storms.

Discussions have been complex and insightful, with a focus on how to propose practical solutions that government, businesses, and supporting organizations can implement. Their final recommendations and report are expected sometime this summer and will be a welcome addition to the growing body of work on electricity resilience.