FERC directs NERC to develop geomagnetic disturbances standards to ensure reliability

FERC issued on May 16 a final rule directing NERC to develop and submit new geomagnetic disturbances (GMD) standards in a two-stage process to ensure continued reliable operation of the country’s bulk power system.

FERC, which did not require NERC to include any specific requirements in the GMD reliability standards, identified issues to be considered and addressed in the standards development process.

The final rule takes effect 60 days after publication in the Federal Register.

GMDs caused by solar events distort, with varying intensities, the earth’s magnetic field, FERC added. Those events can have potentially severe, widespread effects on reliable grid operation, such as blackouts and damage to critical or vulnerable equipment.

According to the final rule, in the first stage, NERC must submit, within six months of the effective date of the final rule, one or more reliability standards that require owners and operators of the bulk power system to develop and implement operational procedures to mitigate the effects of GMDs consistent with the reliable operation of the system.

The rule encourages implementation of the standards within six months of FERC approval. FERC also noted in its May 16 statement that the final rule directs NERC to conduct a geomagnetic disturbance vulnerability assessment and identify facilities most at-risk from a severe disturbance.

In its final rule, FERC noted that in the second stage, NERC must submit, within 18 months of the final rule’s effective date, one or more reliability standards that require owners and operators of the bulk power system to conduct initial and ongoing assessments of the potential effect of benchmark GMD events on bulk power system equipment and the system as a whole.

The second stage GMD reliability standards must identify benchmark GMD events that specify what severity GMD events a responsible entity must assess for potential impacts on the bulk power system.

The final rule further noted that if the assessments identify potential effects from such events, the reliability standards should require owners and operators to develop and implement a plan to protect against instability, uncontrolled separation or cascading failures of the system, caused by damage to critical or vulnerable bulk power system equipment, or otherwise, as a result of a benchmark GMD event.

The development of this plan cannot be limited to considering operational procedures or enhanced training alone, but will, subject to the potential effects of the benchmark GMD events identified in the assessments, contain strategies for protecting against the potential effect of GMDs based on factors such as the age, condition, technical specifications, system configuration or location of specific equipment.

Those strategies could include automatically blocking geomagnetically induced currents from entering the bulk power system, instituting specification requirements for new equipment, inventory management, isolating certain equipment that is not cost effective to retrofit, or a combination thereof, FERC added.

Commissioner LaFleur: ‘[M]akes sense’ to prepare for threats

In a separate May 16 statement, FERC Commissioner Cheryl LaFleur said, “While there is debate over whether a severe GMD event is more likely to cause the system to break apart due to excessive reactive power consumption or to collapse because of damage to high-voltage transformers and other vital equipment, there is no debate that the widespread blackouts that could result under either scenario are unacceptable.”

She said the final rule is timely and that “it makes sense to get started now on preparing for” threats.

The final rule largely adopts the proposals set out in FERC’s 2012 notice of proposed rulemaking, but reflects changes or clarifications to reflect comments received, she said.

For instance, the final rule extends the filing time for the first and second stage standards, with NERC having six months from the effective date of the order to file the first-stage operational planning standard and 18 months to file the second-stage standards.

Also, the final rule clarifies that the second stage standards must identify “benchmark GMD events” that specify what severity GMD events a responsible entity will be expected to protect against.

LaFleur also noted that the final rule makes clear that FERC is not prescribing a specific technology or methodology for the second-stage standards. Instead, FERC is directing the industry and NERC to apply their technical expertise to develop and implement a plan to protect against instability, uncontrolled separation or cascading failures of the bulk power system caused by a benchmark GMD event.

Finally, she said, FERC clarifies that it does not intend to impose “strict liability” for outages caused by GMD events of unforeseen severity. FERC recognizes that its understanding of GMD remains evolving and that reliability standards cannot be expected to protect against all GMD-induced outages. Yet, LeFleur added, FERC calls on the industry and NERC to develop robust and technically justified standards that reflect the best knowledge at this time.

Among other things, she said, “At a time when we are investing heavily in our transmission grid, we can and should also invest to increase its resilience for future generations.”

LaFleur has commented on the issue before.

For instance, during Infocast’s 16th Annual Transmission Summit 2013 in February in Washington, D.C., LaFleur noted that FERC put out a notice of proposed rulemaking in 2012 on protecting the grid from geomagnetic disturbances caused by solar storms.

“When I first heard of this issue, I used to say it sounds a little bit like science fiction and it still does: the concept that you can have solar flares on the surface of the sun that come into the Earth’s atmosphere and grievously disrupt the operation of the transmission grid,” she said.

The idea of the notice is to require transmission owners to take preventive steps to mitigate damage if something happens, as well as have in place a plan as they do for hurricanes, earthquakes and everything else for how they would get the power back on, she said.

This has proved controversial because “we are forced to try to make decisions in a state of incomplete information,” she said. “We don’t have all the scientific certainty that would ever be available on how solar storms operate.”

Among other things, she said: “We don’t have the luxury in many areas of waiting for certainty before we take steps. That’s certainly true if you look at public health. As you hear about diseases, the government starts requiring vaccines – we don’t wait until everything is cured before we do anything and it’s much the same in our less glamorous area of electricity.”

About Corina Rivera-Linares 2850 Articles
Corina Rivera-Linares, chief editor for TransmissionHub, has covered the U.S. power industry for the past 14 years. Before joining TransmissionHub, Corina covered renewable energy and environmental issues, as well as transmission, generation, regulation, legislation and ISO/RTO matters at SNL Financial. She has also covered such topics as health, politics, and education for weekly newspapers and national magazines. She can be reached at clinares@endeavorb2b.com.