Powerful storms versus the power grid, Part II

Following the devastation that Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria left in Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico, among other areas, TransmissionHub reached out to various entities, including FERC, NERC, and ERCOT, to discuss how entities collaborate to ensure that the grid is protected in light of severe weather events; what can be done at the legislative/regulatory level to ensure that the grid remains functional during and after severe weather events; and how entities are implementing new technologies to protect the grid against severe weather events.

The first part of this two-part article looked at the main takeaways following the storms, Puerto Rico’s power woes, as well as how entities prepare to ensure that the lights stay on.

‘Policy and regulations as enablers’

A FERC spokesperson noted that the commission’s jurisdiction goes to rates, terms and conditions of service of wholesale power sales and transmission, not the siting or construction of facilities. Likewise, distribution networks – often the hardest hit portion of utility systems in weather events – are outside FERC’s jurisdiction, the spokesperson told TransmissionHub.

Generally speaking, FERC looks to help where it can, he said, noting that after the recent hurricanes in the Gulf and Southeast regions, for instance, FERC Chairman Neil Chatterjee and NERC President and CEO Gerry Cauley issued a statement on energy industry assistance that encouraged cooperation among utilities. More specifically, FERC used its “regulatory discretion” to state that the actions of entities assisting others “would not negatively impact compliance considerations” with respect to the mandatory reliability standards on vegetation management – that is, actions to restore service that might deviate from a vegetation management plan would not be viewed as noncompliance, the spokesperson said.

The reliability standards are a more specific example of FERC’s role, he noted. In addition to vegetation management, there are many standards related to grid emergency preparedness as well as processes and procedures for restoration and recovery, necessitating that entities plan their systems accordingly to deal with a variety of events, including those weather-related, the spokesperson said.

In addition to looking for improvements, FERC staff and NERC highlight best practices, he said. For example, a January 2016 report assessed a group of utilities’ plans for restoration and recovery of the bulk-power system following a widespread outage, and a follow-up report issued this past June looked at system restoration where SCADA and energy management systems are not available, he said.

He further noted that FERC staff and NERC also have analyzed specific weather-related events and made recommendations for improvements – examples are the joint staff reports on Outages and Curtailments During the Southwest Cold Weather Event of February 1-5, 2011, and Transmission Facility Outages During the Northeast Snowstorms of October 29-30, 2011.

Scott Aaronson, executive director for Security and Business Continuity at EEI, told TransmissionHub that he looks “at both policy and regulations as enablers.”

Regulations “create a baseline of security and preparedness, but that never stops a bad thing from happening,” he said. “[N]either the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, nor Congress can outlaw blackouts. There is nothing we can do from a regulatory perspective to completely prevent those things from happening, when there are storms, or when there are other threats.”

He continued, “[W]e have to be right protecting our systems 100% of the time; adversaries or Mother Nature only have to be right once.”

While having regulations in place “gives us a leg up on being better prepared and more secure,” the industry also has to look at response and recovery, he said.

Partnerships between and among the sector, as well as with government partners, makes the industry better prepared to respond and recover in the event of a storm or any sort of malicious incident, he said.

While regulations and legislation play a role in helping the industry in light of such events, “I think the industry’s history of mutual assistance [and] its culture of helping each other when there are impacts to the grid, really show how we can also be resilient by being able to respond and recover [when there are] impacts to our infrastructure,” Aaronson said.

In a response provided to TransmissionHub on what can be done at the legislative/regulatory level to ensure that the grid remains functional during and after severe weather events, Todd Hillman, vice president, Midcontinent ISO (MISO) South Region, said that the one common theme among all participants and stakeholders at every level is the overriding goal to maintain reliability and to restore lost connections as quickly and safely as possible. As an RTO, MISO appreciates the partnership and support among the legislative and regulatory community, he said.

“The most important thing that MISO does is focus on communication and collaboration,” Hillman said. “When these unfortunate events take place, there is so much going on at once, and so many people are seeking information. Since the inception of the MISO South Region, we instituted communications protocols with state commissions and their staffs so everyone has the information they need and in a timely manner for effective decision making. Those communications efforts actually make the entire process during these events more efficient – the tireless folks working in MISO’s control room and all of our member’s control rooms can then focus on the tasks at hand, namely ensuring that the wholesale transmission and generation system remains reliable and efficient.”

Bruce Rew, Southwest Power Pool (SPP) vice president of Operations, in a response provided to TransmissionHub, said: “Creating the right incentives to properly value reliability is important. Ensuring diverse options to maintain grid reliability is of the upmost importance. Having different generations options, load management options and transmission options gives system operators the tools they need to be successful in their mission of keeping the [bulk electric system, or] BES reliable.”

In a response provided to TransmissionHub, Dan Woodfin, ERCOT senior director of System Operations, noted that ERCOT communicates regularly with policymakers about grid security and reliability matters.


On how NERC works with ISOs/RTOs, utilities and other stakeholders to ensure that the grid is protected in light of severe weather events, Sam Chanoski, director of Situation Awareness and Event Analysis at NERC, in a response provided to TransmissionHub, said that NERC works with all bulk power system stakeholders to analyze and learn from events and foster sharing and insights across the industry following a significant event.

“As these events are unfolding, NERC maintains awareness of the situation and communicates with government partners and the [Electricity Subsector Coordinating Council, or] ESCC,” Chanoski said. “The strengthening of people, processes and infrastructure that results from analyzing and understanding smaller events pays dividends during the infrequent periods of highest stress, such as severe weather events.”
NERC’s work, Chanoski added, includes collaboration with utilities on their emergency response and recovery plans.

A PJM spokesperson told TransmissionHub that PJM coordinates on a real-time basis with all neighbors through the control room staff.

“PJM also holds additional conference calls with leadership at our neighboring RTOs/ISOs to ensure all parties are coordinated and prepared to respond to the event and support the reliability of the Interconnection as a whole,” she said. “In addition, PJM has operational agreements in place to provide and receive support from neighboring entities under emergency conditions, which include the transfer of emergency power.”

MISO’s Hillman said: “Just as we work closely with our member utilities, we also strive to proactively communicate with our stakeholders, neighboring RTOs and balancing authorities when there is a potential for impact to the grid.”

Information and collaboration are always important, but they are vital in extreme events such as the recent hurricanes, he said.

“We have communication systems and protocols in place,” Hillman said. “We practice our outreach efforts and, much like we do with operations functions, continually evaluate how we can improve as we move forward.”

Rew noted that SPP maintains close working relationships with its neighboring ISOs/RTOs, transmission operators, reliability coordinators, and balancing authorities.

SPP hosts and participates in emergency preparedness workshops where stakeholders discuss emergency operations preparedness, as well as coordinated processes and procedures, he said. SPP also participates in daily coordination calls with neighboring reliability coordinators, during which current issues and plans are discussed, Rew said.

Woodfin said that ERCOT operators constantly communicate and coordinate with all of the transmission and generation entities in the ERCOT region to ensure that the system responds appropriately to changing conditions.

“During Harvey, there were additional communications between ERCOT and the transmission entities at various levels of these organizations,” he said. “Because ERCOT is in a different electrical interconnection from other ISOs/RTOs, ERCOT only has a limited scope of interaction with these entities; in the case of Harvey, no extraordinary interaction with these entities was warranted.”

Technology’s role

On whether microgrids are viable solutions going forward for grid stability, Chanoski said that they can play a role in reliability and resilience; however, due to the highly distributed nature of that technology, scalability becomes an issue.

“NERC is technology neutral and looks at everything from the lens of assuring reliability and resilience of the bulk power system,” Chanoski said.

Aaronson noted that different kinds of technology “can help make us more resilient.”

In Florida, for instance, such technologies as flood monitoring and smart meters, helped “give us better situational awareness during the storm and allowed us to be better prepared and to respond more efficiently,” he said.

On microgrids, he said that they "are absolutely a part of a solution.”

Distributed resources, microgrids, storage technologies, smart meters, flood monitoring, situational awareness, and other such technologies “are tools in the tool box, and I don’t want one single tool for all of these jobs,” he said. “I want to have a variety and I think … the more options we have in the event of impacts to our infrastructure, the more things we can leverage, the better prepared we will be. But, I don’t like to think of any of these as sort of one-size-fits-all, or any of these as a panacea. I think what we have to do is look holistically at the infrastructure that we operate.”

On how PJM is implementing new technologies to protect the grid against severe weather events, the PJM spokesperson noted that PJM is actively engaged in a process both internally and with its stakeholders to evaluate not only severe weather events, but all threats to grid reliability. PJM will then work to develop a comprehensive set of plans to further enhance resilience and reliability, she said.

On microgrids, she said that microgrids and other technologies are viable means for local areas to ride through periods of isolation from the grid.

Hillman said: “There are a lot of smart folks that are working on the ‘next big thing’ that will turn the electric industry on its head. MISO spends a lot of time working with any number of companies that are stress-testing their concepts against a large and diverse wholesale market like MISO. Battery storage, new generation, demand-side technologies, [microgrids], you name it – we’ve probably seen it.”

Given that it is MISO’s members and their respective state regulators who would ultimately determine what solutions would be incorporated, the role of MISO is to be ready for whatever comes into and onto the wholesale grid, he said.

That leads to MISO working closely with its membership, but also studying various scenarios and engaging with numerous industry groups, associations and regulatory bodies to try and stay ahead of the curve, he said.

“It’s always important to remember that while some generation technologies can take as little as one to two years to complete, a wholesale transmission line of any size and scale can take five to seven years,” Hillman said. “Thus, we need to be thinking and planning far ahead.”

From MISO’s standpoint specifically, MISO continues to assess its own technology and incorporate new tools that help it improve response, he said, adding that MISO recently began using advanced simulator technology for its control room operators. The simulator creates realistic hurricane scenarios that enable MISO’s staff to essentially practice the best responses, he noted.

Rew noted that microgrids offer increased diversity for system operations and that having multiple options available to address reliability is a good thing.

“Phasor measurement unit (PMU) data is newer technology that gives us the ability to detect issues on the BES that might have previously gone unnoticed and allow system operators to address the issues before a larger impact occurs,” he said. “SPP is committed to the development of these newer technologies and work with various industry groups on these efforts.”

Woodfin said that ERCOT relies on extremely sophisticated tools and technologies to monitor system conditions.

Those tools and technologies help create better awareness of potential system impacts due to a severe weather event, he said, adding that having that increased visibility helps ERCOT respond more quickly to changing system conditions. 

Many of ERCOT’s tools and procedures that have been developed over the past five to 10 years were very helpful in providing operators the ability to observe and analyze the rapid changes occurring on the system during the storm, Woodfin said.

“Lessons learned during Harvey will help guide the implementation of some additional tools that were already under development, such as the ability to overlay weather radar on ERCOT’s interactive transmission map,” he said.

Further information on the recent storms can be found here for Texas; here for Florida; and here for Puerto Rico.

About Corina Rivera-Linares 3286 Articles
Corina Rivera-Linares was TransmissionHub’s chief editor until August 2021, as well as part of the team that established TransmissionHub in 2011. Before joining TransmissionHub, Corina covered renewable energy and environmental issues, as well as transmission, generation, regulation, legislation and ISO/RTO matters at SNL Financial from 2005 to 2011. She has also covered such topics as health, politics, and education for weekly newspapers and national magazines.