FERC's approach to EMP and GMD threats

Friday, June 2, 2017

Federal energy regulators have used both regulatory and more informal collaborative approaches to address the threat to the electric grid posed by electromagnetic pulses and geomagnetic disturbances, according to testimony delivered on May 4, 2017, to the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

Last month, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission acting chairman Cheryl LaFleur spoke to the Senate committee on the Commission's work in protecting the reliability of the U.S. grid against naturally-occurring and manmade threats.  In her testimony, she noted the Commission's role in approving mandatory reliability standards developed by the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC), as well as its support for grid security through voluntary and collaborative efforts like sharing best practices, participating in grid reliability exercises, and briefing state policymakers.

Acting chairman LaFleur's testimony focused on the threats posed by man-made electromagnetic pulses (EMP) and naturally-occurring geomagnetic disturbances (GMD).  As she categorized it, EMP are bursts of energy designed to disrupt, damage or destroy electronics such as those found in control systems on the electric grid.  GMD are naturally occurring solar magnetic disturbances which periodically disrupt the earth’s magnetic field; these disturbances can induce currents on the electric grid that may simultaneously damage or destroy key transformers over a large geographic area.  According to Commissioner LaFleur, a severe EMP or GMD event "has the potential to cause voltage problems and instability on the electric grid, which could lead to wide-area blackouts."

She next noted FERC's actions to address EMP threats, including both regulatory and informal approaches.  Regulatory actions include FERC's direction and approval of NERC's two-stage GMD reliability standards, which require responsible entities to develop and implement operational procedures to mitigate the effects of GMDs and to conduct initial and on-going assessments of the potential impact of a benchmark GMD event on bulk-power system equipment and the bulk-power system as a whole and to mitigate any assessed vulnerabilities.

She also pointed to FERC's approval of NERC's physical reliability standard, which requires responsible entities to mitigate assessed vulnerabilities to critical transmission facilities through resiliency or security measures designed collectively to deter, detect, delay, assess, communicate, and respond to potential physical threats and vulnerabilities, as helping to address the use of small, portable EMP devices that require close proximity to their intended target.  However, as she noted, "FERC has not directed NERC to develop a standard specifically targeting EMP."

Acting chair LaFleur also noted collaborative efforts, including coordination and information-sharing with the Department of Energy, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Defense, interagency task forces, and foreign governments.

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