A new Homeland Security report calls for creation of microgrid-driven community enclaves as part of a larger safety strategy should the United States experience a catastrophic power failure.
Issued by the National Infrastructure Advisory Council (NIAC), which reports to Homeland Security, the report looked at the nation’s readiness to withstand a massive power outage from a cyberattack or other disaster beyond a typical hurricane.
“Surviving a Catastrophic Power Outage” finds the nation outmatched by an outage lasting weeks or months. Such an event could cause a “cascading loss of critical services,” jeopardizing drinking water, transportation, communications, fuel, healthcare and other critical functions of society.
With critical infrastructure disabled it would be difficult to re-energize the grid, the report said.
“The scale of the event — stretching across states and regions, affecting tens of millions of people — would exceed and exhaust mutual aid resources and capabilities,” NIAC warned.
Community enclaves and microgrids for sheltering in place
NIAC called for the nation to prepare through a range of actions: from creating a federal coordination platform to urging people to store two weeks of food and water in their homes.
Of note, the report said that government should support development of community enclaves, where people could shelter in place. Design could range from traditional grid hardening “to microgrids that combine distributed energy resources, energy storage, and innovative consumer technologies,” the report said.
The enclaves sound much like community microgrids already being developed in several states, which incorporate existing critical facilities, like hospitals, police stations and grocery stores. New York, Connecticut and other states began building community microgrids following prolonged power outages from severe storms.
Because they use existing facilities — schools, malls, or indoor stadiums — community enclaves buy resiliency and shelter at less cost than building new infrastructure, the report said.
“Community enclaves are not new mass shelters or camps; rather, they would generally consist of existing facilities and their supporting infrastructure, strategically located across communities to prevent mass migration or support survival when migration is not possible or residents must return as the outage persists,” the report said.
The report argued for sheltering in place because mass evacuation would “use up critical resources, clog transportation pathways, and reduce the workforce necessary for infrastructure recovery.”
NIAC recommended that government support community enclave demonstration projects to show utilities and communities “effective approaches to design, manage, operate, and fund microgrid and energy resilience capabilities.”
Funded by federal incentives not ratepayers
Who should pay for community enclaves? Don’t put all the burden on utility ratepayers, said NIAC. “The power grid is a prime target for attack by nation states, and it is not fair for ratepayers to bear the full burden for this national security function.”
Instead, NIAC recommended design of a portfolio of federal incentives to help companies, non-governmental organizations, and state, local, tribal, and territorial governments make improvements.
Specifically, the secretary of energy should seek “major incentives” with quick impact, taking into account that some power industry players may need more direct financial support than others, the report said.
“There should be an emphasis on deliberate planning because the expense of recovery can be mitigated with intentional investment in infrastructure,” said NIAC, citing last year’s National Institute of Building Sciences’ report that found $1 spent on disaster preparation saves $6 in recovery costs.
NIAC called for the National Security Council to work with lead agencies on the report’s recommendations and report back on progress in nine months.
In addition to recommending a national strategy for a catastrophic grid failure, the report also called for more study of cascading failures in critical infrastructure, particularly natural gas and communications facilities. The NIAC hopes to identify further action to prevent these failures.
The NIAC was established by executive order in October 2001 to advise the US President on practical strategies to reduce risk to critical infrastructure. In preparing the report, the NIAC team reviewed 700 resources and interviewed 60 senior leaders and subject matter experts from federal, state, and local governments, industry, academia, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs).
Working and study group members included current and former employees of Hawaiian Electric Industries; Berkshire Hathaway Energy; Marinette Marine; PJM Interconnection; Xcel Energy; District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority; Westchester County, New York; Commonwealth of Massachusetts; Constellation Energy; Edison Electric Institute; TJB Transit Consultant Services; CenturyLink; New York Power Authority; American Gas Association; Southern Company; and American Petroleum Institute.
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