Smith, Weber, Babin: Electric grid resiliency - the update America needs
This article was published in the online edition of the Houston Chronicle on October 2, 2017.
We live in an electrified world. Energy delivered through our electric grid powers heating, cooling, lighting, computer systems, internet servers and security measures across the country. Today, the grid is threatened by cyber threats and physical disruptions from natural disasters, including hurricanes.
Lawmakers frequently reference these threats to our power system, as well as the technological solutions to stop or prevent damage from these attacks. But we often ignore the fact that damage to the power grids can and will continue to occur. Because of this, grid resiliency - the ability of system operators to prevent disruptions in power, limit the duration of a power disruption, and quickly repair potential damage - is crucial. We can't predict when a cyberattack could threaten our power supply. And, as we were reminded last month with the impact of Hurricane Harvey in Texas, we don't know when the next devastating natural disaster will occur.
Harvey provided a real-time example of why grid resiliency matters. In Texas, floodwaters delayed the start of physical repairs to electrical systems. While major transmission lines remain out of service in affected areas, Texas utilities responded quickly and established temporary electrical connections restoring power. By implementing smart meters and automated systems, Texas operators were able to use technology to collect real time information on grid performance during the storm. This allowed Texas utilities to remotely restore power in safe areas and mitigate the total impact of power loss.
Preparedness and investment in resilient systems can pay off when disaster strikes. When Hurricane Ike hit Texas in 2008, investor-owned utilities were unable to provide power to about 2.2 million customers. After years of improvement, Hurricane Harvey left only around 300,000 customers without power after the storm. Today, power is fully restored. Without Texas grid operators' efforts to improve resiliency and incorporate lessons learned over the last nine years, the effects of Hurricane Harvey could have been much worse.
While we are thankful for the potential losses we avoided, we know personally how many of our constituents, including our families and friends, have been affected. Many have lost homes, belongings, and some have even lost loved ones. We are making every effort to help those impacted by the storm. And in the midst of the cleanup and the rebuilding, we've been reminded that our people are resilient, too.
As we continue to rebuild, we must prioritize improving the resilience of our electric grid, which is not a simple task. New technology designed to increase resiliency, like the smart meters that help us better understand and respond to outages, can also increase exposure to cybersecurity threats.
Compounding the problem, government programs and response efforts for grid threats are fragmented across federal agencies. Within the Science Committee's jurisdiction alone, programs to improve grid resiliency and cybersecurity are funded at the Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, the Department of Energy (DOE), and the National Institute of Standards and Technology.
A recent report from the National Academies of Science's (NAS) academic, industry, and national security contributors called for a national strategy to streamline federal programs and improve grid resiliency. It's time for Congress and these agencies to work together to simplify this support network so we can more effectively provide tools for industry.
This same study also emphasized the importance of DOE research and development programs, over which we have jurisdiction in the Science Committee, designed to improve the security and resilience of energy delivery systems across the country. These programs include DOE's Grid Modernization Laboratory Consortium, a team of national labs, industry partners, and universities developing solutions and technological advances for future electric grids.
On Oct. 3, the Science Committee will hold a hearing to take a closer look at grid resiliency and consider the NAS report recommendations. Experts from academia, the DOE national labs, and Texas power producers will discuss ongoing efforts to maintain a resilient U.S. electric grid and ensure power is delivered to American homes, businesses, and essential services. Congress must prioritize early stage research and take steps to simplify the current structure of federal efforts to boost grid resiliency. A more resilient electric grid will provide reliable power to our constituents and the Texas economy.
Rep. Smith represents Texas' 21st congressional district. Reps. Babin, TX-36, and Weber, TX-14, along with their staffs, have been working around the clock to help Texans recover from the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, as their districts have been most severely affected. If you need assistance with a federal agency, including FEMA, please contact their offices.