BLACK SKY EVENT – Power Outages – EIS Council • Protection Initiatives – Resilience



As concerns grow over severe Black Sky hazards, lifeline utilities and State and Federal government agencies have been systematically expanding initiatives seeking to mitigate such extreme events.  Resilience planning and investment represent the foundation on which any such mitigation efforts must be built.

As has often been said, “20-20 hindsight” following an extreme event comes too late to make the strategic investments that could have reduced the impact of such an event.  Nevertheless, planning and implementing such measures is often challenging, requiring decision makers and stakeholders to make investments to address projected risks which, while serious, may yield little or no immediate benefit.  And though hazards that have occurred with reasonable frequency suffer less from this investment challenge, emerging threats – even when projected consequences are extreme – are a much greater challenge.

Increasingly, this issue is being addressed by expanding the use of tabletop exercises to both simulate hazards and allow key stakeholders to explore the impact of such hazards, while considering the benefits and projected needs for resilience measures.  The EPRO Black Sky Hazard Event Simulation Project represents a new example of such exercises, helping  utilities, government agencies and other stakeholders evaluate the needs and benefits of specific resilience investments for Black Sky Hazards.

E-Threats:  An example of the growing focus on resilience

As an example of this expanding focus, resilience strategies for E-threats (EMP and GMD), as the newest examples of emerging Black Sky hazards, are receiving increasing industry attention, and are a special focus of the hazard protection section of the EPRO Handbook, Volume 1.

A key finding of recent studies, including the reports of the recently reestablished Congressional EMP Commission, is damage caused by both EMP and GMD, while affecting very large regions, is expected for only a fraction of exposed, vulnerable electrical and electronic components.  EMP, for example, will not destroy all electrical and electronic components, devices and systems in an affected area.  While complex, computer-intensive control systems (including unprotected power grid control systems) will typically fail or be disrupted, most electrical and electronic hardware in the region will likely survive.  This result is crucial, providing a foundation for planning a strategic framework for resilience, focusing on targeted, cost-effective investments to provide strategic, protected “enclaves” or protection of restoration-critical infrastructure. 

The E-PRO Handbook discusses this resilience strategy along with recommended companion measures for accelerated restoration, such as protection for control centers and selected, critical long lead equipment, properly stored and staged spares, and EMP-protected emergency vehicles, tooling and communication gear.  Implementing such strategies involves planning for a cost-effective combination of mitigation investments, operational measures and comprehensive power restoration planning. 

Expanding the focus on the power grid’s Black Start system: A critical requirement for Black Sky Hazard resilience 

The core resilience foundation of the three Electric Interconnections that make up the U.S. national power grid is the Black Start system: Generating stations and cranking paths designed to be capable of restarting – and functioning as a starting point for grid restart – following a local or regional power outage.  This system has been the subject of careful planning and investment, and is properly considered a reliable and essential basis for resilience of the power grid from the full range of “Gray Sky” hazards experienced in modern times.

The Black Sky / Black Start Protection Initiative (BSPI)

It is vitally important to note – that the Black Start system was not designed to address Black Sky Hazards.  The Black Sky / Black Start Protection Initiative (BSPITM) examines Black Sky- associated limitations of the Black Start system, along with recommended enhancements and system architecture adaptations, as a starting point to consider upgrades to that system to address the extreme hazard scenarios represented by Black Sky Hazards.

Black Sky Power Grid Restoration

An essential feature of any resilience plan is companion planning for effective use of the resilience investments.  For the power grid, for example, while it is certainly vital to ensure that essential tools and assets needed for Black Sky Hazards will be available when needed, these capabilities will only be effective if they are embedded in upgraded restoration and training plans.

# # # # One finding emerging from EPRO ESC meetings has been a concern, voiced frequently by senior power company executives, for availability of trained, specialized labor to handle the expected, unprecedented restoration workload.  These executives have pointed out that, typically, trained engineering teams capable of handling projected hazards like Cyber or EMP are already, in normal, Blue Sky Day scenarios, significantly understaffed.  In Black Sky Hazard scenarios, they point out, staff availability is likely to be significantly reduced, precisely at a time when far greater trained, expert engineering teams will be absolutely essential.

For Gray Sky Hazards, a mechanism to address this concern is now being explored by the power industry:  Expanding Mutual Assistance programs, currently designed to provide line crews and “bucket trucks” to move between companies and geographic regions to help address local or regional disasters, to include a similar capability to exchange engineering teams.

# # # # For Black Sky Hazards, such an expansion of conventional Mutual Assistance programs, while important and helpful, will not come even close to providing sufficient capability.  With widely distributed, multi-region power grid hardware and IT and OT system disruption and damage, finding, isolating and repairing problems will require far larger levels of trained engineering staff, and with many regions facing the same needs, availability of engineers from other utilities will be limited.

The CPR Engineering Team model

In these scenarios, one highly leveraging approach will be to build plans for supplementing staff, to address such emergencies, from outside the power industry.  The CPR Engineering Team Initiative lays out examples or templates for such a mechanism.  Based on plans for advance certification and periodic training of engineers with expertise in the appropriate disciplines, the CPR model would provide a capability for added engineering and technician staff, to expand the capabilities and be closely directed and utilized by the normal, internal corporate engineering teams that will be in very short supply for such emergencies.